Humanity and Paper Balloons (人情紙風船)
Director: Sadao Yamanaka
Written: Sintaro Mimura
“Humanity and Paper Ballons” is a great example of jidaigeki genre, which depicts earlier periods of Japanese history, mostly set in the Edo period. “Seven Samurai,” “Rashomon” and “Zatoichi” are some of the famous examples of such films. This movie is directed by Sadao Yamanaka, who made 26 films in 6 years, and then died young in war. However, just a few of his films survived in full form. He was a contemporary of such film masters as Ozu and Mizoguchi. He influenced a lot of famous filmmakers in Japan, but has been unknown internationally for a long time. This movie is considered to be his best work. (Source: Wikipedia)
The unusual and very interesting thing about “Humanity and Paper Ballons” is that it focuses on lowest classes of the society. The story develops in a slum, where an old samurai had just been found dead after he committed suicide by hanging himself. We see that the other tenants are not sympathetic about this tragedy, and instead make fun of it. One asks why the samurai did not kill himself with a sword, as it is proper for his class. The other replies that he only had a bamboo sword, so it would not serve well in cutting his belly. We are then introduced to the first main character, Shinza. He is an opportunist, with a good mastery of tongue, making the best of every situation. He suggests organizing a wake for the dead samurai, a ceremony for his commemoration. He asks for some sake bottles from the landlords, and actually organizes a party for the slum dwellers, saying:
Party or a wake, it is all the same in the end.
Then we see the other main character, Matajuro Unno, who is a ronin (samurai without a master). Throughout the film, he tries to get attention of Mr. Mori, a local samurai clan leader who used to work with his father. Mr. Mori avoids the ronin in every way, and gets him humiliated. Every day Unno assures his wife, who keeps making toy paper balloons to support the family, that this will be the day Mr. Mori will see him. This continues until the day comes when Mr. Mori tells him directly that he wants no service from him, leaving Unno with no hope. He does not take any direct action against Mr. Mori because of this, but he does get involved in a kidnapping started by Shinza. Shinza kidnapped a local merchant’s wife who was supposed to wed a noble samurai’s son, and the deal was being made through Mr. Mori. Unno agrees to hide her in his room until things get settled. For a short time, Shinza is in power, dictating his rules and humiliating a local herbalist-mafia boss. They get money from the kidnapping transaction, but their fun is very short lived. Both characters meet their ends, as they crossed some boundaries that they should not have.
This movie strips the romance from the Edo period and image of the samurai. There is no glory, no high sword fighting skills, just people trying to get by in unfair world. The city is ruled by criminals, who work hand in hand with rich merchants. Samurai are arrogant and selfish. Greed, lust and alcohol dominate the capital city. The noblest characters, such as the samurai’s wife (the title of the movie refers to her making the paper balloons), are having the worst time. And when some characters try to fight against this corrupt system, they get crushed. The movie shows the decline of real values and culture, implying that earlier times were better. Interestingly, it shows no solution to this situation or sign of hope, instead picturing only a future of constant degradation.
Sadao Yamanaka is said to have been a minimalist. In this film, he offers the spectator a finely crafted time-capsule, allowing them to view an alternative Edo. The more attentive to nuances and details the spectator is, the more pleasurable this cinematic experience will be.