Sadao Yamanaka – Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)

Judging solely on our three-film sample of Sadao Yamanaka’s work, Humanity and Paper Balloons, the last film he directed before passing away, is undoubtedly his masterpiece. Simple in its presentation at first but with an intricate and complex narration, the film shows Yamanaka as a true master of his craft, an irreverent storyteller who was not afraid to take an unpopular political stance. A lot of the actors cast in the movie hailed from the far-left theater group Zenshin-za and we know now that Yamanaka’s flirtations with communist groups and left-wing thinking ultimately caused his draft to the front that resulted in his premature death. The portrayal of samurais in Humanity and Paper Balloons is unglamorous and free from any self-aggrandizing nationalistic revisionism. Political authorities are represented as corrupt and insensitive towards the needs of the poorer population, whereas community and empathy are presented as keys to happiness – a viewpoint not necessarily shared by the militaristic Showa government at the time of the film’s release.

The film is bookended by two suicides. We open with the suicide of an impoverished ronin who had to sell his sword and swap it for a bamboo sword. There is quite an uproar over his death in the small community we are introduced to over the course of the film but the hara-kiri is not subject to a grand remembrance in honor of the respected samurai. Rather, it is an opportunity to pocket five bottles of sake from the landlord and come together to dance and drink. The other ronin significant to the story is Matajuro Unno who’s father recently died and who relies on his wife to provide for the family by selling paper balloons. He approaches Mori, a local political figure and “urban” samurai with ties to the yakuza who knew his father, in the hopes that he would point him towards gainful employment. But Mori doesn’t want to be reminded of his ties to Matajuro’s father.

As payback, the ronin helps hiding Okoma, a young woman who is to be married to the higher samurai class and who is abducted by Shinya, a barber and gambler who organizes unauthorized gambling games in his own home, attracting the wrath of the yakuza. Shinya and Matajuro’s kidnapping scheme finally backfires and the ronin’s wife kills him in his sleep and subsequently commits suicide. End of film.

Far from heartwarming Heimatfilm tropes and a vision of the ronin as an honorable and wise warrior, Yamanaka presents feudal Japan as an unjust class society, weighed down by punishing social conventions and unfair social conditions. Class relations are the main motive here, as we jump back and forth between the poor community of peasants, merchants and down-on-their-luck samurais, and the removed class of arrogant gangsters, political rascals and merciless upper-echelon samurais. There is a heartfelt black-and-white representation of both stratums of society and Yamanaka is never ambiguous about which side he’s on. The poor, as carefree and optimistic as some of them might be, never catch a break, while the rich always maintain the upper-hand.

There is a subtle gender commentary to be found as well. All of our main protagonists are male. Women are either pawns in a larger game played by the men, like Okoma, or wives who look upon their husband’s actions with disdain but with little power to change them. After it is revealed that Matajuro was involved in Shinya’s kidnapping scheme we get a brief scene in which various women chat with each other about how all men are scoundrels since even the samurai, who should be a respectable role model, participated in such an ill-conceived venture. Matajuro’s wife overhears them talking like that – and ultimately chooses death as her and her husband’s only way out. The message here is twofold: not only are the men’s actions irresponsible and oftentimes plain dumb, but women, just like the poor on the larger scale of society, have to suffer the consequences of actions they are not responsible for. More than an advocate for the “lower” classes of society, Yamanaka, it seems, was a feminist.

The story, though virtually void of plot, is fascinatingly constructed. A little confusing at the beginning because we are introduces to a wide array of characters and conflicts, the script builds and builds by mostly just observing the characters and their day-to-day transactions and sponging details. Relationships are forged slowly until the characters abruptly, it seems, face compelling moral conundrums that finally grab us emotionally. By the end of Humanity and Paper Balloons, we are totally immersed in this world Yamanaka delineated very clearly and aggregated with intricate detail. The film never keeps us at arm’s length rather inviting us to visit it again and again, as one single viewing doesn’t do the film justice, doesn’t allow us to fully register all the themes, character details and visual motives.

