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This review is from: Humanity & Paper Balloons [DVD]  (DVD)
One of three films by director Sadao Yamanako in 1937 (he died in 1938 after having been drafted into the army). Set in 18th century Japan, it will contain many images familiar in Japanese cinema - tight sets, a sense of claustrophobic community with much of the action taking place in one narrow little street or tenement block, the camera shooting down streets emphasising the congestion and lack of privacy. And there will be rain. As a Scot, I'm aware that we constantly complain about the rain - the Japanese cinema celebrates it, it is a regular feature in Japanese films, a recognition that the climate and nature are essential to our being and cannot be excluded from life.
'Humanity and Paper Balloons' is a little cameo drama, an exploration of the struggle ordinary people face in making a living. It features a small community, the individuals and families who rent rooms or apartments from a single, slum landlord, their accommodation built round a small court or close rather than a 'street'. We begin with a suicide - an old samurai, down on his luck, too old to work at his profession, stripped of any role: he can't even take the 'honourable' way out because he has pawned his sword, so has to hang himself.
This is a community of street traders, ne'er do wells and drinkers, and hard working but impecunious families. Central to the plot is the gambler-come-hairdresser, Shinza (the film is based on a Japanese drama called "Shinza the barber"), and a down-on-his-luck samurai whose wife earns a living making paper balloons. The film will use the visual analogy of the balloons being at the mercy of wind and rain in the way the poor are at the mercy of the rich, the powerful, and the gangster. Honour, and the abuse of honour, will be a feature of the film, but underpinning it is a critical take on society - Japanese society in the 1930's was militaristic, rigid, formalistic, organised ... yet here were have a picture of a chaotic society, where the ruling classes abuse power, manipulate, lose control, make mistakes, find themselves forced to accede to the demands of lower classes.
It's a tragic film, with touching insights into the human condition. The poor and the ne'er-do-wells can demonstrate decency and courage, it's not the monopoly of the nobility or the warrior classes. And there's humour, largely in the shape of a blind man who sees more than people suppose. Beautifully filmed - tight, compact, on a human scale - and moving at a human pace, the drama largely unfolding in the second half of the film after the characters and situations have been established. It's a gripping, entertaining film and, despite its 1937 vintage, it has stood the test of time very well - it is an 18th century costume drama, but direction and acting remain vibrant (so many Western films of the 1930's have aged dramatically).
Only three of Yamanako's twenty or thirty films have survived and this is well worth watching, not just if you are a film buff but if you simply enjoy a good story, well told. The restoration of the film is excellent - picture and sound quality are good - and the narrative quality and performances of a fine cast will keep you watching. Simple, charming, and delightful.