14 March, 2008

Humanity and Paper Balloons

Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) is a touching period piece following the exploits of two men in 18th century feudal Japan. Unno is a masterless samurai, a ronin, who is desperate to find work and restore his name and honour. Shinza is a barber, and a cheeky rulebreaker and schemer, who seeks better and hasn't quite worked out how to get it.

Set in what's now Tokyo, most of the characters live in a slum, where the scene opens with the residents discussing an off-screen suicide, by a dishonoured samurai who had lived among them. We're gradually introduced to the residents, their pompous landlord, and the hierarchy beyond the ghetto, where a gang of local men hold immediate authority.

The owners and workers of a nearby pawn shop are better off, while master Mori, the leader of the samurai clan, is a respected figure, in charge of the well-being and wedding of a noble's daughter. It is he Unno must beg for a fresh shot at honour and employment, and observing his deferral in the face of such rejection is heartbreaking.

While Unno battles with the temptation to take refuge in drink, Shinza is causing trouble for himself, hosting gambling games and continually on the run from the local gangs. The audience naturally comes to like Shinza, a daring young man of good nature and sharp wit. Eventually, from about halfway through the film, he takes his daring further than before, kidnapping the bride-to-be, and conspiring with Unno to hold her, seeking the pride and honour that will come from role-reversal, should the governor come and beg him for a change.

Filmed in 1937 and released on the very day its director Sadao Yamanaka was drafted into military service, during which he died, less than a year later, Humanity and Paper Balloons is a tragicomedic film. Warmly humourous character observations are peppered through the film, with true good feeling piercing through the difficult conditions the poor tenants endure. The landlord brings a dose of bustling levity, as does the blind man whose senses are so sharp the other tenants swear he can really see.

Ultimately a sad, but not depressing, film, Humanity and Paper Balloons is shot beautifully. Sets look wonderful, scenes are composed as delicate tableaus, to give a tremendous sense of historic Japan. Yamanaka balances these works in light against the struggle of the everyday people, portraying a society where poverty isn't a disaster, but dishonour is. From the very opening scene we get the feeling that Unno's fate hangs over him very heavily indeed.

A tragedy, really, that only three of Yamanaka's films survive to this day. Even more awful to think, if he made 30 before his death at age 29, quite how much more beauty he may have had to contribute to the world.

Humanity and Paper Balloons offers little entertainment to a general modern, western audience. But if we can put aside the pace and characterisation, slow compared to that to which we are accustomed, and immerse ourselves in the beautiful compositions put before us and the tenderness of the tale, there's plenty of pleasure to be derived here, in a story that's passed off as small-time and incidental but tells us more about Japanese culture, past and present, than we might expect.

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