15 August 2011

Humanity and Paper Balloons (人情紙風船, 1937)

When he was still an assistant director, one day [Akira] Kurosawa visited the open set where Sadao Yamanaka was shooting Humanity and Paper Balloons (Ninjo Kamifusen, 1937). It was the scene where the unemployed ronin (masterless samurai) Matajuro, played by Chojuro Kawarazaki, tries to hand over a letter of entreaty to a senior official. What Kurosawa never forgot about that day was that even though the weather was perfectly fine, everybody was just standing around idly, peering up at the sky. He learned that they were waiting for a cloud to waft over a warehouse on the set.
- Teruyo Nogami, Waiting on the Weather , p. 17

I like this anecdote from Teruyo Nogami’s memoir because it sums up the type of conscientious director that Sadao Yamanaka was. There is not a false not in Yamanaka’s final film Humanity and Paper Balloons (人情紙風船/Ninjō kami fūsen, 1937). From the beautifully rendered transitions between scenes to the impeccable ensemble timing of the Zenshin-za acting troupe, the film has been so well planned as to seem effortless.

Nogami’s anecdote also brings to attention one of the important motifs of the first half of Humanity and Paper Balloons: the clouds in the sky. In contrast to the claustrophobic streets and tenements of ancient Edo, the shots of the open sky seem to symbolize the dreams of a better future for the two main protagonists: Shinza the Barber (Kan’emon Nakamura) and and impoverished ronin Matajuro Unno (Chojuro Kawarazaki). Both men have ambitions to move up in the world but are thwarted at every turn by the restraints of the feudalism of the Tokugawa era.

Shinza tries to make money by running an underground gambling establishment but the Yatagoro Gang, with its ties to the weathly merchants like Shirakoya Pawn Shop and the samurai gentry like Mori, threaten him with violence if he continues to encroach upon their turf. Unno’s late father was indentured to Mori as a samurai and for reasons not made clear became a ronin. In the hopes of providing a more comfortable life for his wife, Unno tries to seek favour from Mori with a letter from his father that contains evidence that Mori gained his position thanks to Unno’s father’s support. However, self-serving Mori goes out of his way to avoid contact with Unno.

The story unfolds with the inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy: we know that it is not going to end well, but the drama is so riveting that we cannot look away. In the accompanying booklet to the Eureka! Masters of Cinema DVD of this film, Shinji Aoyama (director of Eureka and Tokyo Koenwhich just won the Golden Leopard at Locarno) writes that Yamanaka learned his techniques from Hollywood cinema of the 20s and 30s – and I must admit that I was often reminded of the timing of dialogue in classic films like Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932) and Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) – especially in the scenes featuring Shinza the barber. The way in which Shinza brought the action through the tenement houses when being chased made me wonder what fun Buster Keaton would have had if given traditional Japanese houses as a prop for his stunts. Yamanaka did a great job of exploiting the depth of space possible with Japanese houses in the summer.

Yamanaka uses a floor level camera quite often in Humanity and Paper Balloons – a stylistic element that has traditionally in Western film studies been attributed to Yasujiro Ozu, but seeing it used in Humanity and Paper Balloons solidifies for me the fact that it is really just the best camera angle for capturing action that is taking place in traditional Japanese settings. When characters are seated on tatami – be it in a home setting or in a drinking establishment – the best way to capture medium or medium long shots of the characters is to have the camera operator seated on the floor as well. Also interesting is Yamanaka’s preference for a stable, unmoving camera in Humanity and Paper Balloons – it matches well with the theme of lack of social mobility. Although the film may have an historical setting, this theme must have been one that audiences in 1937 could identify with: the Shogunate may have been dispensed with by then, but life under the military dictatorship of the period meant that people’s life choices were similarly limited.

The final image in Humanity and Paper Balloons is that of one of the kamifusen (paper balloons) that Unno’s wife makes in her spare time floating in the gutter. The kamifusen is a traditional Japanese toy that is delightful to play with, but whose usefulness is fleeting at they tear easily or are destroyed by contact with water or fire. In the context of the film, I have always read this final image of the kamifusen as signifying the fragility of human existence. It is somehow made all the more poignant knowing that this would be Yamanaka’s final film before being set to Manchuria where he fell ill and passed away much too soon.  Yamanaka's films themselves proved as transient as the kamifusen of Unno's wife, with only three of them surviving the war and neglect of the twentieth century.

I was reminded of this metaphor of ephemerality last week when the riots in England destroyed in a matter of hours the livelihoods and homes of so many handworking people. Eureka! Video – the distributor for Humanity and Paper Balloons in the UK was one of the independent companies affected by the destruction of the Sony DADC warehouse in Enfield during the London Riots. Although they work on a much smaller scale than Criterion in the States, their DVD releases are all topnotch and have made available many films like Humanity and Paper Balloons that had never been available with English subtitles before. I wish them the best in these trying times and hope that my readers will help them by purchasing their DVDs.  Click here to order Humanity and Paper Balloons from Amazon.co.uk
Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011