I suspect part of the power of this film lies in its epic running time. This first of three instalments (sometimes called No Greater Love) is itself split into two parts, each with its own credits, so perhaps properly this is the first two parts of a six-part film. In any case, it tracks the life of one man during World War II, played by legend of Japanese cinema, Tatsuya Nakadai. Kaji is a bureaucrat who is posted to Manchuria to help run a mining operation staffed by indentured locals and captured prisoners of war. Already the film is gearing up to examine its major thematic question, which is whether it’s possible to act justly during a time of war. Certainly there’s no particular attempt to soften the edges of Japanese imperialist ambitions of the era, though Kaji continues to try and do the right thing and be an honourable man even when he has almost no agency or control over the suffering around him. His attempts to make reforms at the mine and to treat the workers fairly only drives a wedge between him and his superiors and causes him no end of trouble — and of course the situation he finds himself at the end of this first film is clearly not going to be the worst place he’ll end up. Kobayashi directs in stark black-and-white with plenty of fine directorial touches but this remains a sweeping epic of the sort that was prevalent in this era, all of which presumably owe something to the experience of the previous few decades: a grand statement on the big themes that elaborates on what it is to be just a single person against an enormous system designed to crush everything around it.
Continuing the story of the first two parts, the third and fourth chapters of this epic (called Road to Eternity) chart Kaji as he works as a private in the army, having been beaten down to this in the first film from his work as a mine overseer due to his attempt to show mercy and restraint. Here again his commitment to being a good person is again tested sorely, and again he finds himself at the sharp end of a brutal system of punishment and repression that doesn’t encourage positive behaviour or good soldiering and only rewards giving up one’s life in the futile pursuit of wartime ambition. There’s some lovely stuff here too, and a strong moral thread with Kaji attempting to navigate the constant ritual humiliations of the service, but this is still firmly within the mould of a grand historical epic, and how much you respond to it may depend on your love for the genre.
The third film, A Soldier’s Prayer, represents a fitting conclusion to this epic trilogy about the experience of one Japanese man during World War II. In this third film Kaji finds himself trudging across Manchuria with the remnants of his squad trying to find food, shelter, safety, a way back home — though quite what “home” means in this situation is unclear. Needless to say, his spirit is more fully broken and his attempts to do the right thing, be a good person, become more and more fraught with grief, sadness and a desire for revenge against the injustice and humiliation he’s suffered. There are no particular heartwarming insights here and the idea of happy outcome is by hour 10 of the film somewhat ridiculous, but he continues retain the small flickering light of hope for a better world for such a long time that it hits all the harder when the light starts to fade, as it does through each of the three parts. It’s a grim film about a grim time of history that’s elevated through Nakadai’s central performance and a clear vision.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writers Kobayashi, Zenzo Matsuyama 松山善三 and Koichi Inagaki 稲垣公一 (based on the novel by Junpei Gomikawa 五味川純平); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Michiyo Aratama 新珠三千代; Length 575 minutes (split into six parts in three films of 206 minutes, 178 minutes and 190 minutes).
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 19 November, Thursday 25 November and Saturday 27 November 2021.