Humanity and Paper Balloons

Humanity and Paper Balloons (人情紙風船, Ninjō Kami Fūsen) is a 1937 black-and-white film directed by Sadao Yamanaka, his last film.

Humanity and Paper Balloons
Humanity and Paper Balloons poster.jpg
Directed bySadao Yamanaka
Screenplay byShintaro Mimura[1]
Based onA play
by Shintaro Mimura
  • Chojuro Kawarasaki
  • Kanemon Nakamura
  • Shizue Yamagishi
Music byChu Ota[1]
CinematographyAkira Mimura[1]
P.C.L./Zenshin-za Production[1]
Distributed byToho Eiga
Release date
  • 25 August 1937 (1937-08-25) (Japan)
Running time
85 minutes[1]


The film is set in feudal Japan in the 18th century, the Edo period, and depicts the struggles and schemes of Matajuro Unno, a rōnin, or masterless samurai and his neighbour Shinza, a hairdresser.

A scene from the film

In a slum, a small group of families live by menial jobs. Unno lives with his wife. Shinza makes his living by conducting illegal gambling and pawning his goods. Unno is the son of Matabei Unno, a great samurai. Since his father's death, Unno has struggled to find work and approaches his father's former master, Mouri, hoping that he will hire him. But Mouri avoids Unno and rejects his father's letter asking him to hire his son. Nevertheless, Unno attempts to see Mouri every day, following him wherever he goes. Mouri tries to get rid of Unno by sending men to beat him up and telling his gate guards not to let him in.

Unno's wife waits for the news that he is hired, but is disappointed every day when he tells her that "he'd meet Mr. Mouri tomorrow". While her husband is between jobs, she supports the family by making kamifusen[2] (Japanese paper balloons). She urges him to find work and takes care of him when he comes home. Unno does not tell her that he is being rejected by Mouri and starts drinking to forget his humiliation. Although he sinks into poverty, he manages to hold on to his pride by avoiding borrowing or taking favours.

Shinza's story runs parallel to Unno's with more commotion. Shinza often gets beaten up by the men of a local pawn shop owner Shiroko Ya for the money he owns him or for conducting illegal gambling in their territory. However, Shinza, fearlessly repeats them, which upsets Shiroko's hit men and their leader, Genshichi Yatagoro. Once, after he gets chased by Yatagoro's men from a gambling site, causing him to lose his money, he goes to Shiroko's shop to pawn his hairdressing equipment. When he reaches Shiroko's house unannounced, he interrupts the romance of Shiroko's daughter Okoma and his shop keeper Chushichi. Okoma's father and Mouri hav already arranged (against her will) her marriage to the son of a very rich domain elder, a samurai. Shinza is rejected and beaten up again. He returns, making his mind up to avenge the constant insults.

In the meantime, Unno's wife is going to visit her sister's family. She reminds Unno not to drink too much sake, since he had recently recovered from an illness. He promises her that he will not drink.

Shinza, in order to teach Yatagoro a lesson, kidnaps Okoma when she was out with her lover at a festival and brings her to his house. After learning of this, Shiroko sends his men with Yatagoro to bring Okoma back by settling things quietly with Shinza with a ransom so that the girl's reputation will be saved. Shinza convinces his neighbour Unno to hide Okoma in his house while Yatagoro and his men come to raid his house for the girl. Yatagoro offers Shinza money, but he refuses it and instead asks Yatagoro to shave his head and beg forgiveness to him.[clarification needed] Insulted by this demand, Yatagoro furiously goes back and sends one of his men to his master to inform him that Shinza will not let Okoma go. Shinza's landlord, seeing this as an opportunity to make some money (because neither Shinza nor other tenants pay him rent often), goes to Shiroko and negotiates the release of the girl for a huge ransom. Shinza, though he is not interested in ransom, is forced to take his share of the money. When her father sends a palanquin to pick her up, Okoma gets into it, revealing to the neighbourhood that she had been hidden in Unno's house- a shameful act to get involved in for a samurai. Okoma, when she comes back home, her hesitant lover Chushichi promises that they will run away together.

Shinza, in celebrating his victory over Yatagoro and his master, takes all the men from his neighbourhood to a local bar to buy them sake. He forces the hesitant Unno to go with him to the bar while Unno's wife comes back from her sister's and sees her husband going to drink despite of her request. Unno, though unwilling to drink at first, when he learns that Shinza's kidnapping of Okoma caused some damage to Mouri's reputation, is happy to join Shinza in drinking sake. When Unno's wife approaches the house, she overhears the events that happened in her house from the women of her neighbourhood talking ill of Unno to each other. She learns that her husband has lost all his pride and samurai honour and is disrespected by their neighbours. Shinza is summoned by Yatagoro for a sword fight. Shinza, though he knows he is no match for Yatagoro, decides to defend his honour by fighting him.

Unno comes back home drunk, to be confronted by his wife. He lies to her again, stating that he will go to Mouri the next day and try to give him his father's letter. When he passes out on the floor, she finds out that his father's letter is still in his pocket and understands that her husband has been mistreated and insulted by Mouri all along. In order to protect their honour, as a last resort, she takes a tantō (short sword) and commits seppuku on her husband and herself. The next day their dead bodies are found by the neighbours. For them, the deaths are just another samurai suicide in the slum.

It is assumed that Shinza died in combat.

The film ends with a scene where a kamifusen falls from a boy's hands while he runs to the landlord to inform about the suicide of Unno's family, drops into a water channel and flows along with the current, away from the screen.


  • Chojuro Kawarazaki as Unno Matajuro (海野 又十郎), a samurai
  • Kanemon Nakamura as Shinza (新三), the hairdresser
  • Shizue Yamagishi
  • Noboru Kiritachi
  • Tsuruzo Nakamura
  • Choemon Bando
  • Suzeko Suketakaya
  • Emitaro Ichikawa


Humanity and Paper Balloons was written by Shintar Mimura and based on his play.[1]


Humanity and Paper Balloons was distributed in Japan by Toho Eiga on 25 August 1937.[1] It was released as Humanity and Paper Ballooons with English subtitles in August 1982 in the United States.[1]


Largely unknown outside Japan for years, the film has been hailed by critics such as Tadao Sato and Donald Richie, and Japanese filmmakers including Akira Kurosawa, as one of the most influential examples of jidaigeki, or Japanese period films.[citation needed]

Jasper Sharp of Midnight Eye described the film as "a fascinating time capsule of a movie that not only reframes the feudal period in which it is set to present a harsh critique of the social and political conditions of the time it was made, but also demonstrates just how tight, coherent, and entertaining films from this period actually were."[3] In 2012, Spanish film programmer Fran Gayo listed the film as one of the greatest films of all time.[4]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Galbraith IV 2008, p. 15.
  2. ^ Fukumori, Ichiro (2017). "Kamifusen, the self-inflating Japanese paper balloon". Physics Today. 70 (1): 78–79. Bibcode:2017PhT....70a..78F. doi:10.1063/PT.3.3437.
  3. ^ Sharp, Jasper (21 September 2005). "Midnight Eye review: Humanity and Paper Balloons". Midnight Eye.
  4. ^ Gayo, Fran (2012). "Fran Gayo - BFI - British Film Institute". Sight & Sound.


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