Criterion Prediction #70: Humanity and Paper Balloons, by Alexander Miller
Title: Humanity and Paper Balloons
Director: Sadao Yamanaka
Cast: Choemon Bando, Emitaro Ichikawa, Chojuro Kawarasaki Nobu Kiritachi
Synopsis: Focusing on an impoverished neighborhood during Japan’s Tokugawa period, lone Ronin Matajuro and penniless barber Unno cross paths while they go about climbing the looking for capital gain. Matajuro desperately struggles to find work, while the scheming Unno decides to kidnap a wealthy merchant’s daughter in order to collect on the ransom.
Critique: A classic of Japanese prewar cinema, Humanity and Paper Balloons is an excellent example of the Jidaigeki style (or “era drama”) that gives some dimension to the genre being a step away from the popular Mizoguchi/Kurosawa frame of reference. As Yamanaka’s threadbare narrative plays out with a quick precision as Humanity and Paper Balloons is sheared of any period flattery, the Tokugawa era is fertile for cinematic imaginations, but Yamanaka’s responsive realism takes a different, tangential path. Requisite knowledge of Japanese cinema does buttress it’s significance, but is not requisite to enjoy the film. In analogous terms Yamanaka’s film is on par with Stagecoach and their shared role in modernizing not just the relative genre but the technique of moviemaking.
Sure it might have the appearance of a “small,” simply told story, but looks can be deceiving. Yamanaka’s morality tale is a profound realization of class, changing social mores and (as the title suggests) humanity. In a brilliant play against form, Sadao Yamanaka shifts the scope of Japan’s panorama of the Tokugawa era to the localized exploits of an impoverished slum; while tempting to sidestep the comparative veneer of Kurosawa you can’t help but make the connection to his adaptation of Gorky’s play The Lower Depths.
While we’d like to think that “fortune favors the bold” and an upright citizen bound by the ethical code of the samurai would persevere. But in the realist strokes that compose Humanity and Paper Balloons fortune favors the scheming kidnapping ruse of Unno, circumventing Matajuro, who’s left wandering in search of work. It’s a crucial lesson that’s more relevant with passing the time, but if you place it on the eve of WWII, (and of course following WWI) it’s downright profound.
Humanity and Paper Balloons readily acknowledges its Japanese heritage, deconstructing the vagrancy of the Samurai class and their equally implacable code of ethics that they abided by – Yamanaka is unguarded to western influence in his work, which, in reviewing this staple film it feels like an untapped well in the pantheon of Japanese cinema. While there’s the Westernized lens of Akira Kurosawa, and the reputedly “most Japanese” of Japanese directors embodied by Yasujiro Ozu. Yamanaka’s filmography was sadly decimated by time (only three of his twenty-six pictures remain) and Humanity and Paper Balloons deftly precedes a cultural acumen which proves itself as a standalone masterpiece.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Humanity and Paper Balloons would provide an introduction to a vital name in Japanese cinema that has been overlooked for quite some time. Being a part of Masters of Cinema series I would find it surprising should this film not get the Criterion treatment, especially as it is available on their Filmstruck channel.