Monday, November 20, 2017

Welcome to the Machine

The story of Kaji, the humanist caught up in the Japanese war machine during World War II, continues in the second part of Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition (人間の條件). The film critiques the nature of military structure from the point of view of one soldier. Still having a generally propagandistic feel, with Kaji himself being a relatively simplistic hero character, this second film does bring some more layers to its characters as Kobayashi strives to convey a sense of the miserable institution where one group of men try to beat another group into submission.

Like the other segments, this film is itself divided into two segments though at only three and a half hours it's the shortest. I would be very much surprised if the first half of this second film was not a big influence on Stanley Kubrick when he made Full Metal Jacket--the plot is very similar. Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) takes on a role roughly analogous to Matthew Modine's character as he suffers through boot camp, watching as one fellow conscript, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), unable to take the basic rigours of the experience, undergoes extraordinary punishment. Though there's no chief tormentor for Obara like Full Metal Jacket's drill sergeant--his fellow conscripts as well as the officers beat, humiliate, and push Obara around in equal measure.

Kaji seems to be his only friend, even carrying Obara's pack for him on a running exercise but when even relieved of the same weight everyone else carries Obara still cries and collapses, even Kaji loses patience with him. But Kaji is otherwise much more forceful as Obara's advocate than Modine's character in Full Metal Jacket. Though as a suspected Communist Kaji faces plenty of abuse himself, something not helped by the fact that the brass allow him to spend a night with his wife, Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), in a storage shed.

The scene is very sweet and Tatsuya Nakadai and Michiyo Aratama communicate the love these two feel for each other effectively but mostly this scene feels a bit extraneous. The premise is improbable, undercutting the film's central argument about how rough things are for the conscripts. Mostly it feels like the filmmakers wanted an excuse to get Aratama back in the film so she could share screentime with Nakadai.

After getting injured in action, Kaji finds himself in the hospital where Kobayashi takes time to show how even the military hosiptal staff consists of a cruel disciplinarian head nurse and her lackeys--though one pretty nurse is improbably kind to Kaji. Again, the film doesn't have much room for middle ground characters.

In the second portion of the film, Kaji advances in the ranks to a point where he finds himself in charge of a group of conscripts himself. Once again he's an administrative role like in the first film. Now he tries to act on what he's learned, particularly from the first half of this film, and demands that the veteran soldiers and the new conscripts, particularly the older ones, be kept in separate barracks. Kaji breaks with the cold discipline of he military, acting as a friend to the new conscripts, even advising one to sew a bit of pornography into his underwear so it wouldn't be caught during inspection. The veterans, hardened into puerile assholes by the system, bully Kaji. But however much they hurt him, Kaji refrains from reacting, something I guess somehow gave him clout to run things the way he wanted, but the logic for this is kind of vague, giving the scenes sort of an unintended S&M feel.

Of course, keeping with the film's simple philosophical perspective, Kaji proves to be absolutely right when the newer conscripts remain loyal to him at the end while the veterans panic as they all face the onslaught of Russian tanks. The climax is a nice, effectively shot war scene.

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