Japan | 82 min.
black & white
Sadao Yamanaka, 1937
Widely regarded as Yamanaka’s greatest achievement, Humanity and Paper Balloons [Ninjo kami fusen] was, tragically, his last film, and only one of three that survive today. In a short, six year, 22 film career Yamanaka quickly earned a reputation for exceptionally fluid editing and a beautiful visual form likened to the paintings of Japanese masters.
The story develops in the Tokugawa era of the 18th century, in a poor district of Tokyo, where impoverished samurai live from hand to mouth among equally poor people of lower social classes. One such ronin (masterless samurai) Matajuro, spends his day looking for work whilst his wife, Otaki, makes cheap paper balloons at home. One rainy night, Shinza, a barber, and equally penniless, impulsively abducts the daughter of a wealthy merchant, hiding her at Matajuro’s home. Their desperate plan has grave consequences when a ransom attempt backfires. The film, which starts and ends with suicide, is deeply pessimistic, insisting that life in feudal Japan was hellish and short for those at the foot of the social ladder.
Humanity and Paper Balloons premiered the day Yamanaka was drafted to the frontline at the start of WWII. He died in Manchuria, 1938, aged just 29. Boasting naturalistic performances and fine ensemble playing (from the left-wing theatre troupe Zenshin-za), The Masters of Cinema Series is proud to present this rare gem for the first time on home video in the West.
by Tony Rayns, 2005
It would not be hard to make a case for Japanese cinema of the 1930s as one of the richest periods in world cinema. The critics and audiences who ‘discovered’ prime Kurosawa and late Ozu and Mizoguchi films in the 1950s understandably tended to assume that they were finding Japanese cinema at its creative peak, but they had seen little or nothing of pre-war film-making. Even if they had tried to, it would have been difficult: a high proportion of all Japanese films made before the surrender in 1945 were lost, either through neglect or destroyed in the allies’ fire-bombing. The tally of lost films includes all but three of the 22 directed by Yamanaka Sadao between 1932 and 1937.
The 1930s were a decade of innovation and experimentation in Japan. Two of Japan’s major film companies were already well established (Shochiku and Nikkatsu), but there were also numerous smaller independent companies, many of them short-lived. Several movie stars launched their own companies to produce their own vehicles. The key creative people, directors and writers, tended to be young. A few came from backgrounds in theatre but most entered the film industry because they loved movies, and they learned on the job. They watched imported movies (not only from Hollywood) and sometimes attempted direct imitations of what they’d seen. But the best of them strived to forge something new, often combining disparate ideas from Japan and abroad. Even more than their peers in literature and fine arts, these young people carried forward the process begun in the Meiji and Taisho eras (1868-1912 and 1912-1926 respectively): the opening up and diversification of a culture that had remain closed for three centuries.
There were many unpredictable aesthetic developments during the decade – which also saw, lest we forget, the annexation of Manchuria as the puppet state ‘Manchukuo’ and increasingly violent forays into mainland China by the Japanese army. Ozu Yasujiro, for example, stopped making American-influenced student comedies and gangster movies and turned to the ‘home-drama’ genre that made his name, in the process drastically refining his film language. Mizoguchi Kenji, after flirting with avant-garde modernism and left-wing protest in the 1920s, began dedicating himself to melodramas, many drawn from the dated repertoire of the shimpa theatre. (Shimpa was a relatively lowbrow form, closer to kabuki than to the western spoken-drama tradition and in some ways comparable with Victorian melodrama.) And in 1932 a prolific young screenwriter named Yamanaka Sadao began directing jidaigeki (period dramas) for the small film company Kanjuro, and from the start infused them with ideas from the modernist shingeki stage.
Yamanaka, born in 1907, had been taken on as a writer and assistant director by the Makino company at the age of 20. He moved into directing only five years later by joining a new start-up film company which lacked skilled personnel, and made no less than six jidaigeki for them in his first year. All six are lost, but we know they created a critical stir at the time; they also earned him his first rave review in English, in the March 1933 issue of the magazine Close Up, where the writer Y. Ogino describes him as “the greatest and most brilliant discovery of Japanese cinema in 1932”. (Ogino goes on to praise Yamanaka’s “superior film technique,” noting that his films are more interesting for their form than their content, and then applauds him for not letting his actors “indulge in striking facial expression” – presumably meaning that he got naturalistic performances from his casts.) These early films were silents; talkies were not firmly established in Japan until 1935-36.
Yamanaka moved several times from one company to another; in the mid-1930s he worked in the Nikkatsu studios in Kyoto. He made only jidaigeki, including a contribution to the Tange Sazen series, but maintained a high critical reputation for avoiding all the clichés of swordplay movies while presenting the common people of the Edo period as credible individuals and focusing on social injustices. The political climate of the time being what it was, neither Yamanaka nor his admirers could identify themselves as leftists. But Yamanaka’s was an essentially left-wing enterprise, and it was natural that he should gravitate towards working with the covertly left-wing Zenshin-za theatre troupe, led by Kawarazaki Chojuro and Nakamura Kanemon. He first worked with the troupe on the 1935 film The Village Tattooed Man [Machi no Irezumi-mono], one of the many titles now lost. (Also set in the late Edo period – the first half of the 19th century – it was about a discharged prisoner who finds life outside jail to be even harsher and less fair than it was inside.)
