Why has it taken almost a decade for us in the States to see the third installment of Masaki Kobayashi's monumental The Human Condition? Of course, the vagaries of international distribution must be to blame--but the delay is also fitting: It seems that the film's hero, Kaji, has lived long--the actor Tatsuya Nakadai, still young, plays him with eyes old as a haunted house. Kaji has been purged of his Marxism and his sense of justice--all he has left is an instinct to survive--but more than that, in a movie titled A Soldier's Prayer: the hopeless desire to return home, to be with his wife--in the second film, when a nurse asks him if the woman in his photo is his sweetheart or his wife, he answers, "Both." He is deep in Manchuria, and tries to return to her on foot--but is captured and enslaved by the Soviets, who teach him a lesson about the universal will to enslave, and he becomes like the Chinese laborers he had reluctantly overseen in the first picture. His prayer is necessary, but soaked and spattered with despair.
When I'm stupid enough to think there is a "greatest film," I'm tempted to name Kobayashi's trilogy. It seems to have found the true shape of cinema: the human form, a human life--like Citizen Kane, it wants to examine every scrap of evidence. But The Human Condition refuses to dazzle us, as Welles' movie insists--and it disdains our own desires: for purpose and pattern, a kind of cinematic rhetoric that argues for one shape or another for this human form; no, it's a "condition," a chronic malady. And those who are chronically ill--or care for one who is--understand that it's not just low moans and bowed heads. There is a passion in illness that does not abate, the sufferer in love with the hope for a cure--or at least the occasional good day, marked by a satisfied sigh or comfortable grunt, the small things mingled with the chronic human condition marked by both enervating descent and glimmers of hope. Yes, the condition is fatal--but for God's sake, what isn't? Just ask all the short-timers in Vietnam, waiting out their last weeks--which stretch longer and longer, like painful, unnecessary treatments for a disease they've done nothing to deserve.