Ninjo kami fusen / Humanity and Paper Balloons

Ninjo kami fusen / Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)

I think those paper balloons are just there for the sake of the title

Director: Yamanaka Sadao
Writers: Mimura Shintaro
Date: 1937

Genre: Comedy
Description: Humanity, poverty in Edo, trying to get by, honor, daily life, tragi-comedy, all time classic

Cast: Kawarasaki Chojuro, Nakamura Kanemon, Kato Daisuke, Sukedakaya Suzeko, ensemble

Crew of note:

Runtime: 86 mins.
Color: BW
Trivia: This movie was released the same day Yamanaka was shipped off to Manchuria. He died during the war in 1938, and the world lost a person that could have become one of the best directors evar.

In a slum in 18th century Edo, a bunch of misfits and outcasts plod through their days trying to make ends meet. The movie begins with one of their neighbors dead after suicide, and despite the dreary atmosphere, the locals still find the time to crack jokes, play pranks, and find ways to enjoy their lives. Among the characters is a samurai looking for work, who stalks his father’s former employer. Though it seems there is nothing that binds these people together, a gambling addict hiding from the mob hatches a plan, and.. things happen.

The movie lives up to its title: this is a film that shows incredible breadth and depth regarding humanity and the human conditions during pre-restoration Edo, as well as contemporary Japan. But what sets the movie apart is the way it is able to remain believably humorous despite its setting and themes. I would even brand it as a comedy, because the characters, despite living in the mire that is Edo, appear hopeful and filled with the thirst for life. All the characters seem real and authentic, and Yamanaka uses this to his advantage to show the tragedies and hardships of life without resorting to using melodrama and creating a heavyhanded or depressing movie. They even have a party during a wake. The courage, the pride, the indignation that these people show in allowing their selves to persist is beautiful.

The cast performs superbly, as the ensemble show a vast array of emotions, attitudes, personalities, and motives to fill the little neighborhood. They make this movie what it is, and it is truly the ensemble that performs.

The camera and framing are purposefully done mid-range with characters and props filling the frame, making the neighborhood seem cramped and claustrophobic–almost warm at times, imposing at others. The end–with the reversal–is quite fantastic. The final frame as well, shows why the film is entitled such. There is however a lack of music, though it is never missed.

You can slice it whatever way you want: social realist, fatalist, existentialist, ninjo vs giri.. bla bla. There are many layers in this film, but many forget about the humour in their final consideration, and I don’t think Yamanaka, after all his meticulous details in this film, adds it just because. Whatever his reason, I am sure he speaks of humanity.

PS. I decided to label this as a comedy instead of a drama, because I’m optimistic.

An absolute must-see. Very few films have this depth and understanding of humanity, and to have been made in 1937, by a director only in his late 20s, is unbelievable.

things to take note of
The attitude of the impoverished
Paper balloons…?

best moment
The jokes, the pranks, the laughs

why you should watch this
All of the above I mentioned plus the fact that it’s been released by Masters of Cinema, making it easier to find.

rating: 9.25

Plot: B
Cast: B+
Cinematography: B+
Music: B
Entertainment: A

similar movies, maybe:
none that I know of, at least for its contemporaries