When films are referred to as “epic” they rarely wear the label as well as Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition. Originally released in three installments of two parts each, this nine-and-a-half-hour humanist drama adapted from Junpei Gomikawa’s six-volume novel, follows the journey of an idealistic and humanist man, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), during the waning days of World War Two and Japan’s colonial power in China and Korea.
Kaji begins as a labor supervisor for an ore mining company in Southern Manchuria, which gains him an exemption from the military service and allows him to marry the woman he loves, Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), but his idealism immediately begins to get him in trouble with the leadership as he tries to institute more humanitarian policies toward the labor force which consists of Korean and Chinese laborers. This only gets him into further problems with the Japanese military forces the company to use Chinese POWs and he becomes labeled as a communist sympathizer, eventually called up to the military, where his beliefs get him into trouble again during basic training with the veteran soldiers and finally at the front during the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the uprising of the Chinese peasants, until finally becoming a Soviet prisoner of war.
Kobayashi’s film is one of the first Japanese films to present the Japanese society with a story that placed Japan and its people in the context of the broader world, while discussing important themes of idealism, democracy, communism, humanism, socialism, and at what point one loses sight of one’s morals.
The Human Condition is a beautifully filmed and powerfully acted epic in the purest sense. From the widescreen, desolate landscape of the labor camp to the dark and foreboding scenery of the forests, Kobayshi fills this film with a wonderful visual palette that is almost noirish in its approach but naturist in its subject. And the acting and story are so compelling that the over nine hours that this film runs go by in a breeze. This is filmmaking at its finest.
The Human Condition was restored by Shochiku Co., Ltd. At IMAGICA Lab in Tokyo from 35mm prints made from the 35mm original camera negative. I’m not sure why this secondary method was used rather than restoring from the original camera negatives to a DI, but the image does look a bit like it has been degraded slightly. There is a little more graininess than one would like, a little more murkiness in the shadows, and the whites can bleach ever so slightly. With that said, these are minor complaints in what is overall a very satisfying black and white image that ultimately looks very good and free from source damage, noise, or DNR.
The monaural soundtracks for The Human Condition Parts 1-4 from a 35mm optical soundtrack print and provided on this Blu-ray release in LPCM 1.0. The 4.0 surround soundtracks for Parts 5 and 6 were remastered from the original 4-tracck stems using Avid’s Pro Tools and iZotope RX and provided on this release in DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0.
The 1.0 mixes for Parts 1-4 sound good, clean, and do not hinder entrance into the drama in any way. While it does seem a bit jarring at first to go from this mono mix to a 4.0 surround if you are watching these in a binge session, the 4.0 mix is also very good and definitely opens things up nicely with wide stereo effects, good atmospherics, and also maintains the clarity of the dialogue and foley effects.
The interviews included are interesting, but all archival. The collection of bonus materials are surprisingly anemic for this Criterion release considering the length of the film.
- Masaki Kobayashi (1080i; 00:13:44) – In this 1993 conversation, filmed for the Directors Guild of Japan at Tokyo’s Haiyuza Theatre, director Masaki Kobayashi talks to his fellow filmmaker and longtime admirer Masahiro Shinoda about The Human Condition.
- Trailer (1080i)
- Masahiro Shinoda (1080i; 0024:41) — Made by the Criterion Collection in 2009, this program features filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda’s observations on The Human Condition and director Masaki Kobayashi.
- Trailer (1080i)
- Tatsuya Nakadai (1080i; 00:17:42) – In this 2009 interview by the Criterion Collection, actor Tatsuya Nakadai discusses his landmark role as Kaji in The Human Condition.
- Trailer (1080i)
- Essay by critic Philip Kemp
The Final Assessment
Set aside a free weekend and watch this classic, you will not regret it and it will stay with you long after the final credits. Highly Recommended.
The Human Condition is out on Blu-ray June 8, 2021 from the Criterion Collection.
- Rating Certificate: Not Rated
- Studios & Distributors: Ninjin Club | Shochiku | The Criterion Collection
- Director: Masaki Kobayashi
- Written By: Zenzô Matsuyama (screenplay) | Masaki Kobayashi (screenplay) | Junpei Gomikawa (novel)
- Run Time: 574 Mins.
- Street Date: 8 June 2021
- Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
- Video Format: AVC 1080p
- Primary Audio: Japanese LPCM 1.0 (Parts 1-4) | Japanese DTS-HD MA 4.0 Surround (Parts 5 & 6)
- Subtitles: English