This week sees the release of the latest in the Masters of Cinema line of DVDs, 'The Complete Existing Films of Sadao Yamanaka'. Full disclosure here: I consider Sadao Yamanaka to be one of the most technically accomplished directors in history, and 'Humanity And Paper Balloons' one of the greatest films ever made. Don't worry though, I'm writing this review with an ice-pack on my head so I can retain my lucidity.
Sadao Yamanaka's career is one of the great tragedies of cinema. While early masters of film in the post-Silent era, like John Ford and Yasujirō Ozu, are well represented in most histories, Yamanaka is hardly mentioned. A prodigy of the medium, he shot 26 films in six years during the 1930s and was regarded as a cinematic force of nature. So you would think that the shadow of Yamanaka would loom large over us even now, right?
Unfortunately, the Second World War stole that heritage from us. Almost immediately upon being drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army, he contracted dysentery, dying at the age of 28. The post-War upheaval wiped out nearly his entire corpus of 26 films, and now only three survive.
Those three films, 'Humanity And Paper Balloons', 'The Million Ryo Pot', and 'Kōchiyama Sōshun', are being released this week from new digital scans. This is the first time that the latter two films have been released outside of Japan, so unless you were crazy enough to import Yamanaka DVDs into the UK, paying exorbitant import duties I might add, these films will have taken eight decades to reach you. And it will all have been worth it.
'Humanity And Paper Balloons' was Yamanaka's last film, released the very same day he was drafted in 1937. An alternatingly hilarious and heartbreaking depiction of the struggles of Edo period peasants to reclaim agency and rescue their dignity from a brutal feudal system - it's a masterclass of composition and the control of narrative tension.
The peasants’ acts of petty rebellion necessarily grow in audacity as the oppression of their circumstances smothers their joy in living, but even as the three-act structure is punctuated by the calls of street vendors selling wares, then seamlessly integrated into the action, the film is anything but predictable. As a simultaneously uplifting and tragic vindication of the human spirit, this masterpiece is absolutely peerless.
While 'Humanity And Paper Balloons' is a work of incandescent genius, 'The Million Ryo Pot' and 'Kōchiyama Sōshun' are merely brilliant. 'Kōchiyama Sōshun' was co-written by Shintarō Mimura, the writer of 'Humanity And Paper Balloons', and is a riff on the Kōchiyama Sōshun character archetype from 19th century kabuki plays. A samurai's knife is stolen, and the ensuing fallout is driven by two street criminals in a gently farcical subversion of the film's kabuki parentage.
Meanwhile, 'The Million Ryo Pot' is the first cinematic incarnation of the one-armed ronin Tange Sazen, who is unwittingly embroiled in a petty aristocrat's attempts to retrieve a pot that would seal his fortune. Tange Sazen is played with singular relish by Denjirou Oukouchi, mixing the comically cantankerous with an understated ferocity. It's again gently farcical and sometimes slow-moving as a plot, but as a narrative the commanding flourishes of editing elevate it.
I won't barrel headfirst into a shot-by-shot breakdown here, but I will say that the lack of visual flair in 'Kōchiyama Sōshun''s camera and cutting, owing to its theatrical roots, is more than made up for in 'The Million Ryo Pot'. And this is all without even mentioning its invention of the Gilligan Cut, a comedy device which the rest of the world took thirty years to catch up to.
At the risk of coming across as completely mad, I'll admit that I consider the films of Sadao Yamanaka to be a legitimate reason to carry on living. His plot turns are literally breathtaking - if you've never gasped at a film before then you've missed out on a truly inarticulable experience. His genius for framing and dynamic asymmetry explicates both the tones of his scenes and the relationship between characters. His narrative editing will blow your fucking mind.
Please, please don't be put off by the fact that the films are old, or in black-and-white, or that you'll have to read subtitles. 'Humanity And Paper Balloons' is worth price of the DVD set alone, a work of art that will haunt you forever if you choose to open up to it. I think this ice-pack has evaporated.
DVD EXTRAS:- New digital transfers of all three films
- New English subtitle translations
- Rare fragments of other lost Yamanaka films
- A lengthy booklet, including Yamanaka's will, excerpts from his diaries, essays by Tony Rayns, Shinji Aoyama, Kimitoshi Sat ô, and more
'The Complete Existing Films Of Sadao Yamanaka' is available to purchase at amazon.co.uk etc.