TROUT FUN is a special column in which Ultra Dogme contributors spend time with a film of their choosing, free from virtually any restrictions.
Previous TROUT FUN articles can be found here.
by Ruairí McCann
The denizens of an Edo period Kyoto slum greet the news of the suicide of one of their neighbours, a samurai turned pauper, with a little gossip and complete acceptance, and then take his wake as a chance to throw a party. Later, a hairdresser attempts to pawn the tools of his trade. Half-joking, he judges them to be just as valuable as a samurai’s sword.
These two moments, one at the beginning, the other at a turning point, give some sense of the character of Yamanaka Sadao’s extraordinary final film, Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937). A tragedy suffused with bitter irony, which, along with its warm but ultimately fatalistic atmosphere, is predicated on the immovability and hypocrisies of an oppressive social order and a deep empathy for its deviants.
The film sports a wide array of characters and a plot that drifts into place, rather than establishes itself outright, yet there is a (twinned) focus. Specifically, on two neighbours. One, the aforementioned hairdresser Shinza (Nakamura Kanemon), is a charming prole threat, while the other, Unno (Kawarazaki Chojuro), a guileless son of privilege. Their paths initially only converge by happenstance. Eventually though, they find themselves roped into the same kidnapping plot and gamble.
Rather, Unno is roped in by Shinza, for his status as an artisan is a tad theoretical. A more accurate, if geographically misplaced, descriptor would be that he is something of a camelot–cum-clochard. His actual source of income consists of an unstable combination of pawning and adhoc gambling parties, which he hosts in defiance of local pawnshop owner Shioko (Arashi Toshio). Not fond of getting his toes stepped on, Shiroko retaliates by sending out yakuza, led by Boss Yatagoro (Ichikawa Emitaro), to regularly hound and beat Shinza.
Shinza is just one example of how Yamanaka has a lot of time for those live on the fringes, with the host of side (in more ways than one) characters including a fish-vending holy fool (Nakamura Tsuruzô) and Yabushi (Bandô Chôemon), the entertainingly tricky blind anma —i.e. a blind masseur, a low ranking social caste in Edo society and a popular archetype in Japanese culture, as anyone familiar with the long running Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman series (1962-1989) would know. Outside of these personages, there is a general but pervasive feel for the timbre and detail of lower class life, including a knockabout sense of humour and egalitarianism that is quasi-Fordian. Though Yamanaka’s egalitarianism has less of Ford’s Irish sentimentality and is considerably more pessimistic.
Shinza takes this pessimism as a fact of life, while Unno is blind to it, in his adherence to the lie that justice is inextricable from order. Weak willed and pitiful in his slavery to decorum, he is the son of a samurai and yet since his father’s death, has fallen on hard times. Nevertheless he has hopes that he can shed the disrepute and destitution of a ronin and return him and his wife (Kiritachi Nobuo) to their former station. If only he can gain an audience with the neighborhood’s senior samurai, the ice cold and supercilious Mouri.
This quest leads him on a near-Kafkaesque spiral of endless waiting and humiliation, as well as one of the film’s most crushing moments. When Unno is snubbed once again, this time outside Mouri’s mansion, Yamanaka shows an extreme close-up of him picking his father’s letter of recommendation, after it has been tossed to the ground, followed by his dejected and confused expression, before cutting back to a wide shot of the mansion. This huge ironclad of privilege, with its doors definitively shut, is the upper echelons as represented from the outside; as hyper exclusive and non-negotiable. And yet Unno will bang his head against it a few more times. For unlike Shinza, he was once inside, and he cannot comprehend being shut out.
This shot sequence also displays Yamanaka as a master manipulator of space and a minimal canvas. His cutting is not slow but steady, while his camera rarely moves and generally favours medium shots and medium close-ups, situated somewhere between knee height and a hair above eye level. Within this relatively limited framework he shows an exceptional aptitude for group and deep focus compositions, which delineate and enliven the social stratifications that underpin the film.
For instance, one particular view of a street in the lower class quarter—where Shinza, Unno and many other characters live—is one of the main visual motifs, a pole around which the plot swings and propels itself. It is presented as a long, cluttered and spindly passageway, which leads to and is contained by a claustrophobic mass of urban detritus, instead of a sky. In contrast, the commercial and wealthier quarters are more spacious and have the benefit of the open air, but they seem depopulated, less alive.
Yamanaka Sadao’s biography is a compelling one, for his precocity but also because it is one of the great losses of cinema history. Born in Kyoto in 1909, where despite his impoverished roots and thanks to his two elder brothers’ toil, he managed to get a secondary education. While still a student, he caught the attention of the film industry by publishing an essay on its activities in his home city. Eventually it would lead to a career as a screenwriter, starting in 1929 when he was only 20, and then as a director, with his debut Iso no Genta: Dakine no Nagawakizashi, released in 1932 when he was 23. His approach to cinema was, to quote from the entry on Yamanaka in Donald Richie’s Hundred Years of Japanese Cinema (2001), “to shoot a jidaigeki like a gendaigeki”. In other words, he specialized in the period drama because, apart from it being the stock and trade of his employers, the Makino Company and, to a lesser extent, Nikkatsu, he saw it as a vessel for contemporary-minded social critique; a cover which his leftist principles and anti-authoritarianism could use to slip past the censors.
Any statements, like the one above, have to be corroborated more with testimony and second hand reports than from direct experience with the screen. Since Yamanaka was active between 1932 and 1937, his body of work is especially prey to the defining calamity of Japanese silent and early sound cinema: that so much of it has been lost. The factors are both universal; a higher up disregard for what was seen as product, and therefore disposable once it outlived its usefulness at the box office, and historical-specific; the firebombing of Toyko and the US mandated anti-feudal drives of the immediate post-war occupation years.
The effect on Yamanaka’s corpus has been that out of the twenty-six films he directed, only three complete features (The Million Ryo Pot (1935), Priest of Darkness (1936) and Humanity and Paper Balloons) along with a few fragments, have come down to us. There is his untimely end to take into account as well, for following the completion of Humanity and Paper Balloons, he was drafted into the Second Sino-Japanese war, where afflicted with dysentery, he would end up dying in 1938, in a Manchurian field hospital, at the age of 29.
It is based on a narrow sliver, and an abrupt end, but Yamanaka has left the legacy of a filmmaker dedicated to the bleak yet humanist truth that all become one in the gutter and the grave.