“Lastly I say to my seniors and friends:
Please make good movies”.
18 April 1938
Those were director, Sadao Yamanaka’s final written words whilst drafted into the Japanese army. Yamanaka was sent to the front lines the very day that his final film Humanity and Paper Balloons received its Japanese premiere; to this day it remains only one of three in existence, out of the twenty-six films that the director had made throughout his short career. These remaining films are The Million Ryo Pot (Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsuba) 1935 and Soshun Kochiyama (1936). He died on September 17th 1938, aged 28.
With the 30’s consisting largely of Jidaigeki films, based off novels or plays it’s no surprise then to learn that Humanity and Paper Balloons is adapted from a kabuki play known as Shinza the Barber.
Humanity and Paper Balloons‘s story takes place during the Tokugawa years (18th Century) or as its otherwise referred to, the Edo period. As a closed off country times were naturally hard and social difficulties were rife. It is with this film that director Sadao Yamanaka illustrates the hardships that were faced by lower class communities, which included poor samurai. One such samurai, the ronin, Matajuro Unno (Chojuro Kawarasaki) struggles to find work while his wife, Otaki (Shizue Yamagishi) works from home making paper balloons. Meanwhile the local barber, Shinza (Kanemon Nakamura) forms a plan to kidnap the daughter of a rich merchant and seeks to hide her away at Matajuro’s home. All the time Shinza is struggling to make ends meets, due to his gambling addition and soon his desperate act will turn against him. As we see these lives being lived we become witness to a harsh social commentary that ran close to Japan's sentiments at the time.
Japan’s economical and social pressures evidently resonate throughout Humanity and Paper Balloons, thus in turn lending toward its depressive nature. However the film is far from all gloom, in fact there is quite a healthy amount of humour strewn throughout. Primarily this is a descriptive film about Japan’s lower classes and how each individual represents a different side of the coin, where humour is used to bypass its stark contrasts. Notably at the beginning of the piece we have the poor village folk who are simply doing what they can to entertain themselves. With little to no money this leaves them often in desperate situations, which brings about man’s greed as he resorts to theft; an example being when a blind, yet alert man has his favourite pipe stolen from him, only for the thief (a supposed friend) to deny it. Yet the blind man is no fool; he’ll get his pipe back in due course. While praying on the weak is a typically disgusting act, and one which the film paints several truths on, it is still joyous to see just how the lesser able stand up to their tormentors and triumph. In the end it’s all about survival of the fittest; the blind man would know this and he never blames the man who stole from him.
Toward the second half of the film things become a little more serious, setting up honour and tradition; starting with the opening scene in which the way of the samurai is reduced to something of a joke, when the once proud code of honour is lost in a desperate act to kill oneself. At the very beginning a man is found hanging; a samurai who had nothing but a bamboo sword, and so unable to commit ritual suicide is stripped of any respect from the villagers. Moving on we have Shinza who continually manages to get himself deeper into trouble. Going back to the survival of the fittest then we see the clashing of upper and lower class. Shinza is a hopeless gambler; he’s frequently warned by the local territory owners to shut down his little gambling operation, yet time and again fails to heed to the warnings, which inevitably will force someone’s hand. His desperation eventually leads him to try and sell his only item of personal value - his barber kit, so that he can take to gambling again. This moment signifies a considerable turn, when clearly Shinza has lost any self respect that he might have once had, while at the same time highlighting the clear signs of the times. In an interesting turn from the usual classic samurai stories of old, Humanity and Paper Balloons doesn’t preoccupy itself on the kinds of samurai acts that audiences were (and still are) all too familiar in seeing. The samurai are never played as heroes, they never fight or try to have their way with women and this is because those particular classes are depicted equally as poor. They’re master less wanderers with no home who are forced to drop to the same level as those that they might have once furrowed upon. But then Yamanaka shows us that everyone is the same, no matter their standing in life; everyone is prone to making mistakes, the rich are no better than the poor and every single person breathes the same air and hopes to just get through another day. Moreover the director brings us the very humanity that the title suggests. Matajuro may once have been an important figure, but now he’s reduced to looking for any kind of job so that he can support his wife. It’s something which would be considered demeaning had he been of a higher authority but it is here that he has learned to adapt to situations and still hold his values dear. His wife knows that they are simply doing what they do so that they can feed themselves. She makes little paper balloons, which obviously carry a greater metaphorical meaning as the closing moments linger on a single balloon before fading out.
