Human Condition III: A Soldier's Prayer, The (1961)

Review #1,433

Director:  Masaki Kobayashi
Cast:  Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Yûsuke Kawazu, Chishû Ryû, Kyôko Kishida
Plot:  His ideals challenged by life as a conscript in war-time Japan's military, a pacifist faces ever greater tests in his fight for survival.

Genre:  Drama / War
Awards:  -
Runtime:  190min
Rating:  Not rated (likely PG13 for mature themes)  
Source:  Shochiku

The final film of Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition trilogy paves way for Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), our hero with unflinching ideals of pacifism and compassion, to achieve a character arc that gives him and his story a closure that is satisfying if also wantonly bleak. 

Some have considered the three films to be one singular, mammoth picture (something like The Lord of the Rings of its time), but while it is useful to consider Kobayashi’s ambitious undertaking as a continuous, linear-leaning narrative (albeit with a few flashbacks that are peppered throughout the 9½-hour runtime), it is also critical to look at it as separate entries and how they contribute to the sum of its parts.

My most immediate reaction to A Soldier’s Prayer is that it is the most relentlessly sombre piece of the trio.  It centers on Kaji as he and his few straggling soldiers try to survive in the wilderness in enemy territory.  This is, of course, after the intense battle at the climax of the second film, Road to Eternity (1959), that sees his entire unit decimated by Soviet forces. 

Through the course of the third film, Kaji is forced to endure more personal trials, some brutally physical (enduring the cold of Siberia, the punishing hard labour as prisoner-of-war, etc.).  Always defending his methods, however idealistic, Kaji tries to make those who have wronged him understand his stance and values. 

Since the first film, we have been conditioned to accept that he is never going to beat the authoritarian military system, one that has entrapped him and plunged him to numerous depths of despair.  This is his ‘human condition’, so it is only fitting that his character must eventually reconcile with himself alone.

However, A Soldier’s Prayer doesn’t quite reach the powerful heights of the first two films, in terms of its portrayal of drama, dilemmas and emotions.  It can also be accused of trying to be too overbearing in its articulation of Kaji’s troubled psyche—his thoughts are constantly narrated as voiceovers, to the point that they could sometime feel repetitive and intrusive, at the expense of a more poetic, wordless introspection that would have lent the film a more nuanced quality. 

Still, that doesn’t take away the remarkable work that is The Human Condition trilogy, one of the great achievements of Japanese cinema, and certainly Kobayashi’s humanist magnum opus. 

Verdict:  The final film of the trilogy is relentlessly sombre, but while it doesn’t quite reach the powerful heights of the first two, it offers a satisfying closure to the story of its protagonist, Kaji. 


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