Humanity and Paper Balloons, 1937

At an unassuming, low-rent tenement district in Edo, a group of street vendors setting off to hawk their wares at the dawn of a seemingly auspicious bright, sunny day following several days of steady rain are detained by a team of police inspectors on a routine investigation of an elderly neighbor’s suicide. The news immediately sets the tenement residents abuzz with idle speculation on the cause (even blaming the onset of his depression on the gloomy weather) and decrying the impoverished samurai’s ignoble method of suicide of death by hanging (an act that seemed to implicit disregard for his social station) rather than the more class-befitting bushido of seppuku. However, a subsequent conversation sheds some light into the old man’s apparent affront to tradition into proper context as a tenant reveals that the impressive knives and swords worn by the old man to indicate his social class were nothing more than artifices made from bamboo and inutile for carrying out a proper ritual suicide. The frenzied gossip mongering is momentarily quelled with the appearance of another resident, an aloof samurai named Matajuro Unno (Chojuro Kawarasaki), from his front door, as the tenants, led by the ambitious, enterprising barber (and illegal gambling operator) Shinza (Kanemon Nakamura) soon move on to cajole the beleaguered landlord (Sukezo Sukedakaya) into hosting a wake as a means of countering the bad omen that the third suicide in the neighborhood has caused – a gesture motivated more by the possibility of extracting a few drinks from the calculating landlord rather than a spiritual concern for the soul of the dead man. Receiving the news of a free meal and drinks as tenants scurry through the neighborhood to spread the word of the wake, the Matajuro politely turns down the invitation, remaining instead outside the restaurant looking in as drunken villagers make a spectacle of themselves in front of a group of bemused children.

The introductory images of Matajuro as an upstanding, but self-enclosed outsider provide a subtle, yet incisive prelude into filmmaker Sadao Yamanaka’s exposition of class stratification, insularity of privilege, and social immobility. From the revelation of the old man’s bamboo-crafted adornments, to Matajuro’s fruitless attempts to seek an audience with the clearly unmoved wealthy warlord, Mori, to Mori’s desperate attempt to conceal a potential scandal involving his foster daughter Okoma (whose sponsorship was undoubtedly motivated to curry favor from the powerful samurai family of her future husband), Yamanaka captures society’s recurring pattern of artifice and maintaining appearance at the expense of humanity and compassion. Structurally, the recursion is reflected in the sequences of the news of a neighborhood suicide that bookends the film and in the repeated framing shots of cramped, immodestly public, and claustrophobic alleys that preclude any semblance of privacy from prying neighbors. Moreover, Yamanaka’s inventive use of seamless, transitional wipe-cuts throughout the film similarly suggest an intrinsic interrelation between the classes, connecting the residents’ boorish actions with the desperate and underhanded tactics similarly used by the samurai and merchant classes to achieve their own aims. Through Matajuro’s inability to turn his declining fortune by drawing on clan allegiance and Shinza’s undermined attempt at self-ennoblement (and also in the implication of the merchant class pawnbrokers’ daughter, Okoma in a scandal shortly after her announced engagement to the son of a samurai), the film illustrates the inescapability of social class that like the paper balloons that Matajuro’s wife Otaki (Shizue Yamagishi) patiently crafts each day to help make end meet, proves to be a carefully constructed fragile shell of empty, disposable ideals.

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