Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) Poster

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WaveTossed2 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I just got a DVD copy of this film and watched it. It haunted my dreams. It's a very low-key rendering. The director structured the film very carefully. But not in an obvious "art house" way, he just let events happen as they did.

It's an "ensemble" film, starring a host of characters who live in an urban slum in Edo (which is now Tokyo). It begins with the investigation of a suicide, an impoverished, elderly ex-samurai who had hanged himself because -- having pawned his real sword blades and replaced them with bamboo; this was done for him not to starve to death -- he had been unable to perform the samurai ritual of seppuku (ritual suicide, done with a sword piercing the stomach). The slum residents react by having a "wake" for the dead man, which is actually an excuse for them to drink up and make as merry as they can.

There are two main characters, Shinza a barber and Matajuro, a ronin who once was a samurai serving a clan but lost his position with this clan. At the beginning, while Shinza and the others are celebrating, Matajuro looks on, an obvious outsider among the commoners. The others invite him to join, but he tells them that he "doesn't drink." Shinza is a barber who really strives to be something else, though he's not really sure what he wants to do; he wants to break out of the rather petty niche that he's found himself in. He finds himself in trouble with the local gangsters for operating a gambling party without their permission. He is defiant toward the gang boss and wishes to get back at him.

Matajuro lives with his wife right next door to the barber. His wife Otaki supports the couple by crafting paper balloons to sell; we see her sitting in the house doing her artistry. It seems that Matajuro lost his position with his clan because of his drinking sprees. Now he has given up drinking in order to "regain his health" and hopefully regain his position. He clings to a letter that his late father had written that he is sure will get him his position back. He spends most of his days struggling with the temptation to drink and pursuing the clan official who would be responsible for reinstating him to his position; he humbly begs him just for a word and to read his father's letter.

This is a Japanese period film that features a samurai as one of the main characters. But there is no sword fighting in the film; the most action we get to see is a bunch of gangsters beating up on a helpless Matajuro; they had been sent by the clan official whom Matajuro had been trying to meet.

Some call this film "pessimistic." I'm not so sure that it's pessimistic as it is simply sad and tragic. One thing for sure. It will haunt the viewer for quite a while and it will demand to be seen over and over.
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An all-time film classic
howard.schumann13 August 2007
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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rain falling
GyatsoLa12 April 2008
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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pre war Japanese milestone
postcefalu28 November 2006
This is my favorite Japanese film along with Mizoguchi's "Street of shame", Naruse's "Floating clouds" and Ozu's "Late spring". It's for me also one of the best 1937 movies, maybe the best, but McCarey's "Make way for tomorrow" deserves that honour too. I've seen in very few movies such beauty, such indignation and courage to pass over a miserable existence (that unforgettable character named Shinza, the Tom Joad of the story) and i must admit that the final ten minutes are the best thing i've seen in years. It will probably seem a tiny film, sober and little in all aspects but if you can pay attention it's a moving experience and one the most important proofs of the superiority of cinema above all arts.
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flawless script and articulate filming
liquors16 January 2008
Although the script is based on a Kabuki story 'Shinza the barber,' the archaic atmosphere of the original story is seen nowhere in this movie. As in his earlier 'Kochiyama Soshun,' the director turned both saints and criminals into mundane figures absorbed in the petty concerns. I think this is the beauty of the movie. The characters are more rational and feisty than ordinary viewers expect. They are all looking in the different directions, which reminded me of the 'Cherry Orchard' by Chekhov.

Honestly, the last 15 minutes of this movie disappointed me a little. The last scenes of earlier 'Kochiyama Soshun' is, I think, one of the miracles in cinema history. But 'Humanity and Paper Balloon' lacked such a formidable climax. So I was a little disappointed. But an hour after watching it, I started to feel terrified of the ending. Maybe the humble description of the forlorn wife was the reason for it. That character didn't get my attention so much while I was watching it. But now I keep thinking about that character. I'm haunted.