Visually the film is splendid; Yamanaka sticks to an intimate setting, which never strays too far away from events. Away from the small house interiors the director shows off as much of the village as possible, using several long distance shots during dialogue heavy scenes to give us some pleasant scenery throughout. Yamanaka is often likened to directors such as Jean Vigo; Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns prefers Jean Renoir as a more likely alternative. But whatever the case there’s no denying that the director greatly influenced several directors later on in years. It’s funny how it isn’t mentioned but I wouldn’t be surprised if Akira Kurosawa took inspiration from Yamanaka. Humanity and Paper Balloons‘s aesthetics are not too dissimilar from several of Kurosawa’s classics, such as Yojimbo years later, which has striking similarities in its pacing and descriptions. It’s perhaps more debatable than anything else but an interesting one it might make nonetheless.
Sadao Yamanaka was a huge fan of American film and as such he tailored his dialogue toward a particular style which reflected western cinema at the time; yet his dialogue still feels fully natural. The Zenshin-za performing troupe join Yamanaka for his second film here, taking on many important roles and providing some very natural performances. Kanemon Nakamura is particularly pitiable as Shinza; a rather pathetic figure who is just dumb enough to not realise the kind of trouble he’s getting himself into, but due to his predicament is forced to carry on regardless. With a fine supporting cast providing realised performances throughout, Humanity and Paper Balloons triumphs as a great insight into life at the time and proves Sadao Yamanaka to be a tragic hero of Japanese cinema.
Eureka have done it again, this time with #11 in their Masters of Cinema range. Humanity and Paper balloons is about as perfect a presentation as you could hope for, all things considered. Although the DVD is limited in terms of extras and misses input from Tony Rayns, who provided some great commentaries on past releases the main feature is presented very well. As an extra Eureka have thrown in a brilliant glossy booklet, containing some fascinating insights into Sadao Yamanaka; with contributions from Aoyama Shinji, Tony Rayns, Sato Kimitoshi and words from Sadao Yamanaka.
Upon inserting the DVD you are taken to the main menu straight away, which is great as there are no annoying adverts or piracy warnings; just a second and you’re there. The menu itself is static but attractive, being taken from the original Japanese poster art and subsequent DVD cover. Accompanying it is a piece of music from the film.
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and taken from a newly restored Toho transfer, Humanity and Paper Balloons looks exemplary. The image quality is mixed, though unsurprising given its age; expect to find some inconsistency with brightness levels, which usually tend to be too high and slightly shift during scene transitions. Contrast levels are adequate, with black levels and shadow detail proving to be fairly solid. I couldn’t detect any Edge Enhancement and as for compression artefacts there do not appear to be any in evidence. A very good transfer.
For sound we have the original Japanese mono track which is acceptable. There’s only so much a restoration can provide, which isn’t much when it comes to sound drop outs, crackling and hiss. The reality of it all is that it really isn’t as bad as it sounds. Technical issues are occasional and don’t prove to be distracting in the slightest, and when watching this you just have to bare in mind that it’s just the way it is. Dialogue is still well forward to the central speaker and is about as clear as you can hope for.
Optional English subtitles have been provided, courtesy of Tony Rayns’s translation efforts. These come in a standard white font and read very well.
Extensive Toho Productions Stills Gallery
This is a great gallery as usual from Eureka, containing the original theatrical release poster and rare promotional stills, all of which are superb quality. It’s not quite as extensive as it sounds however, being comprised of just 21 pictures.
I’ve got to tip my hat to Eureka again for providing us with not only a rare gem for the first time in the west, but also for the way they’ve handled the release. They’re continuing to be a strong contender in the world cinema market and their summer 2005 Japanese releases thus far have been nothing short of stunning. Humanity and Paper Balloons is a beautifully shot and well told story that should be added to any Jidaigeki fan’s list, or simply any film enthusiast’s.