April 16, 2015
Humanity and Paper Hearts – Japan, 1937
A year before his death at the age of just 29, director Sadao Yamanaka made Humanity and Paper Hearts. He had previously made 26 films, only three of which survive in their entirety today. Yamanaka was particularly drawn to period pieces, and his films often featured browbeaten city folk and down-on-their-luck ronin. This type of film was considered safe to make at the time, for any political statement they may contain about corruption and political indifference could easily be attributed to the past and not the present. Today, it is almost impossible to look at these films and not see in them subtle critiques of the militarism and nationalism sweeping Japan at the time of their release.
Humanity and Paper Hearts, Yamanaka’s final film, is essentially about two poor men trying to lift themselves out of the slums. One is a masterless samurai named Matajuro Unno (Chojuro Kawarasaki), who seems to have been born at the wrong time; he still adheres to codes of professional conduct and believes in the time-honored tradition of reciprocity. In this particular case, his late father helped a master samurai achieve his present status, and Matajuro believes that this man will return the favor if only he‘ll just read the letter his late father wrote on his behalf. This proves harder than it should. The other is Shinza (Kan’emon Nakamura), a hairdresser with dreams of making more of himself. His means of achieving this is slightly less honorable than Unno’s – he wants to run a gambling den. The problem is that the area’s corrupt local officials have a monopoly on that industry, and they are not shy about eliminating their competition. It isn’t hard to see the plights of these two characters as a commentary on both the military and the government in 1930s Japan.
The film begins with news of a suicide in the poor part of town that these two characters reside in, and it is in these early scenes that we can perceive the film’s third area of social commentary. It seems that society has grown apathetic. As news spreads of the samurai’s death, only callous remarks can be heard from his neighbors. Some even consider him dishonorable for not committing hara-kiri despite the fact that poverty had forced him to sell his sword. His landlord only cares about the trouble that could come as a result of his death and the difficulty he will now have renting out the samurai’s small shack. Only Shinza and Matajuro display any real respect for the deceased, and it is Shinza that recommends that the landlord spring for a wake in his honor. Unfortunately, it becomes just another occasion for drunken revelry. As one character later says, “What times we live in.” What times indeed.
As the film progresses, we meet an array of interesting characters. There’s a blind man who sees better than most of his neighbors; his neighbor who connives to steal the blind man’s cherished pipe; Master Mori, whose indifference knows no bounds; and Miss Okama, whose heart is big enough to love someone her family wouldn’t likely approve of, but not big enough to accept the kindness of those she considers to be beneath her in social rank. There is also Matajuro’s faithful wife, Otaki (Shizue Yamagishi), who reminds her husband every day to stay healthy in the hopes that he will one day return to a position of respectability. All of her hopes are in the letter that Matajuro carries is his pocket, and the scene in which she discovers the truth is utterly heartbreaking.
Humanity and Paper Balloons is moving, demoralizing, and unforgettable. It is a film that seems to indicate the pointlessness of decency, that it is only the wicked and corrupt that get all the glory. In this world, the film screams, there is no place for decent ronin, no room for fair competition, and no genuine opportunity for upward mobility. It is all about whom one knows. By the time the film comes to its inevitably bleak conclusion, we have come to understand what drove the nameless samurai referred to at the beginning of the film to end his life, and we understand the actions of the two lead characters at the end of the film. After all, it is only natural to want to show your potential, even if displaying it carries such tragic consequences. And we feel a great deal of respect for those two for fighting a battle that they likely knew they could never win and for never compromising their principles while doing so. Humanity and Paper Balloons is never easy, yet it remains a truly impressive achievement. (on DVD in Region 2 and 3)
*Humanity and Paper Balloons is in Japanese with English subtitles.