Ningen no j˘ken (Human Condition: A Soldier's Prayer) (1961)
3rd part of the trilogy The Human Condition about a pacifist socialist trying to survive in Fascist Japan
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
A long Russian convoy is going through the area. Kaji and two other soldiers want to continue their journey but are stopped by convoy and, more specifically, the Russian guard at the top of the hill. Kai decides to kill the guard with his bayonet. He sneaks up behind the man, taps him on the shoulder and when he turns around, Kaji stabs him in the gut with his bayonet. Now the three guys are able to run between trucks to get to the other side of the road.
In the morning Kaji has a flashback to the combat with the Russians. He starts talking to his wife saying: "Michiko, I'm a murderer!" The guys run into another Japanese soldier who tells them he is heading to Korea because that's closer to Japan than Manchuria. The guys with Kaji are wondering what they will do now. Kaji says they will go back to what they were doing before their stints as soldiers.
Kaji and his companions keep going without benefit of map or compass. They end up walking in a woods for two whole days. After awhile they run into a small group consisting of two soldiers, two prostitutes, an elderly couple and the family of a merchant. The merchant wife has a baby that she is still breast feeding. Everyone is very hungry. The only one who has some food left is Kaji, who holds the last of the rice. The mother tries to steal some of the rice from Kaji, but he catches her. The mother begs him for some rice, because she needs to have enough food so she can produce enough breast milk for her baby. Kaji refuses saying they are all starving and all facing death. The woman's baby does die.
Things are becoming more and more desperate. The merchant kills his wife and son. The two new soldiers to the group catch snakes and say they won't share them with the others. Kaji and one of the snake catchers point their rifles at each other. One of the prostitutes intervenes saying they are acting like children. The survivors eat the snakes along with the last of the rice. But it's not long before people are so exhausted and starving that they start giving up.
Kaji, in the front of the group, reaches a marsh. There he sees a lot of rotting bodies. In the distance he thinks he sees a house. He asks Terada if he sees something and Terada agrees with him. They walk to the house. What they find is a Japanese unit. But the commanding officer is not a pleasant fellow. Since the men's officers were wiped out, the officer wants to know why are they still alive? He denies them food. He says they must be deserters. When he sees the prostitutes with them he scolds them for having women with them. The officer says his unit will make a last stand at the Korean-Manchurian border.
Kaji is so sick of listening to this fool that he points his rifle at him. His two companions also point their rifles at the officer. Kaji tells the merciless man to keep his food and his lectures. He says his unit fought and died so the officer and his men could run! The group walks away from the officer and his men. Kaji and the group rest for awhile. They are all a bit discouraged. Just then who should show up but Private Tange from the hospital where Kaji was treated. Tange gives everyone some some food.
Kaji and Tange walk together talking. Kaji wonders what will become of them. Tange says his hope is that democratic forces will come forward in post-war Japan. Kaji is very skeptical of this. As they talk, someone comes upon a corn field. He yells to the others: "Corn field!" They all head for the field. The starving people fill themselves up with the corn in the field.
Finding the corn was a mixed blessing because the Chinese peasants around the corn fields have formed their own militia. Now they have to worry about getting past the Chinese without being shot up. One group of troops runs, while the other group provides covering fire for them. Then when the first group is safe, they provide covering fire and the other group runs for it. Along the way they only lose one man.
At night there are heavy rains. And the next day there is more walking. Kaji thinks about Machiko and wonders if the terrible things he has been going through now are somehow a punishment for the way the Japanese treated the Chinese. They come to a small farm house. The Chinese militia watches the Japanese as they stay at the farm. The Japanese woman still with them goes down to the river and freshens up. One of the soldiers keeps asking her to have sex with him. Kaji sees this and doesn't like it. He tells the guy to get back to the farmhouse and he tells the woman to stop teasing the men. He then leaves and returns to the farmhouse. There one of the soldiers brings in a Chinese peasant he caught.
The woman starts returning to the farmhouse. It is then that she notices the Chinese peasants waiting for the right time to attack. All of a sudden the Japanese soldiers hear a terrible scream. They immediately start to take up battle stations. The firing starts. Kaji has three of the soldiers start knocking a hole through the back wall of the farm house so they can get away. The soldiers get away, while Kaji keeps up the firing. At night Kaji gets away. He comes back later and sees the bloody body of the Japanese woman.
There are seven Japanese soldiers left. They watch from another cornfield as the Chinese militia goes after another group of Japanese soldiers. Kaji waits for a good time to begin running. But after awhile the men see a fire coming towards them. The Chinese set a fire to smoke them out of the cornfield. Kaji divides the men up into small groups and they make a run for it. They lose another soldier as he catches on fire and burns to death. The survivors keep running until they get away.
