Ningen no j˘ken
(Human Condition: No Greater Love) (1959)
Director: Masaki Matsuyama.
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai (Kaji), Michiyo Aratama (Michiko), Keiji Sada (Kageyama), S˘ Yamamura (Okishima), Akira Ishihama (Chin), Eitar˘ Ozawa (Okazaki), K˘ji Mitsui (Furuya).
1st part of the trilogy The Human Condition about a pacifist socialist trying to survive in Fascist Japan
Southern Gate of Peace. Manchuria. Michiko says to her boyfriend that he is running away. Kaji replies that they just can't get married because he could be called up into the army at any time. Michiko says she doesn't care if he was called up the next day after their wedding. He then says that he will take her to his dormitory room and she will stay there with him until the morning. When Michiko is willing, Kaji backs off his offer. This makes Michiko really angry and she calls him a coward and a weakling.
South Manchuria Steel Company, Research Department. One of Kaji's friends at work has been called up. A woman at work looks askance at Kaji because she is a girlfriend of Michiko. Kaji has been working on a paper called "The Supervision of Colonial Labor". His boss tells him it's a little bit leftist in thought. The boss wants Kaji to take over at the Loh Hu Liong mines in the hinterlands of Manchuria. If Kaji does well there, the boss may try to get him an exemption from serving in the army. Kaji is happy to hear that because he opposes Japan's plans for war.
Kaji and his friend headed for the army have drinks at a bar. A frightened woman seeks the protection of Kaji's friend. Apparently, one of the rich men got too fresh with her and she slapped him and now she wants to be protected from him. The friend advises Kaji to take the job and take his girl with him.
Railway station. Kaji is saying goodbye to his friend who now is in military uniform. Michiko also shows up. After the train pulls out, Michiko says that their friend may never return. Kaji says: "I won't be called up." He asks Michiko to go with him to the small Manchurian village in the hinterland. She agrees to get married and to go with him.
For the final link of the journey, the couple take a ride in one of the big mining trucks. It is so dusty that they have to stay under a tarp in the back. A supervisor known as Okishima is looking over the workers one by one to make sure they are fit for work. Kaji mentions that there are labor camps here that hold the mainly Chinese workers. Okishima sees the couple arrive and he quickly goes over to them. He is happy to meet them and takes them to their quarters.
Kaji goes in to see his new boss, but the boss is in a meeting with his staff. The men are discussing that they needed 2,500 men this morning, but only got 1,500. With such labor shortages, they will never be able to meet their production goals. The biggest complainer is the foreman Okazaki. Kaji stands back from the table until he is acknowledged by the boss. The boss introduces Kaji as the new labor supervisor. Kaji has a lot of new ideas to introduce. This brings an objection from Okazaki, who frankly tells Kaji that his new fangled ideas won't work her in the mines. Kaji does not back down. He says the issue before them is how to increase the work attendance rate of the laborers. He adds that mistreating the men certainly won't lead to good results. Another responsibility that Kaji will have is being in charge of 60 Manchurian "comfort women" who sexually service the laborers and the Japanese.
Kaji disbands a group of three men because they have been raking off too much money at the expense of the workers. The labor supervisor says he can prove that their rolls have been deliberately padded. The three say that they are not to blame for the poor work attendance of the workers. Kaji says the low attendance rates are primarily due to the poor living quarters and the poor quality of the food that makes the workers ill. The band of thieves is also at fault because they lend the transient laborers money that binds them for live to the work. And the band uses slave-drivers to murder anyone who tries to escape. Before the three leave, Kaji gives Muta back his bribe money. The three are really furious at Kaji.
Okashima and Kaji go into the mines. Kaji sees a foreman beating a very thin worker with his whip. The labor supervisor intervenes in the situation saying that beating the workers only lowers productivity. The foreman replies in disgust that he doesn't take orders from Kaji, but from Okazaki. When later Okazaki sees Kaji, he complains about his interference in the work. Kaji threatens to cut off their labor supply. This infuriates Okazaki, who wants to know what is morel important: the ore or the workers? Of course, Okazaki thinks the ore is the most important thing. But Kaji says: "Take care of your workers and the ore will come out." Okazaki replies that he will never change his methods of supervision.