I like the director's dry realism. He depicted the poverty-stricken alley as such and nothing else. To be sure, it must be depressing to be among the least fortunate in the monetary economy. In addition to dependency on others and proximity to crimes, uncomfortable alienation from the neighbors is as likely to happen among the poor as among the better off. I know that it is commonplace to interpret the pessimistic undertone of the movie as influenced by the then social conditions. But, besides that, the depiction of pessimistic poverty has an aesthetic advantage in itself.
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A beautiful story
Kaneto1 May 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Humanity And Paper Balloons is in my mind one of the most visually beautiful Japanese films ever to grace cinema. This is seen as director Sadao Yamanaka greatest film who tragically was sent to fight in world war II on the day of its release, he died in Manchuria in 1938, aged just 29. When this film is viewed it will become apparent how big a loss he was to artistic directing.

The story begins in 18th century Japan with a poor Ronin called Matajuro living in a poor district of Tokyo with equally poor lower social class people. He continually looks for work while his wife, Otaki, makes paper balloons at home. Then a barber named Shinza impulsively kidnaps the daughter of a wealthy merchant and hides the daughter at Matajuro's house. Tragicly there desperate plan backfires with heavy penalties when a ransom attempt goes wrong. The story, that begins and ends with suicide, is deeply pessimistic, it consistently through out the film projects that life in feudal Japan for those at the foot of the social ladder was short and deprived.

This film is very hard to view now a days, but fortunately is out on DVD with the masters of cinema collection which is extremely fortunate as this is one of the greatest samurai film ever made. Ironic really seeing as there isn't a fight scene in it.
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A slight yet powerful film by the tragic Sadao Yamanaka
tomgillespie20025 May 2012
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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An influential example of jidaigeki
aayushshaurya-4663824 August 2015
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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The Poor's Pride
crossbow010619 September 2009
This is a brilliant film. A story about a poverty stricken part of Edo (Tokyo) in the feudal era of Japan, the film concerns itself with its inhabitants, all of which are superbly written and realized. The best role went to Nakamura Kanemon as Shinzu The Barber. His character is contrary, proud and kind of fearless. The depiction of poor but somewhat brutish samurai is also greatly written. The story begins with a suicide and while is generally an unhappy film there is a bit of dark comedy in it. One of the saddest things was this was director Yamanaka Sadeo's swan song, as he died in the war shortly thereafter. Sadder still is that most of his films have been lost, but you still have this film, an utterly mesmerizing tale of the poor who somehow accept their fate and do not make it a millstone around their neck. See this, its a deserved classic.
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Ninjô kami fûsen: Bleak yet likeable
Platypuschow19 July 2018
Humanity and Paper Balloons is one of the earliest Japanese Toho movies, off the top of my head I believe either the 3rd or 4th.

It is set in the slums of Japan during a time of great poverty and tells the intertwined tales of hairdresser who keeps getting in trouble with the local criminals for arranging gambling nights and the son of a samurai who falls afoul of the same people.

The characters are light hearted and make for a sweet little movie, but it's overtones are very bleak as you'd likely expect.

Though much of the film is hard to appreciate due to this being a very different world we live in, it's remarkably made for it's time and has a hard hitting finale that stays with you.

Hardly groundbreaking and with very mixed tones, but a likeable piece regardless.

The Good:

Very memorable visuals

Great finale

The Bad:

Very mixed tones

Things I Learnt From This Movie:

Mens dancing in 1930's Japan needs to catch on in the west!

I can't take people seriously with those haircuts!
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For Counsel, Reinvigoration, Perspective
kurosawakira25 January 2013
In April the Masters of Cinema will release all three surviving Yamanakas on DVD. This is the last one he made but the first one available on DVD individually. I have seen "Tange Sazen" (1935), which is just as accomplished and perfect as this, but I haven't seen "Kôchiyama Sôshun" (1936).

The two that I have seen are a testament of clear vision, clarity of expression, and mastery of detail. His ability to form character is uncanny, as well as his sense of space: in just a few minutes we are with a handful of brushstrokes placed not only in a certain place, the wonderfully enclosed, near-claustrophobic slum and its iridescent inhabitants: some seemingly crooked, some greedy, some haunted; all of them flawed in their own selves. They converse with each other, themselves, their surroundings and events befalling them as real characters, not mere characterizations.

