The last film directed by the famous Japanese film drector of the thirties, Sadao Yamanata before he set off to fight and die in Manchuria at the age of 28, Humanity and Paper Balloons is a work about class and gender conflict in 18th Century Japan. How far it actually represents accurately the Edo era of Japanese history is not for us to say but what it really does do is discuss sensibly the degree and manner of class conflict.
Yamanata is focused upon class conflict within an integrated community- this is a community of actual people and not abstract concepts. The film revolves around a group of characters collected in a district of Edo, the then Japanese capitol, who live in what we would term a slum. They encompass all types of people- from Barbers to Samurai fallen on hard times. We see how the slum is terrorised by the pawn shops and those who profit and maintain a monopoly from gambling. The photography is exquisite, the film opens with a shot of dark and rainy streets- such shots continue through the film. The dankness and darkness, the anonymity of being poor are all shown by the camera work. This is a slum that only comes together to party after a suicide. This is a slum the members of which are too anonymous to be beaten up by the big city gangs that run the monopolies. This is a slum which obscures in its grime and dust, for an outsider the marks of Japanese rank.
Indeed the other part of the story is the distinctions within Japan of rank and class in a different way. One of the denizens of the slum, Matajuro is a samurai who has declined through drink to living in this fetid place. He tries to work on old connections of his father's to get a job but fails every time. His underlying nobility is reflected in the ceaseless bashing of his head against the stone wall that his own uselessness and fecklessness represents- failing to understand that he is now reduced to the level of the slum inhabitants, his tragic hope is something that renders him in the end hopeless. Matajuro though is able to use his rank within the slum to good effect- the officials won't search his house and he is a samurai so he can hide a kidnapped girl, his rank distances himself from the other inhabitants of the slum. Yet we also see the other side, the very first scene of the film takes place after another suicide, a suicide of another samurai who like Matajuro has fallen on hard times- this suicide is greeted by the slum inhabitants with ridicule- a samurai who could not fall on his own sword is an object of comic condescension even for the poorest of the poor. Matajuro in the end is murdered in a double suicide with his wife- significantly he is not killed with a sword but with a knife- yet again one can imagine the inhabitants of the slum will respond with ridicule.
As the opposite side to Matajuro's struggle to get out by using personal connections, we have Shinza the other major character of the second half of the film. Shinza is heading for disaster. His gambling efforts are easily detected and stopped by the cartels. As soon as he starts gambling again, it takes mere days to discover him. He acts in order to act, he wishes to be free yet every free act ends up destroying him. He acts by continuing to gamble, by selling the implements of his barber shop in order to defy the order imposed upon him. He acts eventually with kidnap. All these actions though incarnate a moment of resistance but end in disaster for Shinza personally- he is beaten up several times in the film (the only violence in this "samurai" film is the cowardly ganging up of the many on the few) but he persists in the illusion of a freedom that only leads to disaster. On a smaller scale we can see this in all the inhabitants of the slum, they are all incredibly crafty, cadging and robbing each other of things and robbing the landlord, yet in the end their actions lead merely to a temporary respite from the inevitable. They can get drunk on a couple of bottles of Saki provided by the unwitting landlord, yet they'll go back to live in their slum in the morning.
There is much else that is fascinating to pick up on in this film- I have barely dealt with gender relations- one of the most amazing things about Matajuro's state is that his wife has a different attitude to him, continuously providing him with the means to go out on his quixotic quests with the money provided from her trade in selling paper balloons. In many ways Matajuro's outlook is reflected in his wife's trade- she sells the ballons but only in the hope of Matajuro's success. We are left in no doubt that her activity is secondary to Matajuro's despite the fact, that and this is their tragedy, his activity is secondary to hers. Their acceptance of their failure is marked by her not him taking the initiative.
In many ways therefore the film represents the world of the slum as inevitably dark dangerous and horrible. Taking the attitude of Matajuro and hoping to escape through superior connections or of Shinzo and knowing that your destruction is inevitable both end in the same place. The Japan represented is a Japan of uncertainty- where the only thing certain is that you die in the end of the story. The amazing thing about this film is that despite its deeply depressing message- the moments of respite are genuine, the humour and acheivement of beating the system is important- its just that the end result is inevitably bad. In a way the film makes us question the validity of looking at a life or an action through its end- Shinzo's sense of fatalism is also a sense that an action acheives something even if it leads to destruction- its a revelling in irresponsibility.
This is one of the great films of Japan's first golden age of film (sadly many of the films made in this period were lost because of bad preservation and also of course the second world war)- I suspect it shows more about the 1930s than the eighteenth century. The acting is intensely interesting- its difficult to interpret across cultures- but the photography and iconography are superb, furthermore the film illustrates some of the stresses and strains of proletarian life in a society where though it seems impossible to rise, it seems very possible to fall.
The title thus functions as an analogy- the humanity in this film is puffed about by winds like a paper balloon but inevitably falls to the ground. Or rather to take the film's final image, like a paper balloon humanity drifts downstream- the point is as Shinzo does- to enjoy the voyage, ultimately you are going to end up dieing anyway.