Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama
Duration: 208 min.
During the Second World War, a Japanese conscientious objector named Kaji works as a supervisor in a Manchurian prison camp. He hopes to avoid duty as a soldier, but he also hopes to be helpful to the welfare of his prisoners. An escape attempt by Chinese prisoners results in Kaji's arrest for collusion. He faces the possibility of transferal to combat, or worse...
No Greater Love is the first film of Masaki Kobayashi's epic Human Condition trilogy, a monstrous work set during WWII era Japan that runs for almost 10 hours in total.
This first part, introduces us to Kaji (played by Japanese legend Tatsuya Nakadai) and Michiko, newlyweds who are sent off to Manchuria where Kaji is hired to supervise a mining labor camp full of Chinese prisoners of war. There, he is witness to an endless stream of mistreatment, exploitation, and brutalities that start to threaten the core of his humanity.
What the film does well is the way that Kobayashi is able to show the grand scale of the subject matter, even with the technical limitations of the time. One most memorable scene shows several hundred starving Chinese prisoners, almost zombie like, exiting boxcars and converging on a food cart. Also, Tatsuya Nakadai is wonderful in this, his first starring role, using his amazingly expressive eyes to display a wide range of emotion.
A great achievement but it falls just short of being a masterpiece, I found some of the drama to be a bit forced, many characters were underdeveloped for a film this long, and the tone was a bit overly preachy and anti-war. Also, a minor nitpick but distracting for me was the majority of the Chinese workers were played by Japanese actors, normally not a problem, but they spoke Mandarin with very heavy accents and stilted delivery.