Chojuro KawarasakiDaisuke KatoShizue YamagishiKan'emon Nakamura
Humanity and Paper Balloons
Medium: film
Year: 1937
Director: Sadao Yamanaka
Writer: Shintaro Mimura
Keywords: historical, samurai, yakuza
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Chojuro Kawarasaki, Kan'emon Nakamura, Tsuruzo Nakamura, Choemon Bando, Sukezo Sukedakaya, Emitaro Ichikawa, Noboru Kiritachi, Shizue Yamagishi, Daisuke Kato
Format: 86 minutes
Website category: Japanese old
Review date: 29 January 2011
It's the last film of Sadao Yamanaka, who was drafted into the Japanese army and died in Manchuria. Only three of his films survive today and this is apparently regarded as the greatest of them. Me, I thought it was pretty good.
What I'm coming to associate with Yamanaka is a casual, direct kind of period drama. He gets on with things and his characters aren't stuffed shirts. They feel down to earth. This is set in the 18th century and it contains samurai, but it's putting them into a social context that also includes destitute ex-samurai (i.e. ronin), pawn shops and gangsters. The main character is, oddly enough, the street where lots of ordinary people live. The first thing that happens is that someone commits suicide, but we don't see it. Instead we stay outside on the street as it fills with people, complaining that the deceased killed himself on a nice day when yesterday it was raining and getting critical about the way he did it. There's a greedy landlord who's funny. There's a guy who steals from his blind neighbour, but is going to get outwitted by him. There's a goldfish seller. It's fun to watch these people, but we're watching them collectively rather than following any one of them.
This sort of continues, even after the film teases forth some protagonists. There will often be shots of houses or empty rooms, while the camera's favourite position is simply at the top of this street. For the film's duration, we effectively live there too. Our sympathies thus incline towards the inhabitants of this poor Tokyo district, even when they interact with the more elevated members of society. (When those elevated personages choose to return said attentions, they generally do so by sending gangsters.)
We have two main protagonists. The first is a smart-mouthed git (Kan'emon Nakamura) who runs gambling parties that piss off the yakuza. He's not very likeable and everything he does is either dubious or criminal, but one oddity about him is that despite his chronic money problems, he's not actually that interested in cash. He's proud. He's irritated by people acting high and mighty, just because they're of higher social status. More than once he throws money back at people because he didn't like the way they offered it. He's a born rebel, basically, which in 18th century Japan probably translates as having suicidal tendencies. He's a dick, but in a way you've got to admire him. His neighbours end up doing so. Well, the male ones, anyway. The women all know their (inferior) social position and stay out of the men's way, but that doesn't stop them passing judgement when they're talking among themselves.
Hang on, I tell a lie. There's one woman who's an uppity brat. She's a bimbo, frankly, but she's also the daughter of a rich merchant and promised in marriage to the family of an important samurai. This gives us further dimensions of social snobbery, as the samurai will be disparaging about non-samurai even if they do happen to be rich.
The other protagonist is that ronin I mentioned (Chojuro Kawarasaki), who has a wife, a history of drink problems and no apparent means of income. He's still got a little pride, but that's half the problem. Samurai aren't supposed to work for a living. Anyway, Kawarasaki's pinned all his hopes on getting assistance from a samurai who theoretically owes him a debt of gratitude, but unfortunately this guy would sooner have Kawarasaki beaten up and thrown out in the street than be forced even to acknowledge his assistance... whoah, hang on. Reading up on the internet, I've just learned something I didn't notice for myself when watching the film. She's always so unobtrusive and correct, but Kawarasaki's wife makes and sells paper balloons. Hence the movie's title, presumably. She's the one who's supporting him. I saw the balloons, but I didn't put two and two together. Wow, that casts a whole new light on their relationship, although to be fair so does the film's ending.
This film feels short. It can be funny and irreverent, its heroes are dodgy and its people of high class are venal scum. Yamanaka was a left-wing director, many of whose co-workers would after the war join the Japanese Communist Party. However it doesn't feel like a polemic. It's taking a story that in different hands could have been a heavy-handed tragedy and instead doing it in a manner that feels brisk, deft and clear-sighted about people's failings. If he'd pushed it much further, you might almost have called it satirical. As it is, it's merely pointed.
It's also avoiding the conventions of Japanese period drama. There are no sword fights, for instance. This is a film with a lot to say and a way of saying it that's very Japanese and yet today feels surprisingly modern. A final film to be proud of.