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Humanity and Paper Balloons: Is Yojimbo an update?

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    Ugetsu

    As Coco has observed before, one of the pleasures of watching a lot of these Japanese films is recognising ‘old friends’ – the wonderful minor character actors who keep popping up. Most of the actors in this film seem to have been from a theatre repertory company associated with Yamanaka – but there is one obvious exception, the always very watchable Daisuke Kato.

    The striking thing about Kato’s character in this film is that it is almost exactly the same individual as he plays 13 years later in Yojimbo. He plays a sort of Yakuza thug, a dim witted second in command who is responsible for directing a bunch of hired hoods, but usually messing up to the fury of his smarter boss.

    This got me thinking about the similarities between this film and Yojimbo. They are both thinly disguised depictions of modern Japan – a Japan where businesses collude with thugs to create a new aristocracy, one based on money rather than martial strength. The former upper levels of society – whether samurai, business or bandit, are blurring together as one, all ensuring that the lower orders are kept in their place. In both Humanity and in Yojimbo there are a series of similar characters – there is a Ronin, struggling to survive, half in and half out of the world where money matters more than honour, there is a low level businessman acting as ‘go between’ (the landlord in Humanity, and the barkeeper in Yojimbo), there is a kidnapped woman, a money grubbing businessman, and a Yakuza who thinks he can buy anyone with cash. And of course at the core is a sharp witted individual who tries to play off the rich and powerful against each other, but doesn’t always succeed.

    I know it can be easy to create false equivalents as so many elements of samurai movies are standard types and tropes, so may be found in many different films. But I can’t help feeling that there are so many coincidences between the two films that perhaps Kurosawa was intentionally using Humanity and Paper Balloons as a model for an updated satire on Japanese power structures.

    So am I stretching these comparisons too much, or could it be that Yojimbo owes much more to this film than has previously been appreciated?

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    cocoskyavitch

    Not stretching, Ugetsu, you have company:

    “Yamanaka is often likened to directors such as Jean Vigo; Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns prefers Jean Renoir as a more likely alternative. But whatever the case there’s no denying that the director greatly influenced several directors later on in years. It’s funny how it isn’t mentioned but I wouldn’t be surprised if Akira Kurosawa took inspiration from Yamanaka. Humanity and Paper Balloons‘s aesthetics are not too dissimilar from several of Kurosawa’s classics, such as Yojimbo years later, which has striking similarities in its pacing and descriptions. It’s perhaps more debatable than anything else but an interesting one it might make nonetheless.”

    Complete blog at: (http://homecinema.thedigitalfix.co.uk/content.php?contentid=57901)

    I think it interesting that Kinema Junpo’s top 200 from 2009 list Humanity and Yojimbo 23 and 25, respectively: http://wildgrounds.com/index.php/2010/02/26/kinema-junpos-top-japanese-films-2009-version/

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    Ugetsu

    Thanks for the links, Coco – I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought that! The more I think of it, the more striking the similarities between the films are, despite the ostensibly very different plot. As the making of the film more or less coincides with Kurosawas period of left wing agitation, I’m sure he was very aware of it. Perhaps either consciously or otherwise he was making a subtle attempt to say the post war establishment really wasn’t so different than the pre-war power structure? But I can’t think of any particular reason why Kurosawa wouldn’t openly acknowledge the influence of Humanity if it was a conscious model for his film – unless there may have been legal reasons, or he didn’t wish to remind people of his pre-war activities?

    That Kinema Junpo list is fascinating – some good choices in there, but some films I really didn’t expect to see so highly rated.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ah, Coco beat me to it! I knew I had seen that Digital Fix paragraph somewhere, but couldn’t find it. There it is!

    They may be in slightly different genres, one technically speaking a chambara film while the other isn’t, but as you point out Ugetsu there certainly are quite a number of similarities. I suppose the difference in genres also feeds into how the two directors solve the underlying problem — Yamanaka’s film employs something like passive resistance, while Kurosawa’s is anything but.

    Your comparison of Japan’s pre-war and post-war establishments may also be very much spot on. From my background reading for the Kurosawa Wikipedia article that we are currently working on, I learnt that in spring 1960 those same comparisons were being made as Japan tightened its alliance with the United States with a treaty that was seen by many as threatening a rise of a new right-wing business and political elite. It didn’t help either that the then prime minister was a suspected war criminal who had already been prominent in the pre-war government. The Bad Sleep Well was certainly a reaction to all this, and I could well imagine that Yojimbo was probably intended as a continuation of sorts of this theme.