The six soldiers watch as a large group of Japanese women come walking down a road. They figure they are refugees. A Chinese Red Army truck comes roaring down the road deliberately swerving to try and hit some of the women. As they pass the women, they throw another Japanese woman out of the back of their truck. The women all cluster around her. Kaji and the soldiers come down and the women tell them not to look at the woman on the road. Kaji realizes that the communist Red Army has some bad apples too. A woman and her young brother ask to go with Kaji because they want to see their parents in southern Manchuria. Kaji warns them that when they get home, they may find that their parents are no longer there. He sends three soldiers with the woman and brother to make sure they get home safely.
The group runs into another Japanese encampment. They decide to stay for awhile. Shortly after they settle in, the three escorts come back early. Kaji is worried about the woman and her brother and he asks how could they have made the trip all the way there and back in such a short time? He starts asking the two young soldiers what happened. They start to tell him, but are stopped by the older soldier Kirihara who tells Kaji it's none of his business. Kaji soon realizes that the woman and her brother never made it home. And soon he finds himself fighting with Kirihara. Kaji wins and then disarms the three soldiers. He yells at the men saying that as far as he is concerned they can crawl on all fours from now on.
The Chinese are wiping out Japanese stragglers. The commander of the encampment speaks with his 50 soldiers and Kaji and his group. He says that civil war is coming and that he thinks their way out is to join forces with Chang Kai-shek and fight the communists. Kaji tells the commander that he seems very cavalier about losing the lives of his soldiers.
Kaji speaks with his small group. He learns that Tange wants to surrender. Two soldiers out of the group of 50 in the encampment say that they want to go with Kaji and his men. They make arrangements with Kaji to be picked up after Kaji and his men leave the encampment, but the men are caught before they could even put their scheme into action. They both are to be put to death and are tied back to back against a pole. Kaji runs to protest the execution of the men. But the commander ignores him and tells his executioners to carry out the sentence. He cuts the men up with his sword. Tange becomes so angry that he takes his rifle and kills the executioner.
Kaji and his men leave. Tange still wants to surrender. Kaji runs right into a Russian soldier and the two men are absolutely shocked at bumping into each other. The Russian grabs his weapon, but Kaji fires his rifle into the Russian. The soldiers with Kaji start running away, but two of them are killed by Russian automatic weapons fire. Kaji saves the day by tossing a grenade into the small group of Russians, which kills all the enemy soldiers. Some of the Japanese soldiers want to take and use the Russian automatic weapons to give them more fire power, but Kaji says that if they are found with the Russian weapons they will certainly be killed if captured. He has the men shoot the weapons until all the Russian ammunition is used up and then they move on.
The group sees a little settlement ahead of them. They break into four different groups. Kaji and his small group go in to check out the settlement. There he sees one Japanese woman after another. And then one old man comes out to talk to Kaji. He says the women want to get back to Japan but this seems an almost impossible feat to achieve. At night one of the women talks to Kaji. She says the women do have sex with some of their visitors. The woman adds that the women wait for a man to take them home. But she despairs: "We'll never get home! We're ruined!"
The soldiers steal some potatoes for the women and everyone has potatoes for supper. The men stay the night. The next morning Kaji says he is thinking of disbanding the unit here. As they prepare to leave, the women tells Kaji that they want to go with them. Just as Kaji is thinking about the implications of this request, a young kid runs up shouting: "Run for it!" Enemy soldiers are approaching. The women go inside the buildings and the Japanese soldiers hide outside behind various objects.
The Russian troops start coming into the settlement when a Japanese woman runs over to Kaji to tell him not to start a fire fight because many of the women will be killed. Kaji thinks awhile and then puts his weapon down and puts his hands up in the air. He tells his men that they are surrendering. The around twenty Japanese soldiers surrender.
Kaji and his men are merged into a very large group of Japanese POWs. The men in the back of the line are having a really hard time. They have been struck by diarrhea and keep having to run off the road and into the fields and back. Terada is absolutely exhausted along with hundreds of others and Kaji sets him down for a rest. Kaji sits down too. Soon everyone else in the back of the line starts sitting down for a rest. The Russian commander comes by in his jeep and demands to know who is slowing up the line? After a long hesitation, Kaji stands up. Through a translator the commander talks with Kaji. Kaji says that the commander doesn't realize just how bad of a situation is for the soldiers in the back. The diarrhea is taking its toll on the troops. The commander says he will let this go this one time, but it better not happen again.
In the POW camp the men are placed on work details. A man named Noge takes charge of the work details. Kaji and his group are soon moving lumber around. This doesn't bother Kaji, but he is worried about his men starving. He tells Terada that he wants him to call out sick and then, when he gets the opportunity, to go to the dump and pick up all the still edible food and they will add it to their present food.