Humanity and Paper Balloons was certainly a singular viewing experience for me personally. I have read elsewhere that the film is bleak and pessimistic and there is certainly something to that. But I was struck by the poetic nature of the movie, by the deliberate pace that allows us to reflect as we are presented with an array of ideas and themes, by its intimacy and the almost introspective atmosphere. Where The Pot Worth a Million Ryo and Koshiyama Soshun where carried along mostly by plot intricacies, Humanity and Paper Balloons sets out to portray exactly that: humanity. In his excellent essay on Sadao Yamanaka, Chris Fujiwara explains: “In the title of Yamanaka’s final film, the word that is translated as “humanity,” ninjo, means not the human race (for which the language has another word, jinrui) but human feeling. In the title of the film, it indicates no precise direction for the plot but opens up the chaotic and unpredictable space of impulses.” It is this more observational narrative method that elevates Yamanaka's work from superior genre fare to full-blown cinema mastery for me.

Sadao Yamanaka – Kochiyama Soshun (1936)

Sadao Yamanaka once said, "I do the reverse of what Pudovkin taught." Regular readers of this blog, if such exist, will recall that I discussed Pudovkin's editing technique a few weeks back. The soviet director regarded editing as "the foundation of film art." In this context, content is defined by how the shots are arranged in relation to each other. For Yamanaka, as was the case for a lot of Japanese directors in the 1930's, the shots themselves created meaning. Editing equated assembling the final product. Little esthetic work was done in the editing room. This was one of the reasons why Japanese directors were able to churn out staggering amounts of films. Post-production time was cut down by carefully planning out shots and sequences beforehand. There was a specific reason for each new shot. But mostly, careful blocking and shot compositions enabled the directors to let scenes play out in a small number of takes.

In Kochiyama Soshun, Yamanaka's second surviving film, there is one scene in which two characters bid on a small knife at an auction. They are both filmed in a medium shot showing only the two. We don't see or hear anyone else attending the auction. Yamanaka's confidence as a visual artist and the performances of both actors enable the director to hold the shot until the scene's resolution.

Kochiyama Soshun, even more than The Pot Worth A Million Ryo, is an extraordinary stylistic achievement. We miss all the flamboyance of a Mizoguchi or Kurosawa, but it's in his restraint, much like his colleague and friend Yasujiro Ozu, that Yamanaka shines bright. He predominantly uses wide angle shots employing all the depth of field. The narrow alleyways and claustrophobic interiors where the action takes place provide the perfect setting for this. Yamanaka activates the space on a vertical line. Characters frequently enter a scene from the background and make their way to the center of the frame where the action takes place and is captured in long shots. There are no reverse-angle shots in conversation that I could recall.

There is a tranquil rhythm that carries us along, a smoothness of the plot that is enhanced by the seamless succession of shots. Yamanaka also uses a lot of repetition to underline how the characters change and how they are trapped at the same time. When the plot calls for it, Yamanaka ups the ante without losing his clarity of vision. The climax of the movie involves an escape from ruthless henchmen. Characters chase each other through narrow streets and back alleys, and Yamanaka increases the suspense by accelerating the pace of the editing. The last shot of a monk trying to hold back a horde of sword swinging badasses while a stream of water erupts in the foreground of the frame is among the most poetic and most violent of the film.

Based on a famous Kabuki play by Kawatake Mokuami, Kochiyama Soshun is a genre film unlike you have ever seen one. Naojiro, a young knucklehead, steals a small but invaluable knife from a samurai and with that offsets a chain of events that eventually leads to his sister having to sell herself into prostitution, the samurai almost having to commit harakiri, his girlfriend jumping to her death and a lot of people getting killed in the climatic battle. Like in The Pot Worth A Million Ryo, an object is at the center of the narrative and structures the multiple plotlines that intertwine and add to a narrative web that gains in complexity with each new scene.