The Kenpeitai (the Japanese military police) pay a visit to the mining company. They have some 600 Chinese POWs that they will lend to the company to help with their work. Everyone refers to the POWs as "special laborers". The commander of the military police says that there will be no mixing of the special laborers with the civilian laborers. And the special laborers have to be held in a compound surrounded by electrified barbed wire to make sure they don't escape. The commander is a tough fellow and wants the mining civilians to obey his orders completely. He is outraged to hear some of Kaji's objections to the treatment of the POWs. The fellow is becoming so angry, that Okishima has to grab Kaji and rush him out of the room.
Kaji and a few workesr, including a young Manchurian named Chen who is an assistant to Kaji, wait for the train to come in. Chen does not criticize the Japanese methods to make his work go easier. The train with the POWs arrives. Kaji opens one of the freight cars and out fall men who are in very poor condition. Twelve of the prisoners died from dehydration on the trip. Kaji brings food out for the men and when the prisoners see the food wagon they virtually attack it to get some food into them. Okishima yells at the men to stay back because they could die from overeating, but the men are not listening. Okishima and Kaji have to help beat off the starving men so the wagon can pull away from them.
Kaji complains to his boss that the special laborers are unfit for work because they have been so badly treated and badly fed. His boss warns him that his little speech could easily be seen as a denunciation of the Japanese military and this would be treason. Kaji must be more careful about what he says and the way he says it. The boss cares more about the low production than the health of the POWs.
The boss holds a meeting with his staff. The higher-ups have raised their production goals by 20% percent. Okazaki says that his Pit Number One will do it even if they have to whip the slow workers and kill those who refuse to work.
Kaji speaks with five spokesmen for the POWs. Wang, the older man, seems to be the leader, while Kao, the young man, is the fire-brand. Kao says that the Japanese say and write a lot of nice things, but they never keep their word. The leaders say some of the men with the POWs are civilians not military. The Japanese just grabbed them along with the military men. These men want to be set free. Kaji says he can't do that because he does not have the authority.
The boss comes to look over Kaji at work. When Kaji talks about giving the men an incentive to work, the boss says the answer is to bring the comfort women in to service the men. Okazaki whips a sick man for not working hard enough. When a man protests that the worker is ill, Okazaki starts whipping him viciously. Kaji goes to the the comfort women. The women tease him by saying they will have sex with him for free. The madam, Jin, comes out and Kaji tells her he will need thirty women for tomorrow. One of the women, named Chun Lan, refuses to service the workers. She says there is no privacy in the barracks of the workers. But Jin assures Kaji that she will send him thirty women this very night. Hearing that, Kaji quickly leaves.
Kaji goes to the boss to complain that Okazaki beat a worker to death. The boss tells Kaji to relax! After all, Okazaki is only trying to increase production for the company in accordance with the 20% increase in production. The boss says he needs Okazaki to help keep the 10,000 men in line. Kaji reminds the boss that a human being was killed. Again, the boss tells Kaji to calm down! Okishima comes in. He agrees to the request from the boss to report the death as an accidental death. Kaji protests vociferously, so Okishima once again drags him out of the room. Kaji tells Okishima that he is going to get that Okazaki one of these days. Okishima asks Kaji why would he ruin his own future over a beast like Okazaki?
Now Kaji has to face the five POW leaders. The leaders want to know if anyone has been punished for the death of the workers? Kaji tells them honestly that no one has been punished and there will be no hearing. The leaders are angry and say that he, like a typical Japanese man, has been lying to them. They add that the Japanese are deliberately killing workers!
The comfort women walk over to the POW camp. The men are all excited. Kao the hot head, however, is not happy. He condemns the use of whores to keep the men quiet. The woman who refused to work has come to work. She tells Kao that he is no better than the prostitutes. The POWs are downtrodden by the Japanese, just like the women are. Kao says he didn't mean to imply that the women were no good. He apologizes.