As fun as the film is, there's still an immensely tragic undersong of failure that penetrates the apparent lightness. How Yamanaka is able to weave all this together in mere 90 minutes is pleasantly surprising, and we can be thankful to have three instead of zilch.

There are a few films to which I return time and again for counsel, reinvigoration, perspective. Either when I've been away from cinema literally (not seeing many films) or figuratively (seeing only forgettable tripe). This is one of those films to which I'll return, gladly.
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HUMANITY AND PAPER BALLOONS (Sadao Yamanaka, 1937) ***
Bunuel19763 February 2009
The last film of its young director Sadao Yamanaka - who died the following year at just 28 years of age while serving with the Japanese army in China; actually, this film's R2 DVD release some years ago under Eureka's "Masters Of Cinema" label was the first I have ever heard of him at all (although this same film was subsequently shown on late-night Italian TV). HUMANITY AND PAPER BALLOONS concerns the lives of the inhabitants of a slum tenement and is, by necessity, reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's later Japanese transposition of Maxim Gorky's THE LOWER DEPTHS (1957). The main protagonists are a married, alcoholic ronin seeking repeatedly but vainly to be employed by an ex-protégé (now wealthy) of his father's and a wily crook who takes revenge on his tormentor (for keeping a gambling joint) by kidnapping the latter's intended. The film - which starts and ends with a suicide – is very sensitively handled throughout, belying Yamanka's youth and revealing him to be as much a forgotten master Japanese film-maker as Tomu Uchida (which I also experienced for the first time earlier this year after my equally recent discovery of him). There have been rumors online of this film being in the pipeline for a future Criterion DVD release but, in spite of its undeniable artistic merits, personally I am satisfied with the edition currently available.
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Interesting But Soporific.
net_orders11 July 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Viewed on Streaming. Sound-stage exterior sets = eight (8) stars; cinematography = four (4) stars; subtitles = three (3) stars. Director Sadao Yamanaka presents period mini dramas about "typical" life in a small village on the cusp of being absorbed into Edo (Edo exurbia?). Everyone directly/indirectly knows everyone else's business because everyone is part of everyone else's business. (Privacy is an unknown concept!) Yamanaka tells stories about ordinary townsfolk (the 99 per-centers) trying to move up the food chain via patronage and criminal activates (usually unsuccessful) that typically involve the ruling elite (the one per-centers). The cast of character actors seems to covers the full spectrum of small town types you might expect to find at that time in Old Japan. This is a rather slow-moving photo play due in part to the current state of sound filming (sound came to Japan about five years after it emerged in the West) and the use of static camera setups, but also due to the Director's overdosing on lengthy talking-head scenes. Given its prominence in the film's title, it's surprising to see what a limited role balloons seem to play in the movie (even in the murder/suicide ending). Although character acting (except by actress Noboru Kiritachi who seems mostly lost) is usually good, the real star is the exterior sound-stage set of a narrow street/alley on or next to which many of the scenes take place. This set (decorated and populated by extras) indelibly conveys what living in a small village in Old Japan might have been like. The most compelling recreation of an Old Japan village street in the Pre-War sound cinema! Cinematography (narrow screen, gray (exteriors) / black (interiors) and white) is on the blurry side and lighting is often poor for exteriors (both to mask cheap set construction?). Subtitles are rendered in white often making them hard/impossible to read against white backgrounds. They are also: too academic in nature and need a grammatical scrub; hard to speed read due to a multi-tiered format (using two or three lines of text); too long; and flash by too fast (the reader often has to decide whether to fully read the subtitles or watch all the on-screen action). (NOTE TO SUBTITLERS: folks, this is a movie, not a book abstract!) Signs are translated. Restoration needs further attention to remove/mitigate: the gray; frame jitters (especially during the opening credits); primitive inter-scene wipes (one includes tropical vegetation for some reason); and ham-handed splices. Sound-track popping (due to poor preservation?) is noticeable through out the film and especially during quite scenes. Sound recording and score (what little there is of it) are OK. Recommend having caffeine at the ready when viewing. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD.
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