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Humanity and Paper Balloons: Reflections

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    Vili Maunula

    I am not sure how many of you have been able to watch our current film club feature, Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons, but here are some random thoughts that the film has evoked in me.

    First of all, Humanity and Paper Balloons is one of those films that I can’t really say I enjoy watching, but which I nevertheless think is a good film worth seeing. Similarly, I find myself very interested in discussing it, but at the same time I have very little original to say, as it doesn’t really end up resonating with me on an intellectual level.

    So, if you dislike rambling comments that lead nowhere, I would advise you stop reading here.

    Come to think of it, I think that my main issue with the film is that also it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. Not that all films should go somewhere, but even with films like Ozu’s, which sometimes feel almost openly hostile against the notion of a “plot”, there usually ends up being something important in there, at the heart of the thing, which moves me. Humanity and Paper Balloons doesn’t move me in this way. I do get that it could be seen as an allegory of depression era Japan (although I’m not sure if Japan even was that hard hit by the 1930s economic recession), and as a snap shot of that it does work, but I don’t see any real questions asked, solutions offered or specific problems pointed out. The only thing that it seems to show to us is the insignificance, frailty and selfishness of human nature, but that is something I am fully aware of already, so I don’t really need to be reminded of it. It is preaching to the choir there, so to speak.

    The suicides that bookend the film seem a little too convenient, and while the final suicide (which isn’t really a suicide at all of course) is presented brilliantly, as is most of the film, I don’t really see the point of it, either in terms of characters’ reality or narrative purpose. The same goes for a lot of character action and interaction in the film. And the acting. Things don’t feel real to me, but rather a little too staged, too forced. Another good example is the closing shot, which is beautiful, but again very artificially set up. Might I even say, hesitantly, “style over substance”? Maybe not. “Mood over substance”, then?

    As I pointed out in my introduction (or an attempt at one), Humanity and Paper Balloons was based on a kabuki play, but turned that play into something like a corrupted version of itself. I wonder how well known that play was, and could audiences at the time compare the two while watching the film, therefore giving an added layer of depth to the film, something I don’t have at my disposal? Is this what I am missing? Is the key in intertextuality?

    I do understand, of course, that the film was historically important, and that it was probably a very different kind of a depiction of the Edo period than what had been seen in genre films before it. Historical importance just has never been a real reason for me to like a work, although it certainly is a reason enough for me to watch them.

    Not that I don’t like Humanity and Paper Balloons, mind you. I just don’t really like watching it.

    Which reminds me — what about the title? The English is Humanity and Paper Balloons, while the Japanese is 人情紙風船. Should that in fact translate literally as a compound word: “Humanity Paper Balloons”? Does the Japanese imply that humanity, or at least a part of it, is in some ways (like) paper balloons, unlike the English title, which talks about two separate entities. I don’t know. Sometimes Japanese compound-looking entities are actually coordinated phrases, so the English title could be spot on accurate.

    人情 (ninjoo) apparently also means “common sense, customs and manners”. Is it a little funny that the latter of the two kanji stands for “feelings, emotions, passion”, since no character in the film seems to have any of these? Meanwhile, 紙 (kami, paper), like all students of Japanese quickly learn, is a homonym with 神 (kami, god) and 髪 (kami, hair). Not that any of this probably means anything. I just like words. Isn’t it curious though that the Japanese compound 風船 (fuusen, paper balloon) is composed of the characters for “wind” and “ship”? So, is it paper (or god, hair?) zeppelins then?

    Alright, back to reality. Humanity and Paper Balloons of course reminds me a lot of Gorky’s The Lower Depths, including Kurosawa’s version of the play. The situation in which the characters find themselves are very similar, and both stories end with a suicide. You can even find a few very similar characters. Jean Renoir’s version of Gorky’s play actually came out only a year before Humanity and Paper Balloons. Could it have made its way to Japan and influenced Yamanaka? Probably not, as at least IMDb lists the Japanese release date as November 23, 1937, which is three months after Yamanaka’s film premiered. But Yamanaka was supposedly well aware of what was going on abroad, so he may at least have heard that Renoir was working on the Gorky play. On the other hand, how much did Yamanaka’s film influence Kurosawa’s? Probably quite a bit.

