Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)

Author: Miles Imhoff
June 20, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

I positively adore the early years during the Golden Age of cinema! I have a certain fondness for films from the 1930s and earlier, though I'll admit I probably have far fewer film reels painted on my fuselage than the average cinephile. Regardless, there seems to be a certain amount of innocence in filmmaking prior to the War that really hasn't been recaptured in the years since. Though the earliest Toho movie I'd seen to date was 1945's The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, I was curious to find out what the oldest readily available film from the studio's long and illustrious catalogue might be... and that's how I stumbled upon a little gem called Humanity and Paper Balloons. It apparently inspired a myriad of period pieces to follow, and you can tell that this one really managed to set the groundwork for better known classics. The grittiness of feudal Edo clashes with the heart and fortitude of the human spirit. It's a tragedy, I'll grant you; but as many are aware, sometimes the most beautiful films are...

Our story takes place during the Tokugawa Era, shortly after an elderly samurai hangs himself in a tenement complex. The third such event in recent memory, it begins to give the lane an eerie reputation. A wake (well, it's more of a party as the characters aptly point out) is held that night at the landlord's expense, and as everyone recovers the following day, the barber Shinza is greeted by some surly-looking chaps. Apparently, he's been hosting gambling parties even though it's well known that this turf belongs to Boss Yatagoro.

Meanwhile, a down on his luck ronin named Matajuro Unno attempts to contact an old acquaintance of his father, Mr. Mori. Matajuro knows that it was with the help of his old man that Mr. Mori achieved his current level of success, and that if he were to simply read a letter handed down to him by his late father, things were bound to turn around for the young ronin. Alas, Mori considers his new shadow a nuisance and frequently thwarts his attempts to make contact.

More drama ensues with the daughter of the Shirako-ya Pawn Shop owner. Mr. Mori has chosen to bestow upon the young woman the status of "foster daughter" so she can be betrothed to the son of a noble samurai. Miss Okomo and a pawn shop employee by the name of Chushichi have eyes for each other, however; and as often happens in such situations, complexity ensues...

As Shinza continually finds himself at the business end of Boss Yatagoro's wrath, he eventually snaps and kidnaps Okomo. The services of Yatagoro, which are frequently employed by the pawn shop, are called into action... but it turns out Shinza might not be looking for your standard, everyday ransom...

The great class struggle is the prime dramatic element that drives this film. Matajuro Unno thrice attempts with as much fortitude as he can muster to get Mr. Mori to pay him the time of day, but each time fails miserably as the latter dismisses him (first subtly, then overtly). Matajuro's pride corrupts every dialogue with his wife (Otaki) as he finds himself spinning a greater and greater web of deception to hide the truth of his encounters. Eventually, when the house of cards collapses and Otaki discovers the ruse... a murder-suicide is the end result.

Shinza's frequent run-ins with Yatagoro's gang follow a similar path. At every turn, Shinza's illicit activities are deemed unacceptable competition by the local gangsters, and he's frequently made to suffer on account of his actions. When he works up that oh-so-dangerous mixture of courage and crazy and finally take matters into his own hands, his refusal of accepting 5 ryo is one-upped by his true ransom request, that Yatagoro shave his head like a monk as a sign of contrition. Though it doesn't quite pan out this way, the failure of Yatagoro's first attempt to force Shinza to give up his kidnappee does lessen the former's reputation in the area. Matajuro Unno, the narrative's other whipping boy, eventually gets a bit of cathartic relief when he hears that Mr. Mori wasn't exactly at his most dignified during the kidnapping crisis either...

... unfortunately for Shinza, it doesn't take too long following the conclusion of this crisis for Yatagoro to regain his momentum and off Shinza at Emmado Bridge.

What really sells the protagonists is that they aren't squeaky clean. Matajuro's web of deception and Shinza's gambling make them very human characters, and the fact that the latter does eventually accept a bit of the money that the landlord was able to glean out of the crisis (think of the landlord as a not-so-forthright ransom broker) hits this point home. What really makes this a victory for the protagonists at all is that the pride of the two major antagonists, Mr. Mori and Yatagoro, gets chipped like cheap pottery. There's very little chance for a full recovery from the rumours of their relative helplessness during the kidnapping crisis.

Adding to the general sense of humanity in the film is its sense of humour, which is used to great effect. Everything from the peddler grappling with the phenomenon of semantic satiation to the blind man's crafty plan to win back his silver pipe (with a new stem to boot) comes across as a very genuine brand. It complements the raw grittiness that is the contrast between the haves and have nots quite well. The actors and actresses themselves lend to that subtle realism by displaying a wide range of human emotion, from the believably over-the-top to the subtly withdrawn. As the vast majority of the film's score is produced by characters onscreen (or at least designed to appear that way), we as the audience are rarely pulled away from the film by that one potentially distracting aspect of the medium that we now consider so commonplace. Instead, we're thrust headlong into the uncomfortable struggle of the protagonists.

If you can track this feature down, I definitely urge you to give it a peek. It's obscure in the West, but well worth the labour to find it. This is one of Toho's very first productions, and an early indication of the studio's now legendary reputation for quality cinema...

... and rumour has it that this film inspired a later director who would go on to make a name for himself and, in turn, inspire many others (I'll give you a hint, his initials are A.K.).