    Kurosawa did mention a few times that he was very much influenced by Yamanaka, for instance listing him as one of the “teachers” from whom he learnt film making (see page 56 of the autobiography). As for why he didn’t mention Humanity as a source if it was one for Yojimbo, remember that he didn’t talk about Red Harvest either, nor I think is the name of Kurosawa’s nephew mentioned anywhere in the credits of The Bad Sleep Well, even if the film was quite closely based on his original screenplay. There is something of a trend there, actually.

    Secondly, I suppose that even if he had mentioned Humanity and Paper Balloons, we would probably not know about it now since I think the film was quite unknown in the west until the 1980s or 90s, which would mean that any passing reference to it would probably have been dropped or forgotten by a western interviewer (and we don’t have many Japanese interviews available in English).

    Thanks for the link to the new Kinejun list, Coco. I remember when the 1999 list came out!

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    lawless

    Now that Vili has mentioned Red Harvest again, I’ll have to go take a look at it and summarize it. Vili, is there a Yojimbo thread that mentions it, or should I start a new entry for it? Since I may have to skim it to brush up on some of it — I finished it months ago, forgot to write about it here, and then lost track of where I’d left it — it may be a couple of weeks before I can post anything. The short version, though, is that Yojimbo differs enough from Red Harvest that it is neither a remake or adaptation. At most, Red Harvest was an inspiration or influence.

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    Vili Maunula

    Lawless, my own conclusion was pretty similar to yours, but as NoelCT has pointed out there is at least one scene that indicates that Kurosawa was quite familiar with the book. The thread you want is here (there’s more Red Harvest towards the end).

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    lawless

    Thanks for the link, Vili. I’ll have to look at the thread, particularly NoelCT‘s contribution.about that scene. It’s not something that struck me when I read the book, though.

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    lawless

    Now that I’ve read the thread, I do remember that scene, and I do remember thinking that it slotted in with a similar scene in Yojimbo. I agree with you: Kurosawa must have read Red Harvest at some point before making Yojimbo.

    I’ve started putting together my own summary of Red Harvest and will add it to the end of that thread.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Kurosawa did mention a few times that he was very much influenced by Yamanaka, for instance listing him as one of the “teachers” from whom he learnt film making (see page 56 of the autobiography). As for why he didn’t mention Humanity as a source if it was one for Yojimbo, remember that he didn’t talk about Red Harvest either, nor I think is the name of Kurosawa’s nephew mentioned anywhere in the credits of The Bad Sleep Well, even if the film was quite closely based on his original screenplay. There is something of a trend there, actually.

    I’ve always been quite curious about Kurosawa’s distribution of credit for his films. He seems to have been quite effusive and generous in his praise about some sources/individuals and ignored others. I suppose there may have been legal reasons why he disliked mentioning some books or films as sources, as he wasn’t slow about going to the court himself (as with Fistful of Dollars).

    Its quite a large subject of course, but it raises the issue of what exactly a ‘source’ is. A long while ago I idly speculated about whether Ran was influenced by Kurosawa doing a thought experiment along the lines of ‘what would Kambei (from Seven Samurai) have been like if he had actually succeeded in becoming a great leader before he had the chance of learning humility and acceptance?’.

    While of course thats almost certainly not true, it did leave to to wondering whether the genesis of many of AK’s films were less the notion of ‘taking’ from individual sources, but asking questions of what would happen to certain characters if they were dropped into a new situation. From my reading of Kurosawa, he seemed always to be asking questions, and thinking of questions, and his story ideas often came from those questions. ‘What would I do if I had 6 months to live? What would happen if the Samurai had fought for the poor, not the rich? What would happen if a murder and rape occurred, but there was no witness who was not contaminated by lies? Always ‘what if?’. In watching Humanity and Paper Balloons I couldn’t help wondering if Kurosawa had watched the film and thought to himself ‘Would Yamanaka have made the same film today?’. And ‘what would happen if the Samurai and the hairdresser had joined forces properly and really decided to wipe out the corrupt and evil and lazy?’

    Impossible to prove of course, but I like to think that such thoughts could have led to Yojimbo.

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