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I got this movie out of curiosity to see why some writers call Yamanaka the equal of Ozu and Kurosawa, despite his death at just 29. A pre war movie about 18th Century slum dwellers doesn't sound so interesting, but like the other reviewers here I found it a fascinating and haunting experience. I think this movie will live with me for many years.
It features a range of wonderful characters, most notably a sad, alcoholic samurai and his patient wife (the maker of the 'paper balloons' of the title), the sharp go-getter Shinza, the rabble of slum dwellers who surround them and the gangsters and others who prey on them - but who are often prey in return. The structure of the story is marvelous - its so very short, yet, there are multiple threads, all brought together beautifully - the young couple seeking to elope, the desperation of the fallen Samurai trying to regain his position, the sharp practices of Shinza, even the little jokes of a blind (or is he?) handyman. It all comes together to a haunting ending, that seems remarkably modern. It is also a wonderfully humane story, that treats the poverty stricken characters with respect and compassion.
This is a truly great film, one that can stand up with the acclaimed masterpieces of the 1950's. Such a terrible shame that Yamanaka died so young and that so few of his other movies survived. I hope what others are around will be brought out soon on DVD. Masters of Cinema should be congratulated for releasing this lovely version.
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