The Human Condition
This mammoth humanist drama by Masaki Kobayashi is one of the most staggering achievements of Japanese cinema. Originally filmed and released in three installments of two parts each, the nine-and-a-half-hour The Human Condition, adapted from Junpei Gomikawa’s six-volume novel, tells of the journey of the well-intentioned yet naive Kaji—played by the Japanese superstar Tatsuya Nakadai—from labor camp supervisor to Imperial Army soldier to Soviet prisoner of war. Constantly trying to rise above a corrupt system, Kaji time and again finds his morals to be an impediment rather than an advantage. A raw indictment of Japan’s wartime mentality as well as a personal existential tragedy, Kobayashi’s riveting, gorgeously filmed epic is novelistic cinema at its best.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their previous DVD edition for Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition (consisting of six parts spread over three separate films) to Blu-ray, presented over three dual-layer discs. The films are presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes sourced from a high-definition restoration. 35mm prints made from the original negatives served as the source.
Criterion is reusing the same high-def masters that were used for both their previous DVD edition and Arrow's own Blu-ray edition in the UK. There's a notable upgrade over Criterion's DVD edition (as one would hope) and ultimately looks about the same as Arrow's own presentation, but the master is showing its age, and most of the issues come down to that and less-than-optimal source materials. The end results are still generally fine but again the picture can still look a little blown out in brighter sequences and a bit darker in others, the contrast maybe being a little wonky; this could be intentional to the film's look or just a byproduct related to the condition of the materials. Grayscale is decent but nothing special. Film grain is present and looks okay but it's not as clean or as natural looking as what a newer scan could accomplish. Details are sharp enough, though, which was true of the DVD, yet the finer details rarely pop.
The source also still shows some issues. Pulsing, jumps and frame shifts happen fairly consistenty. Marks and scratches pop up every so often. General wear is evident on the sides. And, as with the other releases, there are Japanese subtitles burned in on the sides whenever anyone is not speaking Japanese. In the latter case this is what it is since subtitles are incredibly difficult to remove. Still, it doesn't look like any further restoration has been done in any other areas.
In the end the improvement over Criterion's DVD is minimal, just what you'd hope for with an upgrade to high-definition from standard-definition: details are a bit sharper and compression is improved upon, but that's about it.
The first two films come with lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtracks while the third one presents a 4.0 surround soundtrack in DTS-HD MA. All of the soundtracks show their age, all three mostly coming off a bit flat in general, harsher during louder moments; I forgot how much yelling there actually is in these films and that all still comes off a little screechy.
The 4.0 track (with the rear speakers working together as one channel) does sound a bit better in certain areas. Voices are still a little tinny when all is said and done, but the other effects and the music do show decent range and don't come off as edgy as the other tracks. I am also still impressed by the mix, which shows off right away during the opening as trucks drive by, moving naturally from one side of the soundstage to the other. Some gun shots later also give off the illusion of an echo, dialogue is placed appropriately related to character positions, and the music is spread out nicely.
Materials ultimately limit all of them, but the surround mix is still fairly impressive.
The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959): 6/10 The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity (1959): 6/10 The Human Condition III: A Soldier's Prayer (1961): 7/10
Criterion appears to have ported all of their supplements over from their DVD edition, spreading them across the three discs. The previous DVD edition devoted one whole disc to supplements. Each disc features also features the trailer for its respective film/parts.
Disc one starts things off with a 1993 interview with director Masakia Kobayashi, running under 14-minutes and recorded for the Director's Guild of Japan. From the DVD review:
Fellow director Masahiro Shinoda (who also provides an interview [on the second disc of this set]) interviews the director about the long, difficult shoot that for The Human Condition, going over various aspects of it including the cinematographer and casting Tatsuya Nakadai. There’s also mention of footage that was cut, a lot of it by the sounds of it, but unfortunately this material was tossed away and is lost for good. He also mentions some of the awards the film won and the harsh critical reception the first film received, followed by a brief discussion about storyboarding that ends up covering more about Ozu’s technique in storyboarding than his Kobayashi’s own. It’s a decent interview but unfortunately short, focuses more on the first film, and I suspect the segments shown here are edited together from a much larger interview with the director that more than likely covered his career as a whole.
Filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda then provides his own appreciation for the film in a 25-minute interview recorded by Criterion on 2009. From the DVD review:
[Shinoda starts off by explaining the] mindset of Japan [following] the war (mentioning that this film could have probably only been made during that period and would probably not get made today) and then gets into Kobayashi’s military career, which shares similarities not only to the film’s main character, Kaji, but of the books’ author. Like Kaji, Kobayashi had extreme leftist views that drastically changed after he learned of the Soviet’s treatment of their Japanese prisoners, which were far more extreme when compared with his experience in an American POW camp. From there he then talks about the film trilogy, the various themes, compares it to Renoir’s Grand Illusion, it’s depiction of the Chinese and then its depiction of the Chinese view of the Japanese. He then brings up how the younger generation sees the film, which he based on research he did on the internet. It’s a decent interview that makes up for the lack of a commentary in a way. Plus there are photos of what I assume are the books Kobayashi used in making the film, with notes visible on the pages.
Actor Tatsuya Nakadai also recorded a new interview for Criterion in 2009, and it is again presented here, found on the third disc of the set. From the DVD review:
Nakadai reflects on the lengthy 3 year production and the film itself[. He] sounds surprised he even got the role, which was his first lead and at that point it was different from most of his other roles. He amusingly recalls the more physical aspects of the part that he would fear doing today, which included ducking under an oncoming tank, doing actual drills and training, and lying out in the snow for an extended period. He also points out Kobayashi’s insistence on being as faithful to the novels as possible, and while he doesn’t know exactly how the author, Junpei Gomikawa, felt about the finished film the writer did say “good job!” to Nakadai, which he took as praise. Thrown in are photos of magazine covers featuring the film, and there’s even an amusing shot of a photo from an article showing all the film cans for the movies. It’s a nice expansion on the Kobayashi interview, providing further insight into the film from someone who was on the set.
Sadly, Criterion doesn't offer anything new, even simply porting over the insert from the DVD, which again features an essay by Philip Kemp (and again it's a decent analysis of the film but doesn't make up for the lack of anything else). Still a bit underwhelming supplement-wise, and the release drops the nice digipak that the DVD received, the discs presented in one of Criterion's standard 3-disc cases.
It's wonderful to finally get Kobayashi's magnum opus on Blu-ray in North America, but this release is just a simple upgrade over the previous DVD edition, only providing a moderate improvment in its presentation with the same small selection of supplements.