World War II Marathon: Ningen No Jôken (The Human Condition I, 1959)

The Human Condition

Let’s take a trip back in time for film #13 in the World War II Marathon!

Screenplay By: Masaki Kobayashi & Zenzo Matsuyama
Directed By: Masaki Kobayashi

I’m not going to mince words with my review of Ningen No Jôken, to do so would be a disservice to the film. I often talk about films that are straight forward, or simple, in their themes and presentation. That is what I most thought about Ningen No Jôken, yet underneath the straight forward nature there is a fair amount of complexity. I’m not going to delve into that complex side though, as much as I want to, because I believe to do so would overshadow the true strength of Ningen No Jôken, and that is its ability to present a world so matter of fact that it’s startling.

One facet of Ningen No Jôken that I will briefly delve into is the idea of “just this once.” Ningen No Jôken puts that phrase forth as its major theme, “just this once” controls the entire picture in a way, maybe even the entire world of the Japanese. Kaji is convinced that he need only tell people about human rights “just this once” in order to get his point across. The foremen at the mine are convinced that if they continually put up with Kaji’s behavior with the caveat of “just this once” that he will eventually come around to their way of thinking. For the military there is nothing beyond “just this once”, they will show you the way you need to act only once and that is all that is needed. Finally you have the prisoners, their entire lives are built around allowing for “just this once” over and over again. In a way that line of thought keeps them going, they may be tortured just this once, but it won’t happen again. They may be denied food “just this once” but they will never go without food again. To survive they build a wall of “just this once” around their very being, and surprisingly the non-prisoners do the same.

The characters in Ningen No Jôken blindly follow “just this once” and that plays into the larger theme of ignorance. Kaji is ignorant as to what is truly required of him, the prisoners are ignorant to the fact that there are good Japanese men, the military are ignorant as to what their actions are causing. But worst of all are the foremen, they are ignorant of what their actions cause, but mostly they are ignorant beyond the world they have built for themselves. With a little shedding of ignorance most of what we see transpire in Ningen No Jôken could be avoided, but that is the hardest thing for any living being to do and the characters in Ningen No Jôken are no different.

Even in the themes I discussed above Ningen No Jôken maintains a veneer of straight forwardness. Maybe it will appear that I am shortchanging other facets of Ningen No Jôken by only focusing on its straight forward nature. Rest assured, other elements of the film worked for me, but I do believe that in order to get to the true depth of Ningen No Jôken its straight forward way of storytelling needs to be highlighted. Once the simplicity of Masaki Kobayashi’s vision hits you the true power of Ningen No Jôken will be revealed to you and all the complexity of the film will come spilling out.





2 responses to “World War II Marathon: Ningen No Jôken (The Human Condition I, 1959)

  1. This three part film is, in my opinion, the greatest film ever made. I do not say lightly…I’ve seen many films from around the world and read countless novels and histories…both English language and in translation…

    This film is not easy viewing. A masterpiece.

  2. It certainly isn’t easy viewing, but it’s well worth watching.

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