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Humanity and Paper Balloons is a jidaigeki period drama that subtly defuses the myth surrounding the samurai class through a poor ronin samurai who gets desperate and abets a kidnapping. While the protagonist of the film, a hairdresser, through his cunning tries to earn respect and climb up the societal ladder.
The movie is set in the dying period of the Tokugawa era. This movie comes at an age where jidaigeki movies used to glorify the samurai class which was the highest social class above the farmer and craftsmen while merchants occupied the lowest strata. Humanity and Paper Balloons spits on the existing fascist trend of showing unreal themes of majestic samurai warriors valiantly fighting through their heroic life and never tainting their honor. The movie tries to capture the darker realities of the acclaimed peaceful Edo period which, although started in the 1600s with rapid economic growth, strict social order and popular enjoyment of arts and culture, decayed through the years and ended in 1868. It does this by showcasing how samurai warriors can be corrupt, low class merchants with money and mafia can be influential and powerful and a poor and low-class person like a barber can be more crafty and honorable.
The plot opens with the suicide of a disgraced poor Samurai. It portrays a sordid world where the humiliated suffering samurais now mingle with the lower-classes and small-time merchants, who are at the mercy of stuffy corrupt officials. Mori, a high ranking samurai who turned his back on his fellow ronins indulges in defaced practices. Merchants employ thugs to police the slum apart from the inept regular police. A low class hair dresser takes up the central role while trying to gain respect in the society and kidnaps a pawnbroker's daughter who was set to be married to a high class samurai family.
Like all Yamanaka's films, Humanity and Paper Balloons is a jidaigeki, but one poles apart from the majestic spectacle of, say, Akira Kurosawa's later works for this very same studio that were made after the war. The film is deeply pessimistic, insisting that life in feudal Japan was hellish and short for those at the foot of the social ladder.
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