This is an epic film, released as a series, that adapts an epic novel. Taken as a whole film, it is one of the longest narrative films ever – by my count the 8th or 9th longest ever, and probably the longest ever made at the time of its release. But it was released as 3 films and is actually in 6 parts (2 parts per “film”). It is the first project I know of to realize the dream of 21st century TV, to faithfully and accurately adapt a novel – in this case, an extremely long one. But it really would have been served better if TV could have handled it, given that it is in 6 parts.
I don’t know if a more ambitious film existed in the late ’50s – it’s an adaptation of a 6 part novel, filmed in 6 parts and then segmented into 3 “films” in order to simply distribution. But it’s one story with one protagonist and it might be without parallel in terms of commitment to “faithfully” adapting a novel up until that point. (One might even argue that there have been few as faithfully adapted novels since, though that is partially a matter of taste and I haven’t read this novel.) So, whatever else I might say about it, it’s certainly an accomplishment.
It’s worth noting that, because of the Cold War, it was filmed in Japan with only Japanese actors. The people speaking Manchu or Mandarin or whatever it is are Japanese actors who are speaking phonetically. The Russians are played by Americans, also speaking phonetically. It’s worth mentioning this because presumably both the Chinese and Russian sounds awful, though I wouldn’t know. But you make the film you can in the world as it is.
The film is very well shot. At least once a “part” there was a great shot, showing off the director’s skill. Also, if you’ve ever seen Full Metal Jacket, well the scene where Private Pyle kills himself is heavily inspired, if not outright ripped off, from the second film (I believe “part 3” of the 6 parts). Apparently there was a bit of a mutual admiration society between Kobayashi and Kubrick and that makes sense given the ambition of the film, the way it looks, and its themes.
There’s also a bit of a “Catch-22 without the comedy” vibe to all of the second film in particular. The film is extremely critical of imperial Japan (and the first part was released only 14 years after the end of the war) and may be the most critical Japanese film I’ve ever seen of Japan’s role in WWII. (Going by memory there.) It is certainly one of the more self-reflective films made by nationals of a major power of their role in the war.
But the film has dated poorly. The typically over-the-top Japanese acting of the era feels over-the-top in most scenes that aren’t actually war scenes. Sometimes they’re shouting when they’re supposed to be doing something quiet and it’s kind of hard not to laugh. Also, the physical acting is pretty primitive, and there’s a lot of it. (It’s worth noting that physical acting in Western movies in the ’50s was often quite bad too.) The score is quite heavy handed and very western. And often political or philosophical themes are outright stated by characters in a way that just doesn’t feel natural. And it is unrelentingly bleak. I mean, unrelentingly bleak.
So it’s highly flawed. And I’m stuck wondering about whether or not it’s worth it to watch. It’s certainly among the most ambitious movies ever made. (Though its ambition seems a lot less grand since “prestige” TV adaptations of literature became a thing last decade.) It was absolutely one of the most ambitious movies ever made in 1959, if not the most ambitious. And it feels kind of miraculous given how critical it is of Japan only 14 years after the end of the war. And I should point out that it’s not boring. This story doesn’t lack for plot, which is not always true of bleak Japanese drams from the 1950s. (Trust me.)
So should you watch it? I have no idea. I think you need to be interested in a certain kind of cinema, and it does feel like a remarkable achievement on many levels. But it is not one of the Greatest Movies of All time, which its fans regularly claim.
The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959)
Parts 1 and 2: In which our hero gets transferred to a mine in remote Manchuria and tries to make everything more humane.
The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity (1959)
Parts 3 and 4: In which our hero, having lost his military exemption, goes to boot camp, serves in the army and runs into a friend. This is the “film” that was the inspiration for Full Metal Jacket. I believe it’s Part 3.
The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer (1961)
In which our hero tries to find the Japanese lines, leads a ragtag gang of survivors through all sorts of tribulations, and eventually meets his fate.