Jason Julier returns with another instalment of Eastern Premise. This week he takes a look at Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity & Paper Balloons.

Ever since the success of The Artist there has been an explosion of interest in the silent genre. This is a fantastic development in the modern age, as the medium has been overlooked and dismissed for far too long despite enjoying some marvellous Blu-ray releases. This about turn in interest has essentially seen audiences and creatives stick two fingers up at 3D, when most filmmakers have yet to master the 2 dimensional form, or even basic storytelling.

As regulars will note, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second is a keen supporter of films from the silent period. So far in this Eastern Premise jaunt, silent films have been few and far between. Only a small percentage of  films from Japan’s silent period now remain, with most established directors such as Ozu suffering several lost films in his filmography. The reasons for this have been discussed in my earlier piece on the magical Kurutta Ippeiji (A Page of Madness); one of the greatest avant-garde silent films. Arguably the director most affected by this tragedy is Sadao Yamanaka, who directed 26 films and died in tragic circumstances in 1938, aged just 28.

Of those films just 3 exist in a complete form today. What they confirm is a director with a prestigious talent, one that displays the uphill slog to survive in peasant life and all the varying emotions that their suffering can bring. For such a young age Yamanaka exudes confidence, poise beyond his years and leaves us debating what could have been if he hadn’t passed away.  A contemporary of such talented directors as Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Heinosuke Gosho and Mikio Naruse, we should be celebrating his career, instead he remains relatively unknown.  

Humanity & Paper Balloons is a poignant film in many ways, it is Yamanaka’s last film produced by Photo Chemical Laboratories which would eventually become Toho Studio shortly afterwards. Allegedly premiering on the same day he was drafted into the Japanese army, military service would unfortunately lead to Yamanaka’s death through dysentery and rob cinema of what could have been. The film itself is extremely downbeat and does not hold back on any punches, depicting the harsh realities of peasant life, where the lower class served their landlord and lived in fear of local rules and the swift justice they could unleash. Here the samurai are no more and without the protection of their status in society, many fallen men are struggling to find a new purpose. Whereas previously they were feared and among the elite within the Japanese class system, now they have been cast out. They find employment either as swords for hire to the new wave of officials or local criminals, the remainder fall into despair and alcohol to seek solace.

The film is bookended by suicides. This sets the tone and suggests that for the individuals within Humanity & Paper Balloons, there is no escape from their lowly position in society. Like many of his contemporaries, the film is a fine example of jidaigeki, or period drama in English. Set in a city slum, the drama unfolds mainly along one crowded and hustling street. We are allowed glimpses of the characters that make up this confined environment, but the tale focuses mainly on the struggles of two individuals. The first is Chushichi, a streetwise punk who battles poverty on with his skill for a quick deal, whereas Matajuro is a former samurai who exhausts himself trying to hand a letter from his father to the local lord.

It should come as no surprise that the suicides are those of former samurai. One forced to pawn his sword for a bamboo equivalent provides the basis for the opening of the film. While we are denied the opportunity to learn more about this individual, it is clear that his story is far from unique.  Matajuro and Chushichi are neighbours and far from partners in crime, with Chushichi spending most of his time in the local drinking hole, Matajuro scraps an existence from making paper balloons. Their fortunes follow the same path and love in many ways spells the end for both.   

The set design of Humanity & Paper Balloons is wonderfully detailed and full of life. Take for example the street slum which offers a great sense of depth and movement, with workers scuttling about in the background; clearly visible due to Yamanaka’s use of composition and focus. The penultimate bridge sequence is another highlight; a setting for a samurai showdown that would influence a new generation. Yamanaka also keeps us guessing; avoiding static angles and shots, he flips the scene in ways you would not expect, adding more scope to the city slum. Rather than showing us the local gossip in close up, he instead moves the camera behind the congregation, somewhere we did not expect to venture. This perspective increases our field of vision, before Yamanaka goes back to our initial focus further down the street. Marvellous to behold throughout, the frantic movement and clatter of residents injects the film with a real sense of peasant life.

Masters of Cinema took a huge risk bringing Yamanaka to a Western audience, with this DVD being his first release outside of Japan. It is these gambles that make supporting such a label so worthwhile. For now we are able to experience a director that previously was only discussed in textbooks and consistently received high praise. The booklet is also a wonderful accompaniment to the film, introducing Yamanaka to a new generation and leaving us wondering what his lost films may have offered.