HUMANITY AND PAPER BALLOONS (Sadao Yamanaka, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka’s slight, rainsoaked tragicomedy set in an eighteenth-century slum in Edo (Tokyo), Ninjo kami fusen so questioned myths of Japanese heroism and tradition that the government punished Yamanaka by sending him into war in China, where he became ill and died in his twenties.
     In a cramped lane of connected tenement shacks, poverty, misery and the landlord Mori’s venality rule. The third suicide in recent memory has occurred: a ronin, that is, a masterless samurai reduced to a common existence, has hanged himself, having already pawned his sword in order to eat, thus depriving him of the noble end of harakiri prescribed in the bushido code. The deceased’s neighbors get drunk at a wake ostensibly in his honor; but there is no honor attached to his memory. In any case, hilariously, they already do not remember him. The wake’s comical burst of intricately choreographed activity suggests the influence of Clair and Capra; throughout the film, the crisscrossing of depressed lives suggests Gorky’s play The Lower Depths, which Jean Renoir had filmed the previous year.
     I have great difficulty following much of the plot as it pertains to Shinza, the barber, but the circumstance of Unno, a married ronin, is clear and compelling. Unno approaches Mori with a letter of introduction written by his now deceased father, who had helped Mori attain prominence and power. Mori strings Unno along, then has him beaten in the street, and finally rebuffs him even more directly without even reading the letter. Mori will do nothing to raise Unno’s circumstance. Unno’s humility masks humiliation.
     Poetic inserts anticipate Yamanaka’s friend Yasujiro Ozu’s clusters of brief establishing shots. Yamanaka’s closing shot, which is touching, lends credence to an alternative translation of the film’s title: Humanity as a Paper Balloon.

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