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Humanity and Paper Balloons 
Written by: on February 25th, 2006

Theatrical Release Date: Japan, 1937
Director: Sadao Yamanka
Cast: Choemon Bando, Emitaro Ichikawa, Chojuro Kawarasaki, Noboru Kiritachi, Kanemon Nakamura, Tsuruzo Nakamura, Sukezo Sukedakaya

DVD released: July 25th, 2005
Approximate running time: 86 mins
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Rating: PG
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: Eureka
Region Coding: Region 2 PAL
Retail Price: £19.99

A masterless Samurai has hanged himself in a Landlord’s slum. Unno, another Ronin, lives in the slum with his wife who he deceives about the depth of their poverty by inventing stories about how he can rely on a noble Samurai his late father knew. Shinza is a poor hairdresser who organises gambling parties which upset the local Yakuza. Unable to raise funds to pay his debts, Shinza goes for a loan at the local pawn shop and is disgusted when the owner’s daughter patronises him. When he sees her later alone and sheltering from the rain he decides to kidnap her and teach the merchant and the Yakuza a lesson. Unno helps him hide the woman but once they release her, having humiliated the local gang boss, and Unno’s wife realises her husband’s true predicament both Shinza and Unno’s fates are sealed.

Sadao Yamanka was a contemporary of Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and a young Akira Kurosawa. Yamanaka died whilst conscripted in the Japanese Army in 1938 whilst aged 29. He left behind a number of films but is mostly remembered for his period movies like this one and Tange Senzen. Yamanaka’s films evinced a left leaning political sympathy and a strong dramatic pedigree for realism. Humanity and Paper Balloons is the only film of his currently on DVD release in the English speaking world.

Paper Balloons is a dark tale of the poor stealing from the poor and acts of pride leading to death. Unlike many Jidai-Geki, there are no noble Samurai and the Yakuza portrayed here are merely the bully boys of the well-off. Unno is a persistent Ronin who pleads with the local Samurai, Mori, of his father’s acquaintance and receives the brush off continually and in his desperation tells his wife that he is making headway with Mori. When his wife realises that their fate will not change she takes his life then hers. This is not the romantic double suicide of fiction but an end to their suffering.

Shinza is a rogue harassed by the Yakuza who uses the kidnap to humiliate the gang boss not for money but for “pride”. As he is led to his death after a generous feast with the other slum dwellers he is not angry merely resigned. The final image of the film is a Paper Balloon blowing down a stream as another Ronin has died.

Dramatically satisfying and clearly an influence on Ozu with it’s low camera positions, Humanity and Paper Balloons is a plaintiff bitter piece which feels like a film from another decade. Were it not for the age of this print this could have been one of the many Jidai-Geki of the 1960’s. A brilliant and deceptively simple piece.

The DVD:

Many of Yamanka’s films have been lost to old age so it is a tremendous thing that this DVD exists. The transfer is as good as can be expected from such an old print and the sound is surprisingly good with only mild background noise throughout. The English subtitles are courtesy of Tony Rayns and are excellent throughout. The disc comes with a gallery of stills and a substantial booklet on Yamanaka with a reprint of an article about his screenplay writing, an appreciation of the film by Tony Rayns and a reprint of his will – “I say to my seniors and my friends: Please make good movies”

For any student of Japanese Cinema this is an essential purchase. Truly Indispensable.

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