Kaji runs into the man who probably raped and killed the Japanese woman and killed her brother too. Kirihara is now serving as an officer for the POWs. He tells his nemesis: "It's my turn now, Kaji." He wants Kaji to stop the sabotage (that is, the scavenging for food in the food dump). But Kaji is not going to stop this practice. He sees it as necessary for the survival of he and his men. Kirihara tells Noge about this and he says that they may have to turn Kaji over to the Reds. He says that a man like Kaji will bring major problems in the future and they must handle him as soon as possible.
Terada is caught scavenging and is beaten up badly by Kirihara. A Russian officer finally stops it and balls out Kirihara, as well as the two Russian guards. The Japanese POW officers come around saying the Soviet officers are angry and are cracking down on "reactionary" elements in the camp. Kaji is brought before Captain Sverdlov. The translator is thinking these days that Kaji is a pain in the butt and he does not help Kaji's case with the Russians. In fact, Sverdlov is soon calling Kaji the most notorious fascist of all the prisoners he has seen. Then he asks if Kaji has killed any Russians and Chinese in his journeys. Kaji says he has. The Russians talk it over and then say that Kaji is a war criminal.
Kaji is furious at this charge. Feeling all is lost, he goes and sits down, burying his face in his hands. The officer superior to Sverdlov comes over and has some encouraging words for Kaji. He says things will work out and that he is only sending Kaji and his men to work on the forest railroad. Kaji asks for some aspirin for the sick Terada and gets it. On his way back to the barracks Kirihara talks with Kaji gloating over Kaji's punishment. Kaji tells him not to think he's won. It's not over yet.
Kaji sees Tange and talks about socialism with him. He says the Soviets are not treating the POWs right. Tange says it can't be helped, but Kaji just says this is a universal excuse for doing nothing. He ends by saying: "I'm fed up!"
Terada is told not to pick up any food scraps anymore, but he goes out anyway. He is caught by Kirihara who gives him a severe beating. Terada dies. Someone tells Kaji that Terada died while saying Kaji's name. Kaji says he's breaking out tonight and he doesn't want anyone to try and stop him. He even says it's a mistake, but he's still leaving.
At night Kaji wakes up Kirihara. He tells him that Russian officer Chapayev wants to see him about Kaji. Kirihara gets up and follows behind Kaji. All of a sudden Kaji pulls out some chains and hits the man one, twice, thrice and then twice more. Kirihara now apologizes for what he did to Terada. Kaji is happy to hear that, but then hits him six times more with the chain. He drags Kirihara over to the sewer system, the site of the crime against Terada. Kirihara falls into the sewer and his head goes below the water. Presumably he drowns.
While the Russians sing songs, Kaji makes his way under the barbed wire to get out of the camp. Soon he is very hungry and begs a young fellow working on the railroad for some food. The smart-ass drops a huge sack of some type of grain on his back. Kaji manages for a few steps, but then falls down. Everyone seems to think that is so funny.
Kaji keeps walking. He hears someone calling his name. He thinks of Terada and then of Tange in Siberia. He laughs. He hears his wife's laughter. He comes to a village and takes a dumpling. The owner of the dumpling chases him, catches him and starts knocking him around. He then notices he is Japanese and calls others over to kick the Jap. (But he still holds on to his dumpling.)
Now Kaji walks through a marshy area and then through snow. He goes out onto the ice of a lake and breaks a small hole in it so he can drink the water. At night he sleeps. The next morning he is back out walking in the snow again. He asks Michiko to forgive him. He takes out his dumpling from his pocket and says that it's his only gift for Michiiko. He talks as though he is talking to his wife saying that he had to kill many men on his journey to to her. Kaji imagines his wife telling him she knew all along he would return to her.
Kaji is so exhausted and falls down on the snow saying: "It's not far now. Let me rest for just five minutes." He gets up and hears himself saying: "Michiko, I'm home at last." Kaji falls down again. He quickly gets up, but falls again, this time unconscious or sleeping. Presumably he freezes to death.
This third part of the trilogy is one of watching the tortuous process of Kaji and his men trying to survive and somehow get to somewhere from where they can go back to Japan. It's kind of a road trip, but a trip that is beset with all kinds of dangers: hunger, being killed by Chinese militia, being insulted and rejected by the remains of other Japanese units and/or death from sheer exhaustion. And then they are captured by the Russians. The Russians give them too little food, so they have to scavenge for left-over food from the garbage dumps. This angers the Russians who then have the Japanese guards punish the offenders. Finally, Kaji gets so fed up with the deaths, the murders, the hunger and the starvation that he decides to escape. He does so, but winds up dying from a combination of hunger, abuse, cold and exhaustion.
A man who cares deeply about and speaks out against social injustice and tries to insure that other will be treated with respect probably will have a harder time in life. This certainly was the case with Kaji who was a very good man, but one who suffered because he did stand up for justice and equality. Most other people saw him as a trouble maker and treated him badly. Finally, he couldn't take any more and made the decision to escape. He probably would have lived if he had stayed in the POW camp, but he had enough and escaped (and in a way escaped then through his death).
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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