Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Humanity and Wire Fences

My favourite era in filmmaking is in the first decades after World War II in Japan. Some of the greatest filmmakers of all time approached the complex feelings and conditions in the wake of defeat in a variety of effective ways. One of the most direct would be Masaki Kobayashi's nearly ten hour film The Human Condition (人間の條件) which was released in three parts from 1959 to 1961. Kobayashi uses the Japanese military in the second World War as a theatre to explore ideological contrasts between humanism and totalitarianism, socialism and authoritarianism, left and right. The films are often too morally simplistic to effectively make their arguments, broad characters often having the quality of propaganda heroes and villains, and it's likely for this reason Kobayashi tends not to be talked about in the same breath as Kurosawa or Ozu, but the films have some effective melodrama and an admirable performance from star Tatsuya Nakadai.

The first film tackles what was a very sensitive topic in Japan in the post war years, the prison camps run by the Japanese in Manchuria. One of the reasons Japanese soldiers tended to be regarded with contempt by civilians after the war was because of news and rumours that had spread about the cruelty with which the Japanese military treated Chinese prisoners. The protagonist of the film series, Kaji (Nakadai), becomes an administrator at one of these camps during the war after receiving an exemption from the draft. A recent university graduate, Kaji comes to the camp possessed with a passionate desire to implement the humanistic ideals he gained through his education, something that puts him at odds with virtually every other Japanese soldier and administrator at the camp.

The fact that this topic was approached at all by such a prominent film says a lot about this era in Japanese filmmaking. This would be like if Hollywood had released in 1959 a blockbuster about the U.S. internment of Japanese American citizens World War II.

Kaji has two allies in the office: Okishima (So Yamamura) who disagrees with Kaji's philosophy but admires his compassion, and Chin (Akira Ishihama), a Chinese man. Otherwise, Kaji's superiors and frequently his subordinates ridicule his desire to ease conditions in the camp, painting him both as a coward and a traitor. By the end of this first film, this leads to gruesome consequences for Kaji and the prisoners, including a particularly harsh scene depicting a series of decapitations.

The Chinese prisoners, in contrast, are depicted as all basically good men. After Kaji hires the women from a brothel to visit the prisoners regularly--on the advice of Okishima--a melodramatic romance develops between the most rebellious of the prostitutes (Ineko Arima), and the most rebellious of the prisoners (Koji Nanbara). It's mainly there to drive up the emotional effect of a dastardly plot to trick the prisoners into trying to escape, cooked up by one of the officers played by the always effectively weaselly Koji Mitsui.

A subplot deals with Kaji's incredibly sweet wife, Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) who puts up with everything life with her new husband entails and she's there to amp up the emotional impact of the climax. Kaji's too simply a noble character and the forces he's up against too mindlessly evil to make the movie much more than a particularly poignant example of national self-loathing but considering the reality of the Manchurian prison camp, depicted with some really effective imagery, it does convey some of the horror of one group of people treating another as natural inferiors.

Twitter Sonnet #1054

The palms reveal a wine too green for trunks.
The buried elephant appraised bouquets.
Percussive songs emerged in second thunks.
In helmets close the warmer mind crochets.
In paper patterns cups resume a shape.
No sober man or drunk'll find the floor.
Beneath the stage an amber bottle gaped.
In angled lines the light removed the door.
A planet pink and sweet presides above.
A bowl the size of storms contained the land.
In moving stripes the horses chased the dove.
On Bergman's hill there played a stranger band.
The sculpture's brain arose to part the ice.
In number these the steps were grains of rice.

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