Humanity and Paper Balloons (人情紙風船)

人情紙風船 (Humanity and Paper Balloons)

4/26/14 (Sat)

A much acclaimed film from 1937. It’s the last of only three surviving works from director Yamanaka Sadao, who was evidently drafted into the army the day the film was released and died soon thereafter in Manchuria. I was interested in it mainly because it draws from the Kabuki play Shinza the Barber, which I saw earlier this month. (That was in turn based on the Bunraku play 恋娘昔八丈 that I saw late last year.) It had a string of Nakamuras and Ichikawas in the cast, which sounded suspiciously Kabuki-like, and it turns out that they were disaffected young Kabuki actors who had formed their own left-wing troupe, the Zenshinza, to pursue a more naturalistic acting style. I had assumed the movie would be a standard period piece, but that turned out to be not quite the case.

The director sets the scene quickly. As the movie opens, authorities have closed off a small rundown village to examine the third recent suicide by a samurai. One villager notes sardonically that the samurai died by hanging himself rather than the more samurai-like way of hara-kiri, but others point out that he had sold his sword (basically his soul) and carried only a bamboo pole for show. Shinza, a brazen barber living in the village, convinces the landlord to provide sake for the wake, and the townsmen use this as an excuse to drink and party. The movie thus establishes immediately a world where the social order is breaking down. An impressive-looking young samurai moves into the now-empty room, but he is in fact a ronin (unemployed samurai) who is poor and dependent on his wife’s meager trade making paper balloons. Desperate for employment, he humbly approaches a local official with a letter from his father, who was a great help to the official in earlier years. Accepting the letter would mean that the official is obligated to help the kid, so the official avoids him, tells him to come back and even sets hoodlums on him. The ronin is shattered but has no other way out than to continue his obsessive pursuit of the official. Deeply shamed, he lies to his wife that the official is considering his request and assures her all will be well.

Meanwhile, we learn that the ever-wily Shinza has been running a secret gambling ring. He gets in constant trouble with the mob for horning in on their territory, including occasional beatings, but does what he can to keep a step ahead. The mob is at the service of the pawn shop owner where the official often conducts business.

The official has agreed to adopt the pawn shop owner’s daughter so that she can be socially acceptable for marriage. She actually loves the poor apprentice who is taking care of her, but cannot convince him to get his courage up and elope with her.

When Shinza chances upon the unhappy daughter in the rain, he impulsively kidnaps her in order to show up the mob. As the ronin’s wife has gone out of town, Shinza convinces him to hide the girl in his place, since the mob cannot search a samurai’s home – based partly on the assumption that a samurai wouldn’t stoop so low. Shinza makes it known that he has the girl, though claiming that she ran away to him out of love. The mob, unable to find her, threatens Shinza, but he refuses to disclose her location. That leaves them in a bind since they cannot publicly reveal that the girl is even missing – if the kidnapping became known, it would be a huge embarrassment for the shop owner and official and make the girl unmarriageable. He turns down money, his only demand being that the official beg his forgiveness for sicking the mob out on him. In the end, Shinza’s landlord brokers a financial deal and splits the take with the barber. But Shinza has also embarrassed the mob, which decides to settle the matter its own way on a nearby bridge. At the same time, the ronin’s wife has returned to town to overhear that her husband has behaved dishonorably in hiding the kidnap victim. When he staggers home that night and falls drunkenly asleep, we see her ominously take out a knife. In the next scene, they are both dead, which the authorities interpret as a double suicide, a more noble way out than the actual murder-suicide. The last shot is a paper balloon being blown along a stream.

The film is a bleak but never dull portrait of a rotting society where community ethics have eroded to an every-man-for-himself culture. The official ignores his obligation to his benefactor’s son, the pawn shop owner blithely calls out the mob to settle disputes, a man steals a pipe from a blind man (who steals it back once the man has replaced a broken part), samurai sell their swords, people dance and sing at a funeral. Even the apprentice fails to be a man and defend his lover when she is tagged for marriage with someone else. The gentle ronin is a pitiful shadow of a proud warrior, and there are suggestions that he lost his last position because of a drinking problem. It is his wife who seeks to preserve his honor by killing him. Only Shinza seems to have pride. He seeks to pawn his barber tools but is insulted when offered charity, throwing the money back at them. Also, he goes to the bridge at the end ready to fight the mob with no intention of begging for his life.

This was no standard samurai flick. First, the samurai were not shown in the best light – they’ve fallen so low that they can’t even kill themselves properly. Also, the film had no sword fighting, just some swords brandished suggestively before the scenes cut away and a few beatings administered by the mob. I don’t remember any blood being shed. Neither was there any trumpeting of the usual virtues of loyalty and perseverance. The film was more about story and characters than action. This was a great collection of characters major and minor, no false notes anywhere, and the dialogue felt real. Having seen all those Kabuki names in the opening credits, I was worried about the acting, but the entire cast was superb. Both the leads were as good as it gets: Shinza (Nakamura Kan’emon) was much more blithely confident and believable than his stereotypically evil Kabuki counterpart, and Kawarasaki Chojuro offered psychological depth to his portrayal of the distraught ronin putting on a desperate show of strength while sinking deeper into despair.

The film’s characters and story were much better motivated in every way than the Kabuki. The kidnapping, for example, stemmed in the film from an impulsive action by Shinza to get back at his tormentors. The move was understandable in the context of his character, not evil but reckless. The Kabuki involved conversations overheard from other rooms and basically sprang out of nowhere. The nasty personality shown by the play’s Shinza to the young apprentice and, less feasibly, to the samurai didn’t really fit with his final exchange with the landlord. The Kabuki focused mainly on atmosphere and entertainment, which succeeded beautifully on its own terms, whereas the film seemed to be making a broader statement on society and plumbed much deeper. Of course, the Kabuki was written in the 19th century only a few years after the era portrayed in the show had ended, whereas the film was made by a leftist in the 20th century in wartime Japan. It’s theoretically possible that someone could have seen both (1873 and 1937), but the world had clearly moved on. The Kabuki is fun, but the movie is an altogether different experience. A superior work.

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