    The thing is that I like Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths. There, the characters seem alive, and there is a little bit more going on both on and off screen. Somehow it seems to go somewhere, even if it really doesn’t. I am not necessarily saying that it is a better film than Yamanaka’s, only that I like it more.

    Perhaps it all boils down to acting performances. I can’t really feel for any of the characters in Humanity and Paper Balloons, and I really dislike the young ronin who is begging for a place at what I assume is his father’s former employer. It is not that he begged that I dislike him for, mind you, but rather because of the actor, who constantly has that sly grin on his face. Besides, since no real context is given to their situation (or at least I haven’t noticed one), it feels a little bit of an over-reaction for the wife to kill him at the end.

    I don’t know. I’m probably just missing something crucial here. Wouldn’t be the first time.

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    Ugetsu

    I’m going to rent it and watch it the weekend, so my comments here are based on my memory of having seen it two years ago.

    I was deeply impressed when I saw it, although this was possibly because I had pretty low expectations – I just watched it out of curiosity as it was the only pre-war Japanese film I could find. I went into it with a very open mind. I did struggle a little to tune into the characters as they seemed to me to be filmed in a very passive way – none of the close ups or pauses we’d expect from a film of this kind. But about three quarters through the film it ‘clicked’ for me and I found myself drawn into it – I found it very haunting and moving, and what struck me about it (maybe this is a reflection of my lack of knowledge of the time), but I found the ending very ‘modern’. For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on it reminded me of those 1970’s American films where characters on the edge of society manage to redeem themselves with an act of nobility. I particularly liked the kaleidoscope of different characters – the way in which each character was drawn out credibly seemed to me a very good way of avoiding the staginess of some theater adaptions.

    As for the title, I assumed there is some subtlety to the original meaning – I see that one translation (as on imdb) is ‘Ballad of the Paper Balloons‘ which seems a better title to me – the whole ‘paper balloon as metaphor for the fragility of life’ thing can be a bit overstated.

    I’m looking forward to looking at it properly now to see if my memory serves me well!

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    lawless

    Unfortunately, since I can’t get Humanity and Paper Balloons on Netflix, seeing it is a no go, 🙁 which is too bad. I’d like to compare it to Seven Samurai, though I know the plot is different and it’s set in a later period.

    I do remember excerpts from it being included in one of the extras in the Criterion version of Seven Samurai that I have. I think it was the extra that dealt with depictions of samurai over the years. I thought what I saw was pretty impressive and modern.

    This also applies to Flowing, which I’m really ticked off that I won’t be able to see, both because it sounds like something I’d like and because I want to judge the female gaze aspect of it for myself.

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    Vili Maunula

    I’m sorry about the unavailability of Humanity and Paper Balloons in region 1. It’s really a pity Japanese films are available so randomly — some films here, others there. Our next month’s films (the silent Ozu ones) are only available in region 1, for instance, so I’ll be apologising to our European regulars then. Not to mention those of you from places like Australia and New Zealand!

    I would personally recommend region free players, as they have certainly made my life easier and don’t necessarily have to cost much, but I do understand that not everyone has the time, means or interest in first going through that hassle, and then actually buying the films as well.

    Hopefully, you can get hold of the silent Ozu films for next month! I just checked and Netflix seems to have them.

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    Ugetsu

    I’ve just watched it for the second time and it confirms my original view – it really is a great film, up there with some of the very best Japanese films. It doesn’t quite have the fluid grace of some of the 50’s masterpieces but there is a naturalistic feel to it that is in its own way very impressive. I suspect that in the original Japanese its a lot funnier, I think there is a lot of verbal interplay that may be missed in the subtitles (I’m just guessing here of course).

