I've had internet problems so therefore I haven't written anything in ten days. But now a technician has sorted it all out and hence I'm back.
Japanese cinema is of course acknowledged as being among the world's richest national cinemas, and yet so little of what it has to offer has been made available in the west. Now fortunately more and more of the films made by Mikio Naruse, one of my absolute favourite filmmakers, are being released on DVD, but of the classical era so little beside Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa is available.
A case in point are the films by director Sadao Yamanaka. He had a short career (he died in Manchuria in 1938, 29 years old, after being drafted to the Japanese army), and most of his films are apparently lost. And only one is available on DVD that I know of, a film with the most poetic of titles, Humanity and Paper Balloons (Ninjo kami fusen, 1937). But what a film that is!
It's a jidai-geki, the Japanese term for films in a historical setting, set around a few buildings and a few characters in Tokyo in the 18th century. Slowly and meticulously it builds up to its tragic ending, with a tight script and a closed set. A closed, but varied and detailed set, which Sadao Yamanaka and his DoP Akira Mimura has shot with a great depth of field and bold compositions. One example is when the main character, a ronin, sits and wait for Mr Moro, and we see him in the back of the frame, through an opening in the wall between him and us, and on our side of the wall other things are happening, and there's a conversation going on, so there are at least three fields of interest.
The script is written by Mimura Shintaro and its many themes of pride, humiliation and dignity takes many forms, and yet it's also occasionally witty, and the film is filled with small delicate scenes and symbolic gestures and actions. And the balloons, that signify the ronin and his position, are quite remarkably handled, up until the one single balloon drifting away in the ditch in that last, heartbreaking, shot.
For those wanting to know more, there's an essay by Tony Rayns here. For those that want to know more about Mikio Naruse, you just wait, eventually I will have to write a long, proper essay about him and his films. But the above is all for now. Finally though, I just want to mention another magnificent Japanese film of the 1930s, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum or Zangiku Monogatari (1939), by Kenji Mizoguchi.