Filmed in conjunction with the radical Zenshin-za theatre group, Humanity and Paper Balloons, Sadao Yamanaka's tragi-comic tribute to the poor and working classes in the 18th century during the Edo period is a treasure of world cinema. A contemporary of Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi, Yamanaka made 22 films before his death in Manchuria in 1938 at the age of 29 but sadly only three have survived. Humanity and Paper Balloons is a jidaigeki or historical period film whose power lies not only in the social realist message that depicts the hardships endured by the poor but in its delineation of character, its humor, and the beautiful cinematography that captures the claustrophobic nature of the village in which the story takes place.
Based on a Kabuki play known as Shinza the Barber, the film opens with an unseen suicide by a disgraced samurai who hangs himself out of desperation. While the death is being investigated, local tenants hold a wake (drinking the landlord's sake) that turns into a evening of merriment, ostensibly to cleanse the evil that lingers in the village. As the party proceeds, Yazuka boss Yataguro and his gang look for Shinza (Kanemon Nakamura), a hairdresser, to exact revenge for the gambling parties he has sponsored in their territory. Shrugging off the danger he faces, Shinza, an appealing but naive character, continues to hold gambling parties and pushes the envelope even further by kidnapping the daughter of the wealthy merchant Shirokoya to cause the local bosses to lose face.
Meanwhile a poor Ronin named Matajuro Unno (Chojuro Kawarasaki) desperately wants a meeting with Mori, a samurai official, who knew his father and who he feels owes him a debt of gratitude but he is continuously rebuffed. As Unno's attempts to meet and talk with Mori fail, his wife (Shizue Yamagishi) ekes out a living by making paper balloons and all of the strands of the film come together at the end with tragic consequences. Although the story is bleak, the film is lightened considerably by its humor and intelligent interplay of character.
Like Hirokazu Koreeda in his 2004 film Hana Yori mo Naho, Yamanaka masterfully challenges the legend of the samurai as heroes and shows how the Bushido code of honor was ultimately empty of compassion and common sense. Humanity and Paper Balloons, true to its title, is a film of deep and abiding humanity that has finally been restored by Eureka Entertainment's Masters of Cinema Series to its proper place among the all time film classics.
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