Kaji comes home to his wife. She is excited because her hen laid her first egg. Michiko sees that her husband is upset. He says that now he runs a whore house and, moreover, is an accomplice to murder. Kaji says now the men don't believe him anymore. Michiko is upset that her husband is so upset. She says that he has been very distant from her ever since the arrival of the POWs. She hardly sees him anymore. Kaji apologizes. He says he guesses the work has gotten the better of him.
A Korean worker has sex with Jin, the madam, and then starts to talk about escape and money. He says that if they can help some of the prisoners to escape, they will be richly rewarded. The Korean says that he is buddies with Muta, who just recently got fired. He would like Jin to use her sex appeal to talk to one of the workers at the electricity plant to get him to cut the electricity for just three minutes late at night.
Kao tells Mr. Wang that he heard that the Italians have surrendered. Wang thinks it will take no more than six months to a year for the war to end. He tells Kao to be patient!
Okazaki and others are making money stealing flour from the warehouse to sell it. His wife takes a big bag of flour. Her husband tells her to give some of the flour to Michiko. Chen comes to the warehouse to ask for some flour for his dying mother, but the warehouse man will not give him any. Kaji pays a visit to the warehouse manager. He says he just saw Mrs. Okazaki just leaving with a big flour sack. Kaji says stop being so obvious about the flour stealing or he will have to run an inventory of the warehouse.
At night Chen steals flour for his mother. Jin sees him with the flour. She has sex with him. Jin says she will have more sex with Chen, if he does her a favor. She wants him to talk to his friend to turn off the electricity for three minutes. Chen thinks about it.
A man named Matsuda comes in the office to see Kaji. He says that Chen stole some flour from the warehouse and he wants to see what Kaji is going to do about it. Kaji goes over to Chen and says: "You didn't do it?" Chen admits that he did it. Kaji hits him, knocking him down. The labor supervisor now tells Matsuda to get out before he starts exposing his dirty dealings in the camp.
Jin now appeals to Chen's patriotism to get him to cut off the electricity. This would allow at least some of the Chinese POWs to escape. Chen goes to speak to his friend Sai at the electricity plant. The guy says he will do it, but only for two minutes. When the comfort women pay another visit to the POW camps, Jin signals to Wang that the escape is on.
Michiko has fixed some special treats from the flour she got from Mrs. Okazaki. When her husband finds out where she got the flower, he hits the roof. He tells her to send everything that came from the Okazakis back to them. Michiko will do it but she complains about how was she supposed to know when her husband never tells her anything? She also brings up her husband's hitting Chen. Michiko says that people are saying that Kaji tries to look better than everyone else.
Kao and the comfort worker Chun Lan want to marry, but this is prohibited. Kao says that the war will end soon and that China will win! They will be free! He asks Chun Lan to marry him. Chun Lan says Kao is going to escape from the compound and then what will become of her? So Kao promises that he won't escape, as long as Chun Lan is at the camp. Chun Lan is so happy that she cries.
At home Kaji apologizes for the fight he had with his wife, saying that he went too far. He also says that he will let Kao and Chun Lan marry. Michiko is happy to hear this.
The atmosphere at work changes. The boss is furious! Eleven POWs have escaped! Kaji and Okishima speak with the leaders and ball them out. Kaji tries his best to get the POW leaders to realize that he is their best hope to get better conditions for the workers. If they keep escaping, Kaji will be gone and things will get worse for the special workers.
The boss is very upset. He says that he will get all the blame for what happened. He tells Kaji that he better make up a good story to tell the military police. The police commander pays a visit to Kaji. He is mad because he feels Kaji has been too soft with the prisoners. Kaji handles the police officer in a manner that disarms the man's anger. He says he will let this go, this one time, but he wants Kaji to tell the POW leaders that he will personally execute the leaders if there is another escape.
