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The film's pessimistic tone offended the censors to the extent that the director lost his military exemption permit. Drafted as a common private the very day "Humanity and Paper Balloons" was released, Yamanaka died from dysentery in Manchuria a year later, aged 28. See more »
A slight yet powerful film by the tragic Sadao Yamanaka
Japanese director Sadao Yamanaka made 24 films in his short seven year career. He was a key figure in establishing Japanese period films, along with fellow cinema giants Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse. When World War II came, he was drafted into the Imperial Army, and tragically lost his life in 1938 at the age of 28. After the war ravaged key cities in Japan, most of his films were destroyed or lost, and now only three survive (in near-complete forms). God bless Masters of Cinema, the UK's answer to America's Criterion Collection, for remastering and re- introducing this forgotten gem to the world and giving it a DVD release, following years of obscurity.
The film focuses on a poor area of Tokyo in the late 18th century, where the penniless ronin Unno (Chojuro Kawarasaki) lives amongst the lower classes, struggling to find work. He is desperate to hand a letter written by his late father to the local gang boss, who repeatedly snubs and undermines him. The town is already in shock and mourning following the third suicide in recent weeks, so hairdresser Shinza (Kan'emon Nakamura) throws a party to boost the spirits of the local samurai, yet finds himself falling foul of the local gang for holding an unauthorised gambling party in their territory.
For all the usual gentle beauty of Japanese cinema of the period that is so prominent here, Humanity and Paper Balloons is shockingly pessimistic. The film begins and ends with suicide, and that feeling of unavoidable tragedy prevails throughout the film, as we see samurai reduced to desperate and begging hangers-on. Yamanaka makes clear his opinion of society in feudal Japan, portraying it as a rather savage and hopeless place to exist for the lower classes. Perhaps Yamanaka foresaw Japan's ill-fated siding with the Nazi's which saw Japanese society obliterated by fire-bombings and nuclear weapons. Yet it still manages to be humorous in that typical kooky Japanese way, in the same vein of some of Kurosawa's lighter films. Given this was Yamanake's final film before he went off to fight the war, it seems a fitting exit to a short career, yet tragic given that (judging from this) Yamanaka could have gone on to become a giant in his field. A slight, yet powerful film.
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