Masaki Kobayashi’s epic, exhausting examination of one man’s spiritual descent is an extraordinary achievement by any standard, an antiwar Candide that took two years to complete and turned its star—Film Forum’s man of the month, Tatsuya Nakadai—into a marquee name in Japan.
Broken into three sections, this massive social drama takes turns pointing an accusing finger at a merry-go-round of oppressive institutions. Part 1 (“No Greater Love”) pits our prolabor hero, Kaji (Nakadai), against capitalist fat cats in a Manchurian mining camp; when Chinese POWs are brought in, he tries to improve their living conditions and is rewarded with betrayal. Part 2 (“Road to Eternity”) charts Kaji’s tenure as an army grunt, where cannon fodder is expected to accept abuse and death as a duty. The best is saved for last: “A Soldier’s Prayer,” in which the fugitive Kaji witnesses Stalinism in action and ends up in Siberia, consumed by madness. (Film Forum will give each section a weeklong run; all three segments will show back-to-back on July 27 and August 3.)
So many melodramatic ironies and such broad, sweeping indictments can produce a wearying effect, especially when Kobayashi’s ambitious-to-a-fault attacks treats the message-mongering as a blunt instrument rather than a scalpel. It’s Nakadai who makes this impressive yet flawed screed worth your time commitment. His transformation of Kaji from idealist to leader, protector, killer and finally, a haggard ghost of man offers a powerful example of humanity being slowly, painfully stamped out.