    Vili

    Besides, since no real context is given to their situation (or at least I haven’t noticed one), it feels a little bit of an over-reaction for the wife to kill him at the end.

    I have to disagree here – I think the context of the double suicide is quite clear. His wife has realised by her discovery of the letter (supposedly given to Mori) that, as she no doubt suspected, her husband had been hiding from her his failure to persuade Mori to give him a position. This is in addition to the facts that she had just overheard the slum women saying that he was ‘no better than their own husbands’, and that he was clearly a former alcoholic who had started drinking again, it was clear their future was bleak. No position, a return to alcoholism,and an apparent dabbling in something criminal – I’d say that was a good reason for a samurai woman to opt for double suicide!

    I don’t know. I’m probably just missing something crucial here. Wouldn’t be the first time.

    I do think that you are missing something! Really, I don’t believe there are any loose ends to the film or a need to look for intertextual contexts (not to say that they maybe don’t exist). I think that the somewhat ‘neutral’ tone of the film may make it a little harder to get into than the more dynamic films we are used to seeing from the period – certainly Kurosawa, Naruse and Mizoguchi would have given us more close ups, more edits, more tracking. I think that if the film has a fault it is that it relies a bit too much on the individual actors to give distinction to the characters, we don’t get the visual ‘cues’ we would normally get to decide if a character is really important or if there is something going on off-screen. There is a hell of a lot going on – what with the subtext of the love affair between Chushuichi (the pawn shop boy) and the girl, the relationship of Mori to the pawnbroker, the back story of the samurai, the various little in jokes about the slum dwellers (whats the significance of goldfish?). Maybe there is just too much going on. I think this does contribute to the ending having a bit of a rushed feeling to it – there is too much happening at once.

    Ultimately, I think the film was intended as a comment on contemporary Japan and this is why Yamanaka got in so much trouble with the authorities. The implications of depicting a society where everyone defers to the bully boys of the proto-yakuza must have been very clear to the audience at the time. The clear inference that the Samurai as represented by Mori and the business classes as represented by the pawnbroker were joining forces (Mori adopting the girl so she could marry into the Samurai) and that this was against the interests of ordinary people – this must have struck a chord with the audience at a time when a real military-industrial complex was running riot in Japan. And the idea that an ordinary man – a barber – could give a bloody nose to this alliance must have been seen to have been cheeky at least, if not downright subversive.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for your thoughts Ugetsu! They do make me see the film in a different light. I guess I have once again been handicapped by my lack of really understanding the historical context in which the film was released. You are much better at putting yourself into the shoes of a contemporary audience member than I am.

    The ending is clever, I don’t deny that, but I think I would have needed a little more background for the samurai and his wife before I could fully accept her actions as more than a forced, melodramatic and somewhat provocative way to end the film. Alternatively, it could be the actor playing the samurai, who never really managed to make me care for him. Something about his constant grin just bothers me tremendously! A petty piece of criticism, I know, but I can’t help it.

    I think that you are right that there is something in the manner in which the film is presented that throws me off and unable to fully appreciate it. I’m not so sure if it’s the camera work though, but rather the way the film is narrated, with quite much taking place off screen or only being referred to. Coming to think of it, perhaps my reaction here is quite similar to Seven Samurai, which as you may remember doesn’t rank incredibly high on my list of films, either. It, too, tells much of its story off screen, which I think can be a clever method and something that Kurosawa for instance used very successfully in many films, but which I just cannot seem to tune into in the case of these two films.

    Which, I suppose, only means that I need to grow as a film viewer in order to appreciate these masterpieces.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Vili: Ozu and elipsis? Vili thumbs up or down?

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    Vili Maunula

    Sorry Coco, but I don’t think that I am familiar enough with Ozu to be able to answer that. In general, I have nothing against leaving out content if it enhances the quality of the work and its impact.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Mmmm. Well, Vili,

    “…tells much of its story off screen”

    can be used to positive or negative effect. I give Ozu a thumbs up for judicious elipsis, and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai the same.

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