Humanity and Paper Balloons was his second collaboration with Zenshin-za; the troupe co-produced the film with Photo-Chemical Laboratories, the short-lived ancestor of Toho. The film is strikingly different from any other jidaigeki made at the time, not least because of its downbeat presentation of a world in which the martial codes of bushido no longer have any meaning. The opening scenes, in which commoners gossip about the suicide of a ronin (masterless samurai) in their alley, make the point succinctly. The man disgraced his samurai past by hanging himself, says one; he should have cut his belly in the traditional way. Another objects: but he didn’t have a sword. Yes he did, retorts the first, he always carried a long sword. But that was a bamboo sword, replies the second, and he couldn’t have committed seppuku with that; he’d sold his real sword for subsistence money. It’s worth remembering that this film was made and released only one year after the bloodiest act of ‘imperialist terrorism’ in modern Japanese history: the “February 26 Incident”, in which junior army officers in Tokyo launched murderous attacks on political leaders, industrialists, business magnates and their own senior commanders.
Mimura Shintaro’s script for the film was drawn from the kabuki play An Old Story about a Wet-Wadded Silk Coat [Tsuyu Kosode Mukashi Hachijo], also known as Shinza the Barber [Kamiyui Shinza], first performed in 1873 and itself based on a story by Kawatake Mokuami. In the play, the daughter of the shopkeeper Shirakoya is secretly in love with her father’s employee Chushichi but faces being married off to a wealthy man in order to meet her father’s debts. The villainous barber Shinza, who has long lusted after the girl himself, pretends to help the young lovers to elope – but then attacks the boy, leaving him to drown in the river, and kidnaps the girl. A man named Yatagoro Genshichi rescues the boy from the river and tries to free the girl, but Shinza sees him off. Then the saintly landlord Chobei lectures Shinza on morality and he is finally persuaded to take the girl home. The resentful Yatagoro ambushes Shinza on the Enmado Bridge and kills him in a duel.
The character Chobei appears in many kabuki plays; he is the son of a samurai but has renounced his class privileges and become a defender of working-class people against those – gangsters and dissolute former samurai – who oppress them. In kabuki, Chobei is the archetypal otokodate, or ‘man of honour’. (The character was based on a real-life prototype: Banzuin no Chobei.) The transformation of this Robin Hood-like character into the film’s bossy, put-upon and ultimately venal landlord is merely the first of the many changes that turn the play into an Edo-slum approximation of Gorky’s The Lower Depths. Yamanaka and Mimura have fleshed out the community around Shinza (now a former barber who organises underground gambling parties) with such characters as the goldfish-seller Genko, the soba noodle-seller Jinsuke and the blind masseur Yabuichi. And the central characters of the ronin Unno Matajuro and his forlorn wife Otaki are their inventions – as is the story of Unno’s doomed attempt to claim favour from the official Mori Sanzaemon, who owes his present eminence to help and support from Unno’s late father.
It has become a critical commonplace in Japan to compare Yamanaka with Jean Vigo, largely because they both died so young. (In 1933, the critic writing in Close Up reported wide-eyed that Yamanaka was “one or two years younger than Ilya Trauberg, the renowned Soviet director”.) Actually, the director he more resembles is Jean Renoir: the Renoir who had filmed Gorky’s play the year before (Les Bas-fonds, 1936), the Renoir who celebrated sub-proletariat vulgarity over middle-class respectability, the Renoir who relished ensemble casts and developed a mise en scène based on compositions in depth and fluid camera movements. Yamanaka could not have made Humanity and Paper Balloons without the collaboration of the Zenshin-za actors, who deliver indelibly nuanced, naturalistic performances, but he was no more a director of filmed theatre than Renoir was. His response to the rise of militarism and the worsening impoverishment of working-class people in the 1930s was to trust an idiom of poetic realism to express his sense of helplessness. Decency and honour, he shows, have become as worthless as a paper balloon blown into an open sewer.
Yamanaka was drafted into the army on the day that Humanity and Paper Balloons had its premiere. He was sent to fight in ‘Manchukuo’ and died of inflammation of the intestines at a field hospital on 17 September 1938, aged 29. The Zenshin-za members got through the war years by submitting to ‘national policy’ requirements (Kawarazaki Chojuro played the title role, the godfather of bushido, in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Miyamoto Musashi, 1944), but found the courage of their convictions during the years of US military occupation: in 1950, they announced that the troupe’s leaders and members had all joined the Communist Party of Japan.
Tony Rayns is a London-based filmmaker, critic, and festival programmer with a special interest in East Asian cinemas. His films include the documentary The Jang Sun-Woo Variations.