Talking Pictures

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Archive for the ‘Period film’ Category

Humanity and Paper Balloons/Ninjo Kamifusen, Japan 1937

Posted by keith1942 on July 15, 2017

This was a title that I had frequently heard or read about with recommendation but this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato offered me the first chance to actually watch and enjoy the film. It was the first screening in a retrospective ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’. The ‘valley of darkness’ was the 1930s when Japan became increasingly dominated by the Military and embarked on wars in China, Korea and right across the Pacific. The programme was curated by Alexander Jacoby and John Nordström, who have already provided several excellent retrospectives of Japanese cinema.

They explained in their introduction that the selection offered films from the 1930s when

“Under the militarist regime of the late 1930s, the Japanese period film (jidai-geki), became a refuge for liberal filmmakers. The Narutaki-gumi, an informal group of filmmakers pledged to modernise Japanese cinema, were at the heart of a new breed of jidai-geki which opted for realism instead of stylization and for ironic pessimism rather than heroic optimism.” (Festival Catalogue).

This group usually worked the Zenshin-za progressive theatre troupe.

Alex explained that the films were to a degree subversive, exploring

“how to present the past'”

In the late 1930s

“the past was a set of contested values… “

and these films contested Samurai values, central to the value system of the militarist regime.

This film, directed by Yamanaka Sadao set the tone. Yamanaka was an important and creative filmmaker in the period. However, the majority of his films, both silent and sound, are lost. Only three full-length features and a number of extracts survive. As a director Yamanaka was noted for his style and his ability to work with complex plots and numerous characters. He died young when conscripted to the army for the war against China.

“Yamanaka produces a disenchanted study of a society in which the values of bushido celebrated in the more traditional jidai-geki are abandoned or betrayed , and in which people cannot progress.” (Festival catalogue).

In this film space was an important element of style and metaphor.

” Film offers a ‘safe space’ in a poor district, opposed to the lack of humanity and rigidity in the social structure.”

The film opens and closes with suicides. That at the beginning is of a Samurai/Ronin, i.e. a master less samurai, in this case reduced to poverty. This event takes place in a tightly packed tenement in C18th Edo. We hear the tenants discussing the suicide and learn that the Samurai hanged himself. It transpires that he did not, in traditional fashion, commit seppuku [the ritual suicide] as he no longer had a proper samurai sword but a bamboo replica. This has become a frequent trope in Japanese samurai films with characters selling their metal swords because of poverty and hard times. I do not know if this is the earliest example but it is likely that this is an influential device.

The suicide results in a squad of Samurai visiting the tenement to investigate. This sets up the division in the film between the traditional authorities and the poor and relatively powerless people who live in the tenement.

This tenement is controlled by the landlord Chobei (Suketakaya Sukezo) , a unsympathetic character who only visits to the tenement to collect rent or when the authorities take an interest. There are a number of tenants who we see and hear. A key character is Shinza the barber (Nakamura Kan’emon). We hardly ever see him practising his trade and he is involved in a petty gambling ring. The original property for the film was a Kabuki play ‘Kamiyui Shinza’ (Shinza the Barber} adapted by Mimura Shintaro. It seems the film is more downbeat than the play. In the film Shinza is a trickster, rather like the monkey in some Japanese tales, equivalent of Reynard the Fox in European tales.

Hi neighbour is Unno Matajuro (Kawarasaki Chojuro), another master less Ronin. Unno’s wife Otaki (Yamagishi Shizue) raises income by making the paper balloons of the film title. Unno spends much of the film trying to gain an interview with a local pawnbroker who rebuffs his efforts. Unno’s father, another Samurai, had done service for the house of the pawnbroker and Unno wishes to present a letter setting this out.

Two other important characters in the tenement are a blind masseur who, despite his disability, has a keen sense of what transpires. He also keeps a ‘close eye’ on Genko (Nakamura Tsuruzo) who lives by selling gold fish but also by petty pilfering: in a couple of sequences this involves the blind man’s pipe. The pawnbroker’s house also houses his daughter Okoma for whom he is trying to arrange in marriage to a Samurai, a proposal that needs to assistance to bridge the class divide. However, the film subtly suggests that there is an attraction between Okoma and one of the house servants, Chushichi (Segawa Kukunojo).

Acting in some ways as a connections between the tenements and the business sector is Yatagoro, who heads a gang involved in gambling but also acting as enforcers for businesses such as the pawnbroker. The Samurai, who are the city authorities, only appear when they leave their privileged space to police the tenement or to collaborate with businessmen like the pawnbroker.

The drama comes to a climax when Shinza and Unno are involved in a kidnap plot to raise money. At first apparently successful the repercussions are fatal for both men. Whilst the tenement occupants celebrate at a party where the sake is provided by Shinza the two men meet their fates. Shinza is summoned to a local bridge where he is confronted by Yatagoro and his men. Meanwhile Otaki, bought to her wits ends by their situation, first murders Unno and then commits suicide. The film ends bleakly in the aftermath of this tragedy.

The commentary in the Catalogue notes

“The film highlights Yamanaka’s skill at pictorial composition and deep focus, and his use of editing.”

These qualities are also due to the excellent cinematography by Mimura Akira, editing by Iwashita Koichi and the art direction by Kubo Kazuo. The tenement set is a tightly packed warren of rooms that open onto a central street. The camera explores these as the plot develops. When we move to the main street and to the house of the pawnbroker the settings open up, providing an expansive space that contrasts to the repressive and enclosing tenement. The deeps staging and deep focus is especially noticeable in the tenement sequences, drawing attention not just to the main action but to the teeming aspects of life that carry on.

The editing emphasises the parallels and contrasts in the story and between characters. Especially impressive is the final sequence where the camera shots cut between the tenement party, Shinza at the bridge and Unno and his wife, and her increasing despair. Then in what is one of the finest ending in cinema an exterior shot follows a bouncing and rolling paper balloon as it rolls into a drainage channel alongside the tenement. The sound, full of effective noises throughout, here offers the off-screen voices of children playing.

If the ending offers a visual symbol that operates as a striking metaphor then the film continually offers motifs that reflect on the characters. There is the letter that Unno carries back and forth as he vainly seeks an audience with the pawnbroker. Finally it is drop in the mud [following heavy rain] where it lies unnoticed. Paralleling this is a flowered hairpin that is dropped by Okoma, [apparently at the same spot]. It lies there, is picked up but then dropped back in the m mud by Shinza.

The print quality was not great. In particular the contrast was limited so the full effect of deep focus was not always that apparent. But the 35mm print was sufficient to demonstrate just why this is one of the most celebrated of Japanese films. The film clearly subverts the Samurai code of the bushido, values central to the militaristic regime of the period and which had for nearly a century offered resistance to the modernisation process in Japan.

Advertisements

Posted in Japanese film, Period film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »