Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)
Directed by Sadao Yamanaka

Humanity and Paper Balloons
Ninjo kami fusen
Starring Chojuro Kawarasaki (Matajuro Unno), Kanemon Nakamura (Shinza), Shizue Yamagishi (Otaki), Shizue Yamagishi (Landlord), Daisuke Kato (Isuke)
Screenplay by Shintaro Mimura

P.C.L. Company, 86 minutes
B&W, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Masters of Cinema (U.K.)

Humanity and Paper Balloons is a subtly drawn masterpiece about ambition, exploitation and the fundamental reality of the big guy sticking it to the little guy. It was one of the earliest jidai-geki to expound upon the dark hypocrisies of the samurai and a progenitor of the cruel jidai-geki form that later became a mainstay of the genre.

The story opens in an Edo slum community where an old man has just hanged himself -- the third suicide that's happened there recently. This man was a ronin, and his neighbors gossip on the disgrace that he didn't commit seppuku like a proper samurai should. Someone comments that he had hocked his swords and only had a bamboo one, so he couldn't kill himself with that. (Actually, Masaki Kobayashi would later prove otherwise in Harakiri.) The neighborhood seizes the opportunity to hold a wake, which turns into an excuse to drink and party without concern for the dead man. One reveler remarks that it's so much fun they should do it every month. His neighbor quips, "Why don't you do it next month -- hang yourself!" The joke turns out to prefigure the movie's bleak ending.

One local resident who elects not to join the party is a ronin named Matajuro Unno, declaring that he doesn't drink. We later learn that Unno's drinking problem contributed to his being expelled from his clan, and his wife supports their meager existence by making paper trinkets. Unno has been trying unsuccessfully to get an audience with a local clan lord named Mori who was friends with Unno's late father. Before his recent death, Unno's father wrote a letter to Mori recommended his son. Mori knows that if he receives the letter, he'll be bound by honor to give Unno a job, since he owed Unno's father for helping him attain his high position. Thus Mori has been deliberately turning the pesky son away. When Unno catches Mori on the street and pleads to see him, Mori has to act polite and invites him to his home without the least intention of allowing his visit.

Meanwhile, there's a parallel storyline involving Unno's next-door neighboor, a sly barber named Shinza. Out to make some extra cash and get ahead in life, Shinza has been running some gambling operations without the authorization of the local gang boss Yatagoro. After Yatagoro works him over and takes his money, Shinza cooks up a rash scheme to get even. He kidnaps a local merchant's daughter named Okoma who's set to be married to a samurai's son. Shinza doesn't want to extort a ransom, he only wants to make Yatagoro look bad. Lord Mori had taken in the girl as a foster daughter in order to facilitate the marriage, and Yatagoro works as Mori's off-the-record goon. The genius of Shinza's abduction is that Mori and Yagatoro can't go to the police, because it would be a disaster for Okoma's future in-laws to hear what has happened. Shinza has them over a barrel and wins respect from the community for his massive cojones.

There's also a minor comic subplot involving the other slum-dwellers, with a trickster named Gen stealing a tobacco pipe belonging to the blind Yabuichi. Plotting carefully, Yabuichi allows Gen to keep the pipe because it needs a new stem. Once Gen replaces it, Yabuichi swoops in to reclaim his now-refurbished pipe. This little joke scene actually encapsulated what's happening in the two main stories.

Like Yabuichi manipulating Gen, the other characters are all trying to take advantage for each other for personal gain. In case of the stolen pipe, Gen is a bad guy for robbing a blind man. But Yabuichi also has a devious streak in his plan to profit from the theft. Similarly, Mori looks like an ingrate for casting aside a man whose family he owes a major debt of gratitude. But even though we cheer him as the underdog, Unno isn't necessarily the shining hero. With his history as a drunk, Mori may have good reason to shun him and justifiably bar a worthless son from riding his father's coattails into high society. And it's the same with Shinza's noble-minded kidnapping, where he's trying to have two wrongs make a right.

That complexity is the core of what makes Humanity and Paper Balloons such a classic, and a landmark film that remains as fresh and immediate now as it was upon its release... 70 years ago.

The Jidai-Geki Knights