Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, 1937)

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Transgression – or perhaps a lack of it – illuminates the soul of Humanity and Paper Balloons. Sadao Yamanaka’s exquisite swansong finds the prodigious director casting his gaze upon a bustling tenement in Edo-era Japan and spinning a rich, vibrant yarn that flows with altruistic tenderness as he charts the fluctuant rhythms of everyday life within its confines. Though careful to maintain a respectful distance from its colourful inhabitants, Yamanaka’s observations are nonetheless textured with the warmth of his unconditional compassion and the furore of his liberal indignation. As his camera ensconces itself within the nooks and crannies of this humble milieu, the director captures what he perceives as the essence of the underclass experience – the exploitation, the profiteering, the suffering – and moulds his findings into a condemnatory treatise that quietly seethes over the iniquities inflicted upon the impoverished by those further up the feudal hierarchy. Yet his criticisms aren’t reserved solely for the privileged stratum: Yamanaka’s rage extends towards the disenfranchised themselves, mindlessly clinging on to the archaic traditions that impede them (the opiate of these masses) and allowing themselves to be consumed by the same greed that’s so rampant amongst their oppressors. Complicit in upholding the archaic social order that curtails their every prospect, the film’s characters find themselves locked in self-incarceration; their inability to successfully transgress partnering their taskmasters’ numerous transgressions against them to create a portraiture of sobering pessimism – the end result begging only the question: where did all the humanity go?

Although ostensibly a jidaigeki with prominent roles for samurai and ronin, the film effectively discards the baggage of its generic conventions – and in doing so refines its artistry to a vertex at least equal to those scaled by the genre’s more renowned exponents of the 1950s. Shorn of the spectacle and elaborate stylisations that one might expect, Humanity throws its weight firmly behind the lucidity of its spirited characterisations, thereby achieving a level of poignant clarity that tempers the potential velocity of its melodrama (abductions, gangsters, suicides, murders and even forbidden love grace the sclerotic screenplay). Yamanaka’s precautionary measures thus exercise control over the unruly currents of his narrative, channelling the plotlines into more manageable ebbs and flows that allow him to narrow in on the intricacies of detail. Seemingly insignificant minutiae subsequently find themselves veraciously chronicled by a director cherishing the intimacy of his environment: a wife’s knowing response to her husband’s cowardice; a blind man’s cunning strategy to counter his inevitable manipulation; the ominous yet inconspicuous malice assumed by the phrase “going to the herbalist”. Imparting such particulars does little to forward the story’s momentum, but everything to enrich the viewing experience; the egalitarian perspective of Yamanaka’s camera ensuring that all members of society are gifted the opportunity to be seen and heard, if only momentarily.

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Feeding into this intimacy are the surprisingly comical threads designed to ameliorate Humanity‘s despondence – though it’s telling that much of the film’s humour is of the wry, blackened variety, sourced directly from the despondence itself. Notice how Yamanaka almost affectionately paints the notion of characters drawing lots (albeit unknowingly) for the right to carry a dead man’s coffin; or consider the jocose manner in which he recycles his introductory scenes during the finale: the same residents pulling the same outlandish expressions in the face of death. Given the tenement’s abnormally high suicide rates and the adversities confronting its downtrodden populace, it’s little wonder that such morbid topics are treated with bold irreverence – can we really judge these people (as Yamanaka invites us to do) for turning a funereal wake into a drunken celebration? What eventually emerges through the director’s organically-melded scenarios is the image of a community enfeebled by its inability to progress; a community whose daily existence proves as ephemeral and precarious as the paper balloons crafted out of financial necessity by its increasingly destitute members.

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Cramped, congested and cluttered; Yamanaka’s depiction of the virtual slum at Humanity‘s heart endeavours to replicate the realities of life inside these lower depths. Overloaded with inanimate objects and restless people, the tenement’s narrow passageways become constraints unto themselves, exacerbating the difficulty of any possible escape. The director’s most potent motif – recurrent shots of nocturnal rain showers in desolate backstreets – reinforces this idea whilst throwing the unforgiving forces of nature into the equation. Meanwhile, his elucidative use of deep-focus photography intensifies the issue; the ensuing depths of field allowing each shot to nurture a compelling interaction between foreground and background (dramatic intensity populates the former, whilst acts of subservience are forever visible in the latter). The visual transparency available to him finds Yamanaka actively tailoring the film’s spatial dimensions to fortify his arguments: note how the expansive interiors of the middle-class abodes contrast with the claustrophobic domesticity of the tenement homes – a discord amplified by the director’s decision to frame his wealthier characters across comfortably horizontal planes whilst recording the poorer citizens along obstructive vertical axes. His camera witnesses all these set-ups via the predominant use of medium shots and long takes – takes which linger incisively, desperately willing his subjugated beings to revolt (though the futility of this desire is such that any hint of dissidence is either dismissed or quickly disposed of). All too often, we watch forlornly as browbeaten characters suffer in reaction shots, only for Yamanaka to then cut away to a distanced vantage point from which he imprisons them inside their own loneliness, compounding the isolation of their socially-unacceptable sorrow.

Bathed in the soft hues of the director’s cine-poetry, Humanity‘s characters find in Yamanaka a worthy champion for their cause; his inimitable creativity not so much aestheticising their misfortunes as recognising their endurance under duress. And what duress this is, for Yamanaka exploits the mechanisms of the jidaigeki to obliterate all nostalgia for the past, emphasising instead the hardships, turmoil and social immobility of a cyclical world founded upon hollow ideals. His vision takes the long venerated code of the bushidō and tears it apart; the very concept of ‘honour’ exposed as redundant in a society stringently controlled by the dishonourable. Though the director may not have a solution for the misdeeds of the rich, he implores the rest of us to remain weary of the archaic creeds and mores designed to curb our development. Humanity thus poses an affront to the bellicist ethos of its makers’ era, diverging wildly from the then-state’s emphasis on order and militarism (the film gives neither principle much credence) and soaring as a thunderous lamentation for the absence of the humanism that it so vainly seeks to unearth in the national past. Maybe then, the greatest transgression of all belongs to Yamanaka himself – serene in his artistry, incomparable in his integrity and, with Humanity‘s transcendental pathos doubling up as his weaponry, rebelling on behalf of all those denied the opportunity to do so themselves.

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