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HUMANITY AND PAPER BALLOONS (NINJO KAMI FUSEN) (director/writer: Sadao Yamanaka; screenwriters: Shintarô Mimura/based on a 19th century kabuki play; cinematographer: Akira Mimura; music: Tadashi Ota; cast: Sukezo Suketakaya (Landlord), Chojuro Kawarazaki (Matajuro Unno, a samurai), Kanemon Nakamura (Shinza, the barber/gambler), Shizue Yamagishi (Otaki, Matajuro’s wife), Daisuke Katô (Isuke-Yatagoro henchman); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Masanobu Takemaya ; Eureka! Masters of Cinema: DVD; 1937-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)
“A great one about honor among the lower-classes and of keeping up appearances.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Yasujiro Ozu’s friend and contemporary Sadao Yamanaka(“The Million Ryon Pot”/”Kouchiyama Soshun”/”Priest of Darkness”), who learned his craft by watching American films, helms his final film, a great one about honor among the lower-classes and of keeping up appearances, before drafted and sent to Manchuria, where he fell ill on the battlefield and passed away in 1938 at age 29. In his six-year film career Yamanaka made 22 films but only three remain today (lost either through neglect or allied bombings during the war). Yamanaka works for the second time with the leftist theatre troupe Zenshin-za to film this historical anti-military and extremely pessimistic melodrama, that views with anguish 18th century feudal life in Tokyo for the ronins and the lower-classes.It’s based on a 19th century kabuki play, and does not glorify the samurai as other films of that era did as it defies the current jingoistic militaristic climate in warlike Japan by mocking the powers of military rule.

It opens with a suicide and ends with a double suicide in a cramped slum district, and 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 a stuffy corrupt official, Mori, a high ranking samurai who turned his back on his fellow ronins and employs thugs to police the slum apart from the inept regular police.

In the poor living quarters of the backstreets of Tokyo, there’s an unseen suicide, by hanging, of an elderly impoverished samurai, and what follows is a showing of how the slum residents and vendors mourn his death in a wake in which they attend only because there will be sake. We then meet another impoverished ronin, the young man Matajuro Unno (Chojuro Kawarazaki), a proud former alcoholic unable to get work during these hard times and who pawned his cherished sword to feed himself and his wife Otaki (Shizue Yamagishi). The gentle wife makes paper balloons at home for children, which supports the family with her meager income. Unno’s hope is to give the high official Mori a letter his samurai father wrote to his former friend before his death, with the hope that Mori will remember his samurai roots and give his idle son employment. But Mori refuses to read the letter and treats Unno with disrespect by having his hired thugs harass the persistent pursuer.

Unno’s daring shanty town next-door neighbor, the barber-gambler Shinza (Kanemon Nakamura), the film’s real hero, is an upstart who challenges the illegal gambling operation run by Mori and then kidnaps the social climbing pawn shop owner’s virgin daughter Okoma. She is set to move up the social ladder and marry in an arranged marriage the son of a noble samurai, but loves the humble pawn shop worker Chushichi. Shinza hides Mori’s foster daughter (the pawn shop owner had to merge with Mori to show the future bridegroom’s family that they were of the same social standing) in Unno’s apartment. Since the haughty official, Mori, runs his operation from the pawn shop and is on the payroll as the merchant’s protector, he sends his thugs the next day to demand her return from the barber and offers him payment for her release. But Shinza refuses, preferring to be martyred, and so the slum landlord steps in and works a money deal with the thugs for her return. When the ronin’s wife returns from visiting her sister, she discovers her hubby dishonored his class by being involved in the kidnapping and stabs him to death while he sleeps off a drunken night of celebration with the low-class friends of Shinza and then kills herself–a futile effort to hold onto empty and no longer pertinent ideals.

Note the last words from the will and testament of Sadao Yamanaka, addressed to his colleagues: Please make good movies.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”