Kaji and Okishima talk to the POW leaders. They ask that there be no more escapes. Okishima tells the leader that with another escape, the military police will take over and that will be bad for the prisoners and the more liberal Japanese leaders at the camp (primarily Kaji and Okishima). Kao is still hostile to the Japanese, but Wang is more conciliatory. He is thinking about what would be the best thing for them to do.
Kaji speaks with Chen and says that he is going to take 50 POWs to do outside labor with only Kaji himself to supervise them. He takes the opportunity to apologize to Chen for striking him. Then he asks Chen if Sai is a friend of his? Chen says yes. Kaji says that Sai was on duty when the electricity went out and some of the prisoners escaped. He says if Sai did cut off the electricity, he wants Chen to tell him not to do it again.
Kaji takes a bath. His wife asks him to take a vacation with her. He tells Michiko that he can only take off three days, but at least he does say he will take the time off.
The Korean wants a man named Cho to make an opening in the barbed wire. He speaks with Jin, who says that Chen won't help anymore. The Korean wonders if Chen might rat on the group too. The Korean and Cho confront Chen and the frightened Manchurian runs from them. His pursuers catch him and tell him that Chen either gets Sai to cut off the electricity or both Chen and Sai are dead men. They also say that now is a great time for an escape because Kaji will be on vacation.
Michiko is very happy now that she and her husband are going for a walk. Then they will have a picnic, followed by going to the apple orchard. Her happiness is crushed, however, when someone shouts out for Mr. Kaji. The prisoners have broken out again. Kaji realizes that his wife is very upset and he asks her: "Why so angry over such a small thing?" Michiko replies that Kaji doesn't care about how she feels. Kaji leaves.
Okishima is hitting and slapping Kao over and over again. Kaji comes in running and stops Okishima, who tells his co-worker that twenty prisoners escaped. Okishima says that he also beat up Wang. Kaji is very saddened and says that now he knows there can be no trust between them and the prisoners. He shouts that he retracts all his promises to the prisoners.
Kaji speaks with the boss, who tells him that the military police won't let them off so easily this time. The labor supervisor says that Okishima is relieved of his duties. After Kaji leaves his office, Furuya comes in and suggests that they should set up a trap to catch the POWs in the act of escape. The boss likes the idea and gives the go-ahead.
Meanwhile, Okishima and another man start beating those who may be part of the plot to cut off the electricity and let the prisoners escape. Okishima goes after the Korean and beats him. Kaji and Chen arrive and Okishima gives them a piece of his mind. He says to Kaji: "Your clumsy humanism kills good men and lets scoundrels run wild." Kaji has the Korean taken to the hospital. Chen visits with the man in his hospital bed. Furuya arrives and sends Chen out. Kaji arrives at the hospital as Chen is leaving. When Kaji sees Furuyu with the Korean, he grabs the man roughly and asks him was it the money that made him help the prisoners escape? Or is it that Furuyu is just trying to make trouble for him personally?
Okishima comes to Kaji's house drunk. Kaji asks him why did he suddenly turned to the use of brute force? All Okishima will say is that he was born a brute.
Kaji walks along the barbed wire encampment. He watches as Chun Lan throws a small bag with food in it to Kao on the other side of the wire.
Michiko talks to her female servant, who helps her from time to time, about her problems with her husband. The servant says that she should keep pestering Kaji until she knows everything there is to know about his work and how he feels. The next day Michiko walks into the house to see Kaji sleeping. She awakens him and tells Kaji that she is sorry, but she wants him to promise her to tell her what is going on in his life.
The boss announces to his assembled staff that on this day of September 23, 1943 the higher-ups officially congratulate the mining officials on their success in increasing production by 20% percent. And, much to the disgust of Kaji, Okazaki is given special acknowledgement as being the leading force in this effort.
Furuya comes to Chen to tell him that he will get whoever is in charge at the plant to cut off the electricity again so the prisoners can break out. This time he is to say that Mr. Kaji ordered the lights out. Later Chen tells Kao that if he was thinking about escaping, now would be a good opportunity.
