October 18, 2021

The Human Condition III: A Soldier's Prayer (1961)
Grade: 70/100

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Yûsuke Kawazu, Taketoshi Naitô

What it's about. The final two films in the six-film adaptation of Junpei Gomikawa's The Human Condition, a bestseller novel in Japan though obscure in the West. Kobayashi's films are more accessible than the novels, which have never been translated to English. All feature Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), an educated young man of great potential and pacifist ideals, the latter incompatible with his increasingly hostile environment.

In Part III, Kaji is a Japanese soldier trapped behind enemy lines in Soviet-occupied China. It is 1945, and Kaji leads a ragtag group of fellow straggler soldiers heading south on foot, in the improbable hope that their former homes in Southern Manchuria await their return. The stragglers continue to wear their increasingly ragged uniforms, since they have no other clothes, and continue to carry their rifles, in the event they encounter Chinese militias or Red Army units.

Kaji is driven by his desiere to again see his beloved wife, Michiyo. Although his former egalitarian principles surface now and again, especially in protection of fellow soldier Terada (Yûsuke Kawazu), Kaji has long since realized that survival depends on sacrificing those ideals when necessary. He has committed murder, and has abandoned fellow Japanese to their deaths in order to save himself.

After a few weeks, Kaji and fellow stragglers encounter a small Japanese village occupied only by one elderly man and several wives of long-departed soldiers. The village is surrounded by a Red Army unit, and Kaji's men surrender. They become prisoners of war in a Soviet work camp, where they face hard labor, insufficient rations, and the onset of a harsh winter. This is an ironical reverse of Part I, where Kaji was a labor supervisor of Chinese prisoners of war forced to mine iron ore to obtain food rations.

Kaji attempts to communicate with his Soviet oppressors, but since he knows no Russian he must rely on untrustworthy translator Minagawa (Kôichi Hayashi), with predictable results. Kaji decides to escape from the camp, but not before exacting revenge on sadistic Japanese guard Kirihara (Nobuo Kaneko).

How others will see it. With a running time of nine and a half hours, Kobayashi's great work is regarded as the longest movie made for theatrical release, even if it is technically divided into three parts of two films each. The movies are difficult to watch, as Kaji loses his liberty, his ideals, and ultimately his life. He learns that man's inhumanity to man has no limits. Whether a man is Japanese, Chinese, or Russian, his cruelty will come out when conditions demand it.

During the long running time of The Human Condition, we increasingly identify with Kaji despite his ultimately amoral actions. We suffer when he suffers, and does he suffer. One must remember that he is not so much a character as a symbol, representing the Japanese experience in Manchuria during World War II. He is a bad-luck Forrest Gump whose grim travails take us through a horror show of the Japanese occupation and its dissolution.

At imdb.com, A Soldier's Prayer is the highest rated film of the trilogy. It has a lofty user rating of 8.8 out of 10, which would certainly place it in the website's Top 500 films were it not for a relatively paltry user vote total of less than 6K. Viewers under 30 grade it highest (9.0) while those over 45 grade it moderately lower (8.5).

The imdb.com graders may prefer A Soldier's Prayer to the prior two parts because it is the most accessible entry in the trilogy. Kaji's straggler unit is Japanese, and trapped in Soviet-occupied China, but nationalities don't seem to matter when survival is on the line. Sad as the ending may be, it is the logical outcome for Kaji, and any other resolution would betray the Gomikawa novels.