Saturday, June 24, 2017

Ninjo kamifusen / Humanity and Paper Balloons

Ninjo Kamifusen. Chojuro Kawarasaki (Matajuro Unno) and his suffering wife.

人情紙風船 / Italian Title: Umanità e palloni di carta. Director: Sadao Yamanaka. Year: 1937. Country: Giappone. Japanese version with English subtitles. The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness.
    Sog.: liberamente ispirato all’opera kabuki Kamiyui Shinza (Shinza il barbiere) di Mokuami Kawatake. Scen.: Shintaro Mimura. F.: Akira Mimura. M.: Koichi Iwashita. Scgf.: Kazuo Kubo. Mus.: Tadashi Ota. Int.: Chojuro Kawarasaki (Matajuro Unno), Tsuruzo Nakamura (Genko), Kan’emon Nakamura (Shinza), Choemon Bando (Yabuichi), Rakusaburo Ichikawa (Yakichi), Kikunosuke Ichikawa (Kanekichi), Sukezo Suketakaya (Chobei), Kosaburo Tachibana (Sanzaemon Mori), Kikunojo Segawa (Chushichi), Takako Misaki (Okoma), Shizue Yamagishi (Otaki). Prod.: Masanobu Takeyama per P.C.L. 35mm. D.: 86’. Bn.
    From: National Film Center (Tokyo).
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna.
    Introducono XXX (chief curator, National Film Center, Tokyo), Alexander Jacoby e Johan Nordström.
    Cinema Jolly, 35 mm print with English subtitles. With e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra. 24 June, 2017.

Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström (Il Cinema Ritrovato: "Yamanaka’s last and most famous film is a downbeat yet vital account of the life of a tenement community in Edo, brought to life with superb conviction and detail by the Zenshin-za actors. The film dovetails the story of a disappointed ronin (masterless samurai) seeking a position with an account of a fruitless kidnapping scheme masterminded by the local barber. The characters of ronin Unno and barber Shinza are superbly played respectively by Chojuro Kawarasaki and Kan’emon Nakamura."

"The film highlights Yamanaka’s skill at pictorial composition and deep focus, and his use of editing. Loosely based on a kabuki play by Mokuami Kawatake, the film shares its “faithful portrayal of the manners and atmosphere of ‘downtown’ Edo” (Keiko McDonald). But his vision of daily life is given a bleaker inflection as it charts a futile struggle against poverty and despair. Yamanaka changed the play’s flamboyant characters to weaker, more realistic versions of themselves, and further darkened the ending provided in Mimura’s script."

"Yamanaka produces a disenchanted study of a society in which the values of bushido celebrated in more traditional jidai-geki are abandoned or betrayed, and in which people cannot progress. The emblem of his bleak vision is the fragile paper balloons which float in the gutter in the last shot of the film – a shot which seems a premonition of the director’s own tragic death. For Donald Richie, this image “creates an absolute in a world of shifting values. Life is neither more permanent nor more consequential than a mere paper balloon. This haiku-like sentiment is at the base of the metaphor. It makes a statement”.

"Sadao Yamanaka (1909-1938) was the greatest master of the jidai-geki during mid- to late-1930s. His career spanned only six years, but he realised around two dozen films. Alas, only three survive complete, but they fully illustrate his austerity, poetry, realism and wit. Shortly after making Ninjo kamifusen, Yamanaka was drafted into the army and sent to China, where he died a year later in a field hospital. But writing his ‘Last Will and Testament’ in the year of his death, he was still able to celebrate his achievement. “If Ninjo kamifusen should prove to be the last film by Sadao Yamanaka, I would feel a little aggrieved. It is not a loser’s grief”
. Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström (Il Cinema Ritrovato)

AA: I saw Humanity and Paper Balloons for the first time and was struck by the intelligence in the storytelling, the building of the characters, the refinement of the performances, and the assured tempo in the period film. The rhythm is based on the psychology and the reactions of the characters in this disturbing story.

The impoverished, masterless samurai Unno tries to ask for a favour from the mighty pawnbroker Okoma but is always rejected. Humiliated in the rain, he even lies to his wife about his progress with the pawnbroker.

The pawnbroker's daughter is about to be married to money, but she escapes and is captured and hidden by Shinza, the intrepid barber who resists the intimidations of Okoma's thugs. Shinza returns the daughter for money, and even Unno, who has gallantly protected the daughter, is implicated, gets a share, and loses his honour.

There is a final showdown between Shinza and Okomo's thugs at the Emmado bridge. When Unno's wife learns that her husband has been lying all along and taken money for returning Okoma's daughter, she grabs a knife, and proceeds into double suicide.

Only her paper balloons remain.

A tragedy about living in an impasse, with no way out. Yet with a sense of a fundamental dignity and courage that will never die, although the protagonists of this story will perish.

A watchable and seemingly complete print which looks like several generations removed from the original, perhaps even at least partially stemming from a 16 mm source.

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