Relaxing with other managers, a drunken Okazaki challenges Kaji to a drinking contest. Kaji is not interested and Okishima runs interference with Okazaki for Kaji. Okazaki starts to fight Okishima, but Okishima uses judo to throw the drunk over his bended shoulder.
Chen goes into the electricity plant. Once there, however, he decides not to order the electricity cut off. Instead he runs out of the plant. He goes over to see Jin again. He blames her for getting him into the terrible mess he is in now. He says he will warn the POWs about the electricity being on. Jin says that is too dangerous because this whole escape idea was the idea of the Japanese themselves. She has a better idea. She goes over to tell Chun Lan that Kao will being escaping tonight. Jin also tells her to tell Kao that it is too dangerous to try to escape this night. Jin returns to Chen and kisses him to relax the man.
Chun Lan comes back saying that she couldn't contract Kao. Now Chen says the best thing for him to do is to tell Mr. Kaji all about his plight and the plot. Jin tells him not to do it, but Chen runs out. As he runs Furuya and Cho grab him. Chen sees that there are Japanese sitting in a shallow trench just waiting to shoot the escaping prisoners. He is scared, but Chen tells Furuya that he didn't shut off the electricity. Furuya and Cho are going to kill him, but just then the prisoners start making their move to escape. They run to the electrical fence and many are electrocuted to death. At this time, Chen runs to the electrical fence and throws himself on it, which kills the young Manchurian.
In the morning, the bodies are laid out on the ground in the camp. Chun Lan runs up next to the electrified fence crying about Kao being killed. But Kao is still alive. Kaji grabs him out of the crowd of prisoners and shows Chun Lan that Kao is still alive. Now Kaji pushes Kao to get him to go over and see Chun Lan to calm her. The labor supervisor is mad at Kao saying that by supporting the escape attempt, he got his own friends killed.
Michiko talks to her husband. She says that Okishima told her that her husband would take it hard. Kaji says: "It's not my fault that I'm Japanese, yet it's my worst crime that I am." He also says that the boss set up Furuya to engineer the escape attempt. Michiko says: "Come on. Let's go home." Kaji says: "Yes, let's."
Kao is somewhat of an outcast with the prison leaders, because of the failed escape attempt. He sees the leaders talking together about escaping. Okazaki sees this from a nearby hill and comes running down to break the meeting up. He runs down the hill with his whip. Kao runs interference so the others can get away from the foreman. Okazaki starts whipping Kao for protecting his prison friends.
The boss tells Kaji that the military police are offering the company 500 more prisoners. He asks Kaji what he thinks about this? But at this moment, Okazaki shows up saying that they just caught seven prisoners trying to escape. Kaji finds this hard to believe and asks if Okazaki is sure they were trying to escape? This infuriates the captain of the military police. He says that his sergeant, Mr. tough guy, is a master swordsman and he will cut the heads off the escapees. And, precisely because Kaji spoke up for the prisoners, the captain will make sure that Kaji acts as the official to watch the executions.
Kaji goes to the work area. He talks with some of the POWs. They complain that he is not doing enough for them. Kaji shouts: "Those people have all the power. I have none!" He goes over to talk with Wang. Wang tells Kaji that if he doesn't stop this execution, no one will ever trust him again and he will even lose faith in himself. If he fails, Kaji won't even deserve to be called a "man". Kaji goes back to his office and broods over the matter. Chun Lan comes in asking what will happen to Kao? Okishima calls Kaji. He is with the company bosses, trying to save the prisoners by urging the bosses to stop the executions. Chun Lan, on her knees before Kaji, now pleads with him to save Kao.
Kaji can't sleep. Suddenly he has an idea of how to save the condemned prisoners. Mickiko tries really hard to stop him. She even starts struggling with him physically to keep him home. Michiko argues that if Kaji frees the prisoners, they will certainly kill him. Kaji counters with: "If I don't I'm no longer a human being." So an exhausted Kaji seems to give up. But then his wife comes back saying she is sorry and he can go and do what he feels is right. Kaji says: "There's no hope for me."