And again, the fabric of reality is put into question. Reality, which is pieced together through knowledge, is constantly negotiated between the characters as they exchange knowledge and broaden or narrow down their intellectual spectrum. When the samurai contemplates the possibility of committing harakiri if his master ever finds out that the small knife was stolen from him, the two men who bought that knife at the auction quarrel over its worth: "who could pay 10 ryos for such a trivial small knife?" asks one. "It's such a waste of money!" By showing us these two extremes, Yamanaka emphasizes once more the complexity of life. One man's trash is another man's treasure.

Yamanaka also seems interested in the malleability of reality. Time and time again, characters speak about the same things without realizing it and misunderstand each other or getting to the wrong conclusions. If the same thing can have different meanings for different persons, how can one perspective be superior to another? At one point, the samurai, contemplating his supposed harakiri, reveals that he is 53 years old. His counterpart nonchalantly tells him: "with 50, a man has already lived his life." Such is the beauty of Yamanaka's work. In one amusing one-liner he expresses several complex ideas.

Whoever said that thoughtful films can't be entertaining?

Sadao Yamanaka – The Pot Worth A Million Ryo (1935)

As mentioned in my last post, the tragedy of Sadao Yamanaka’s fate has often been deplored by cinephiles interested in early Japanese cinema. Drafted to the front in 1938 at the age of 28 as punishment for his political activism, the director, hailed as one of the most promising cinematic talents by his contemporaries, died from a disease contracted on the battle field, leaving behind 12 finished films of which only three have survived today. All three films, The Pot Worth A Million Ryo, Koshiyama Soshun and Humanity And Paper Balloons are generally hailed as masterpieces, and rumors float around that his other films, which we will most likely never see, were even better.

No one can really say if there is any veracity to this claim, but we can appreciate the fact that Yamanaka, along with a small group of other directors and screenwriters such as Hiroshi Inagaki, revitalized the Japanese period film in the 1930’s by updating it in terms of dialogue and themes, but also by ablating some of its gravitas and imbuing it with a healthy dose of humor and adding romantic subplots, which was often criticized as "too American". For our contemporary tastes, however, Yamanaka’s films stand as oddities as well as strokes of genius, a singular and peculiar auteur vision that leaves us wanting for more.

The Pot Worth A Million Ryo, the earliest of Yamanaka’s surviving films, is part caper movie, part comedy, part drama, part jidaigeki. The story concerns, as you might have guessed, a pot that ostensibly is worth a million ryo, although its value is never explained or questioned. Believing it to be worthless, a powerful Lord offered it to his brother Genzaburo as a wedding present. Genzaburo, insulted by the present (the pot does not look particularly valuable), sells it to ragpickers who themselves give it to a little boy who uses it as a container for his goldfish. When the boy's father, a rice merchant, is murdered, Tangekazen, the one-eyed ronin, takes him under his wing, much to his lover Okami's chagrin. One by one, the characters discover the pot’s worth and set out to find it. Genzaburo seems to be the most intent on locating the pot, but he only uses it as an excuse to spend his time outside of the house and far away from his wife, flirting and hanging around a tea house which is run by Okami. When he finally realizes that Tangekazen and the boy have the pot, he doesn’t hand it over to his wife but let’s them keep it so that he can still spend his time at the tea house, pretending to be on the hunt for it.

Such a set-up leaves a lot of room for interpretation and analysis, of course. We can find themes of class distinction, male-female relationships, fate, the deep irony of life – the list goes on. One idea central to the film is that what we want most is oftentimes right in front us, but we ignore it. Obviously, the invaluable pot is the prime example of this leitmotiv. Another one is Tangekazen’s inability to tell the boy that his father was murdered. Not only is the truth right in front of the boy without him being able to grasp it, but the ronin tries to establish an honest relationship with the boy, an undertaking tainted by the heavy secret.

In fact, most if not all characters have something to hide: the vassal of the Emperor who tries to get back the pot from Genzaburo first for free and then for a small amount of money; the rice vendor who tells everyone he has a big shop when in reality he lives in poverty; Genzaburo who pretends to search for the pot when in reality he spends his days flirting with Okami’s assistant. There is a clear divide between what the characters make reality out to be, and what reality really is. Stylistically, Yamanaka expresses this with the transition-by-negation. When Tangekazen first brings the boy home, Okami refuses to feed him. The next shot shows the boy eating. Later, she refuses to buy him bamboo sticks. The next shot shows the boy walking on bamboo sticks. Instances like that can be found throughout the movie.

More than humorous transitions, these vignettes form meaning.  The characters are constantly struggling to come to terms with the reality around them. Genzaburo makes himself out to be a better archer than he really is. Tangekazen exhibits a tuff shell but has a soft heart. The boy has to accept the sudden change of his living environment, and then runs away when Okami and the ronin fight about him. Consequently, the characters discover most truths by proxy. Everyone is told about the pot's worth. They don't discover it themselves. Genzaburo's wife discovers his mischief only after one of her employees point out where he is. Genzaburo shoots an exaggerated amount of arrows at a target but it is Okami's employee who has to reveal to him how many hit the spot: a single one.

In my mind, The Pot Worth A Million Ryo is more concerned with the way we try to make sense of our environment than an oblique meditation on class relations or the irony of life. As humans, we can only grasp but one tiny portion of what life entails. We have to rely on third parties, institutions and art to make sense of it all. One joke, told by the boy, expresses this perfectly: "why do humans have two eyes? Because otherwise the second eyeglass lens would be a waste." We all make sense of our world differently. And sometimes, the most obvious is right in front us without us realizing it.

Yasujiro Shimazu – The Trio's Engagement (1937)

In my last post I lamented the fact that so few of Shimazu's films have survived the trials of time and that even fewer are available to the English speaking public. Not only is our possible fandom squelched from the get go, but for people interested in studying the director's work in-depth it is very frustrating to have only such a small sample size at their disposal.

It is especially frustrating in this instance because The Trio's Engagement is so fundamentally different from Our Neighbor, Miss Yae and my reaction to it was so dissimilar from my first Shimazu experience that I am aching to see more in order to better assess his body of work. But as it is, I am stuck with two very different viewing experiences. Not to say that The Trio's Engagement is horrible. On the contrary, the plot is quite amusing. Three young men find work at a textile company at the same time. One is from the suburbs, one from the countryside, one from the city. All three fall for their boss' daughter and court her. In the end, their supervisor hands them an invitation to the boss' daughter's wedding to a baron.

This admittedly contrived story gives Shimazu the possibility to explore how the men's different social origins define their work ethic and, more importantly, their flirting prowess. The film is light-hearted at it's core and at times outright farcical. For it to be such an obvious construct to explore social differences, The Trio's Engagement is utterly uninterested in going deep into the issue, preferring to be straight up entertaining without indulging in some darker beats, as we have grown accustomed from the Japanese social realist dramas of the time.

This is not a complaint. My complaint lies in the fact that Our Neighbor, Miss Yae impressed me so much more upon my first viewing. I totally got what Shimazu was going for in The Trio's Engagement, but I found myself a lot less engaged in the proceedings than with the other film. Not only was I less interested in the story, but stylistically, Miss Yae wowed me more. The seamless storytelling paired with impeccable directing and editing were the clear imprint of a master filmmaker. But The Trio's Engagement has a lot less to offer visually, rendering it almost interchangeable with any other fare from that period.

And herein lies the problem. By all accounts, Shimazu was indeed a master of the medium. But in viewing only two of his films, I couldn't confirm or deny it. One film is a masterpiece, the other one more average if still enjoyable. Which level of quality is the norm here? Where is Shimazu's handwriting? It's impossible for me to say. It is even more frustrating than in, say, Sadao Yamanaka's case who was considered the best Japanese director of the 1930's. Only three of his films have survived and they are all incredible masterpieces. We know that we miss out on a lot of quality and it's a tragedy that Yamanaka's body of work has mostly vanished. But with Shimazu, I can't even assess what the threshold is. And, to me, that's even worse.