Director, Sadao Yamanaka; Screenplay, Shintaro Mimura; Cinematography, Akira Mimura; Original Music, Tadashi Ota; Art Direction, Kazuo Kubo
Cast: Chojuro Kawarasaki (Matajuro Unno); Kanemon Nakamura (Shinza), Tsuruzo Nakamura, Choemon Bando, Sukezo Sukedakaya, Emitaro Ichikawa, Noboru Kiritachi, Shizue Yamagishi
Director Sadao Yamanaka was poised to continue a promising career after his service in the military, but the invasion of China ended that promise. He died of dysentery in Manchuria, not long after this movie, his last, premiered. There is a cruel irony in that the same war that claimed the young director’s life also destroyed most of his films. Only three of about 22 films directed by Yamanaka exist today. No one can predict what he would have done had he survived the war, but Humanity and Paper Balloons shows us that Yamanaka was a supreme talent who could well have gone on to rival his contemporaries Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Naruse.
The movie follows the interrelated stories of several residents of a poor neighborhood in an eighteenth century town. At first the movie seems to drift around, unsure what it wants to be about, but it soon settles on a couple of characters and their struggles to survive in a world glaringly devoid of humanity. The first character we settle on is Shinza, a barber who runs illegal gambling parties, much to the chagrin of the local strongman Yatagoro. Increasingly Shinza gets fed up with his essentially subhuman status and embarks on a self-destructive path, hungry to thumb his nose at Yatagoro and his goons no matter what the cost.
The other characters Yamanaka focuses on are Unno Matajuro and his wife, Otaki. Unno is a masterless samurai, without a position and poor, desperate for an opportunity to prove himself. He spends his days trying to meet with a local official, Mori, in order to deliver a letter from Unno’s late father. Unno’s father was once a powerful man who gave Mori the opportunities he needed to be successful. Unno is confident Mori will feel a sense of obligation and help his late mentor’s unfortunate son as well. But Mori dodges Unno every chance he gets and refuses to accept the letter. Like Shinza, Unno gradually becomes disillusioned with the pretensions of society that insulate those in power from the poor and their problems and the two concoct a scheme to kidnap Mori’s foster daughter.
The trials of Shinza and Unno highlight the flimsy commitment society has made to humanity, compassion, and empathy. Mori shoos Unno away, then complains to a successful businessman that there is always someone looking for something for nothing, ignoring the fact that he depended on the help of others to get where he is. Mori is consumed by the privilege of his status and views anyone with a request for help, however reasonable, poses a threat to it. He feels he must shut them out to protect himself and his family. This is something we see time and again: people’s commitment to their own privilege and fortune rather than a more generous commitment to everyone’s well-being.
We can’t appreciate how clever the script is without some knowledge of traditional kabuki theater. Writer Sintaro Mimura and Yamanaka took a famous kabuki play and subverted it, turning the villains into heroes and heroes into villains. In the play Shinza is a conniving rat who pretends to aid a pair of lovers elope, but, secretly in love with the girl himself, tries to kill the boy and kidnaps the girl. She is later rescued by a man named Yatagoro, the fearsome strongman in the movie. Even a traditional character like Chobei, a man of honor in many kabuki plays, is characterized as a lecherous landlord to the poor inhabitants of the movie’s neighborhood. (I want to extend my thanks to the essay by Tony Rayns for the insight into the kabuki connection.)
By appropriating characters and the plot from a traditional kabuki play and undermining their meaning, Mimura and Yamanaka explicitly questioned the rigid social roles that permeated Japanese society. It would be like a U.S. or European movie commenting on the lack of respect for our elders by turning Hansel and Gretel into juvenile delinquents and the witch into a kindly old woman terrorized by the pair. And though the movie took place a couple of hundred years before, Japan’s increasing militarization in the 1930s made the story all the more relevant. Yamanaka’s transgressive film explicitly equated humanity with the paper balloons Unno’s wife carefully constructs to support them. They are both fragile, hollow, and in need of tender care for their perpetuation. It’s a subtle and beautiful message and movie.