Kaji goes down to the site of the execution to be the main witness. The POWs sit on the side of a small hill to watch the executions. The sergeant wets his blade for a cleaner stroke. The first man's head is lopped off. Then the second man is decapitated. Now it is Kao's time. He sees Kaji on the side and calls him an "inhuman wretch". An amateur wants to try to cut off Kao's head and the sergeant lets him swing away. The inexperienced executioner screws up on the job by missing the neck and then has to chase Kao around slashing at him. Kao is finally finished off by the sergeant.
Kaji starts protesting against the executions and the sergeant says he is going to kill Kaji. But right now the prisoners start shouting at the executioners: "Murderers! Murderers!" They slowly start advancing toward the executioners. Some Japanese guards fire their rifles, but in the air. The prisoners run back a bit, but now them come on again. The top military men decide to call off the rest of the executions. Kaji cries over the incident. He goes over to see the three dead men who were all thrown into a ditch.
Private Tanaka comes over to Kaji and says that he is taking him to headquarters. Kaji goes with him. Meanwhile, the sergeant goes over to Kaji's house and in the presence of Michiko starts looking through Kaji's things. The sergeant says he is mad at Kaji because he made the sergeant stop killing the prisoners. He tells Michiko to take everything out of the desk drawers and put it on top of the desk.
At headquarters Private Tanaka is busy torturing Kaji. He is caning Kaji with a stick applied to his back. Tanaka says that Kaji must confess everything! Kaji replies: "I only regret that I let you behead the first three." The sergeant comes in to watch. He tells Kaji that he let eighteen prisoners escape and didn't bother to report it. Kaji says he didn't let the prisoners escape.
While Kaji is tied up and hanging from a rope around a rafter, the sergeant tells Kaji that Wang has been arrested and he confessed to everything. He is to be executed. Kaji wants to know when, but the sarge won't tell him. Later Kaji is brought into the visitor's room where he sees his wife and Okishima. The sergeant tells Kaji to go ahead and kiss his wife. Michiko has brought her husband some sushi and Kaji eats some of it. Okishima is being transferred to a much smaller mine and has come to say goodbye. Furuya will take his spot. Time runs out and the visitors have to leave.
Kaji is brought out onto a huge field and thrown on the ground. The sergeant says he is released, but that he, the sergeant, will be watching him. Kaji goes to see his boss. His boss gives him a summons to military service. Kaji is furious with the man. Furuya will be appointing someone else to the position of labor supervisor. The boss also mentions that Wang escaped. In fact, 30 POWs escaped. Kaji is very happy to hear that they made it. He says: "I hope they all get away!"
Kaji starts walking home. Chun Lan sees him and spits at him. She calls him a murderer who killed an innocent man, Kao. Kaji keeps walking home. Along the way his wife sees him and they run to each other. Kaji informs her that he has been drafted into the army. She is very upset and says: "No, that's not fair. This is too much." Michiko asks: "Why must these terrible things happen to you?" She wants to make sure that he comes back to her and tells him he mustn't die. They walk home.
My wife and I found it hard to believe that the fascists of Japan would have allowed a pacifist like Kaji to continue speaking out against the Japanese conduct of the mining and the mine. The Japanese were quite fanatical at the time and his dissent wouldn't have been tolerated for long. I guess if we can overlook the more probable course of action, we could say that Kaji was very brave (or very foolish) to keep resisting the inhumane policies of the Japanese company and the military police. He was constantly in conflict with management and the struggle took a lot out of him and his marriage to Michiko. But Kaji seemed willing to sacrifice both his own health (and possibly his life), as well as his marriage. We both felt bad for Michiko, the long-suffering wife. Kaji certainly should have confided in his wife more. It might have helped him just to talk about it to someone he could trust. All the Japanese but Kaji and Okishima were portrayed negatively. It was basically one man against the entire system.
Of course, Kaji was eventually punished by sending the pacifist into the army.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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