Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka, 1937)

Matajuro Unno and the kidnapped Okoma in Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937).

Humanity and Paper Balloons concerns the lives of a group of low standing individuals living in tenements in the poor districts of Edo in 18th century Japan, most notably the unemployed ronin Matajuro Unno, living with his wife Otaki, and Shinza, a barber involved in most anything except cutting hair. There are also other characters like old blind man Yabuichi and their stingy landlord among others. It begins with a suicide in the tenement block. A ronin who's had to pawn his sword has killed himself by hanging, "The samurai should have slit his belly" someone says, "it was a disgrace to hang himself". The other tenants use the wake for the ronin as an excuse to throw a party. There is no honor or respect in being a samurai with no allegiance.

Unno is himself in a similar situation, his wife making paper balloons to make ends meet while Unno is out looking for a job, putting his last hope in gaining employment with Mori, a high ranking samurai who was helped to his position by Unno's late father. Mori however, doesn't want anything to do with Unno and even refuses to accept a letter from Unno's father with Unno's persistence only resulting in a beating from a group of yakuza hired as protection at the local pawn shop where Mori is grooming the owner's daughter, Okoma, to become the wife of a samurai.

Then there's Shinza, who's arranging nights of gambling in his home and has become the target of the yakuza with thugs chasing him down as soon as he sets foot outside. When Shinza is denied pawning his barber tools at the pawn shop, it results in him impulsively kidnapping Okoma and hiding her at Unno's house, not to make money off a ransom, but to put the screws on the pawn shop owner and the yakuza.

With its story about the lower classes of the Edo-period, Humanity and Paper Balloons a warm and humorous, but in the end very pessimistic film about how the people further down on the social ladder are treated by the higher ups. The humor coming mostly from exchanges between the tenants and situations as when they trick the landlord into first buying them sake for the wake, and then more food when he arrives or the blind man not letting anything slip by unnoticed.

Starting with the suicide of the ronin, director Sadao Yamanaka spends the rest of the film showing what could possibly lead to a man taking such extreme measures. Through Mori's treatment of Unno, who is already in a desperate situation, leading him on hoping that he'll just give up instead of telling him to his face that he's unwanted, and Unno being too ashamed to admit his failures to his wife who can only pretend to not know what is going on, it all adds up to the inevitable. No matter how persistent and servile Unno is, he's not able to get ahead because of his current lowly standing.

Shinza is more of a rebel, running his gambling business not only to make money but also out of spite. Why shouldn't he be able to do something others can? Just because they say so? When he kidnaps Okoma he refuses to accept the ransom but demands an apology from the pawn shop owner. Not just to be noble but also because having someone grovel before him would put himself in a higher position, as shown by the respect he receives from the other tenants.

Humanity and Paper Balloons is the last, and one of only three remaining, of the 22 films Sadao Yamanaka directed during his short six year career. He was drafted on the day of the premiere of Humanity and sent to Manchuria where he died in 1938, leaving a will ending with the words "Please make good movies". In the portrayals of the tenants, Yamanaka shows great love for his characters but he also shows their flaws. Like Unno's persistence that just becomes too much, what would have happened if he had just followed Mori's instructions to come back the next day and left it at that. There is a scene where Unno is reaffirming that he will surely arrive the next day at eight in the morning that makes him seem so desperate that it almost becomes unsettling. And is Shinza's demand for an apology and his wish for respect really that different from those of which he demands it from? In the end the only one being well off is the landlord who doesn't mind rolling over for anyone as long as there is money in it for him, showing that in this world humanity and honor doesn't mean a thing if you're not wealthy. As Yamanaka was a leftist, there is no doubt on which position he takes, but he doesn't take anything away from the complexity of his film or its characters.

Something that really struck me with Humanity was the flow of the film and how natural it felt, both in the editing and the performances of the actors, the left-wing theatre group Zenshin-za. This is the first Japanese film I've seen from the 30s and I wasn't expecting it to feel so modern. Other films I've seen from this period have felt staged with theatrical performances, but not so here. Just like when I watched Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949) for the first time and that it could have been made much later, Yamanaka's film seems almost like it could have been made today.

Shinza being threatened by yakuza.