According to Tatsuya Nakadai, a marathon screening of the entire nine-and-a-half-hour "Human Condition" trilogy is held once a year in Japan, and he has once or twice attended these screenings, which are always sold out.
In his 1982 book, "The Story of Cinema" - which is, as the title implies, a critical survey of international cinema from its beginnings up to the time of the book's publication - the late British film writer David Shipman (who claimed to have viewed over 8000 movies) declared "The Human Condition" trilogy to be "unquestionably the greatest film ever made." Shipman's praise is particularly remarkable because, in his book, he sharply criticizes, and sometimes dismisses, many far more famous films that are widely regarded by critics and audiences as classics.
The subtitle for this first part of the trilogy, "No Greater Love," is derived from the Bible, specifically the following passage in the Gospel of St. John (Chapter 15, verse 13): "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
All performers in the film who portray Chinese characters are in fact Japanese actors, speaking their Chinese dialogue phonetically. This decision was made out of necessity, since no actor of Chinese heritage would ever have agreed to appear in a Japanese war film, due to residual bitterness over the treatment of the Chinese people by Japanese imperial forces during the Second World War.
A significant theme of Masaki Kobayashi's "Human Condition" trilogy is the obsessive love, bordering on worship, of the protagonist, Kaji, for his wife, Michiko, played in all three parts by Michiyo Aratama. Film director Masahiro Shinoda attributes the prominence of this theme to the impact upon Kobayashi's generation of the legendary French filmmakers of the 1930s, with their preoccupation with romantic love. However, according to Shinoda, this romantic idealization of the heroine was, for his own more cynical generation of Japanese film fans, a major stumbling block to their appreciation of the film. It was only later that Shinoda decided that he had no right to question Kobayashi's commitment to a feminine ideal, and accepted this aspect of the work as artistically valid.
This film is the first part of a trilogy released in Japan over a period of about two years (1959 - 1961) under the overall title "Ningen no Jôken" ("The Human Condition"). The trilogy has a total running time of over nine-and-a-half hours. (The other two parts are titled The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity (1959) and The Human Condition III: A Soldier's Prayer (1961).) If considered as a single work, as most critics and scholars do today, "The Human Condition" trilogy is the longest extant narrative fiction film created for theatrical release that has ever been made. All known films of greater duration than that of "The Human Condition" are either: a) lost films (e.g., the Chinese silent film Huo shao hong lian si (1928), which allegedly ran for 27 hours over 18 installments); b) documentary (i.e., nonfiction) films; c) experimental (i.e., non-narrative) films; or d) productions created for television broadcast.
Throughout the trilogy, all scenes set in Manchuria were actually shot in director Masaki Kobayashi's native province of Hokkaido in the far north of Japan. (No attempt was ever made to film in the actual locations, as the filmmakers understood that, for political reasons, this would be impossible.) As the sky in Hokkaido was usually quite different from the sky in Manchuria as Kobayashi recalled it from his days as a soldier there, he would halt filming for long periods until the cloud formations most closely resembled, in his mind, a Manchurian sky.
Although the original six-volume novel by Jumpei Gomikawa upon which the trilogy was based had been a bestseller in Japan, no film studio wanted to have anything to do with this material. The reasons for this were perfectly understandable: the novel's extreme length was unwieldy, its subject matter was relentlessly grim, and the narrative brought up the very touchy topic of crimes committed by the Japanese military during the Second World War. However, director Masaki Kobayashi was so adamant in his desire to make the film that he threatened to quit his film studio, Shochiku, if they refused to finance the project, and they relented. The trilogy went on to become a major critical and commercial success in Japan.
In this film, the character of Okishima, one of the foremen of a Japanese mining camp in Manchuria during World War II, serves as a kind of mentor to the hero, Kaji, who works as a supervisor at the camp. For guidance and advice during filming, the actor who played Kaji, Tatsuya Nakadai (who had never before been cast in the leading role in a film), turned to the more seasoned actor who portrayed Okishima, Sô Yamamura, and they became close friends. Thus, the real-life relationship of Nakadai and Yamamura mirrored that of their on-screen characters.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Despite the fact that the source material for the "Human Condition" trilogy was a novel written by someone else, for director Masaki Kobayashi, the material had very heavy autobiographic resonances. Like Kaji, the central character in the work, Kobayashi had been drafted and served as a soldier in Manchuria and, like Kaji, he, too, ended up as a prisoner of war (though in a prison camp in Okinawa run by American forces, rather than in a Soviet camp, as in Kaji's case). Tatsuya Nakadai recalled that he was uncertain as to how to portray Kaji until he decided to model the character on his observations of Kobayashi. Kobayashi himself told the American film scholar Joan Mellen, "I am Kaji in the film."