Operating in the 1930s - at the same time as many monoliths of Japanese cinema, Mikio Naruse, Hiroshi Shimizu, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi - Sadao Yamanaka has slipped somewhat through the cracks. There are two big reasons for this, and neither constitute esteem. Yamanaka died at war in China in 1938, aged only 29, and despite achieving prolificacy during his lifetime (26 features directed before his untimely death) only three films remain available. It is these three that Eureka localise in this collection, two of which are restored and on DVD for the first time.
The earliest of the remaining features, The Million Ryo Pot, a comedy involving a character Sazen Tange, a one-armed, one-eyed samurai played by Denjiro Okichi, is also the lightest. Starting with the search for a pot which contains the location of a buried fortune, this pot quickly reveals itself as a macguffin, enabling Yamanaka to look at a societal cross-section as more characters get drawn into the foolish search for this fateful pot.
The pot, a valueless looking object holding an unknown sacredness, moves from original owner to brother to scrap dealer before anyone realises its value, landing with a boy who uses it to keep goldfish in, where it stays as the hopeless previous owners try to locate it again once they realise their error. "It might take 10 or 20 years, its like being on a quest for vengeance," one character repeatedly, comically states. Displaying the greed and haplessness of all involved, The Million Ryo Pot plays out a comedy of errors with a satirical edge.
Yamanaka, in his take on a classic tale, and an archetypal character in Sazen Tange, creates a subversion of the sobriety of the traditional samurai story, taking the focus away from not only the violent role of the samurai, but from the samurai at all, placing Tange within an ensemble where each character has as much screentime as the next. If anything, the child character is the main one, acting as an innocent to contrast against the parade of adult greed and idiocy. The humour is broad, but its deftly put together, and Yamanaka crosses character and class to draw a image of a fumbling, avaricious society, that while historic in setting is essentially timeless in traits.
The second, Priest of Darkness, another period piece, again sees a small action lead to wider consequences. It starts with Hirotaro, a wayward youth, stealing a knife from a high level samurai, which triggers a spiralling series of circumstances that draws another ensemble cast into proceedings and has consequences beyond what anyone could have predicted. The story's nuances come from how Hirotaro's action leaves others compromised; the samurai who's life is put at risk by the loss of his weapon; and the sister, who held accountable for her brother's wrongdoing, must sell her body to pay off his debt. The film, a reworking of a well known kabuki (Japanese theatre) production, has Yamanaka taking a familiar narrative and modernising it with newer acting techniques, greater moral intrigue, and a more cinematic style.
Yamanaka, in an early feature by a young filmmaker, shows again an immediate command over form, showing a penchant for consistently artfully composed frames, relatable, occasionally poetic dialogues, and strong, humanistic storytelling. It is a well spun yarn, albeit arising from a familiar conceit (Kurosawa's later Stray Dog, following a Tokyo cop who loses his gun, is brought to mind as a similarly noirish take on this staple story.)
Though probably the weakest of the features, lacking the humour of The Million Ryo Pot or the power of Humanity and Paper Balloons, it sits nicely in between them in this collection, acting as a midpoint between the positivity and bleakness of the other two. In all three, pessimism is met with a degree of humanism, but in Priest of Darkness, the balance is at its most level.
Last, in the set and in Yamamaka's career, is the poignantly titled _Humanity and Paper Balloons, _the best film in the collection, and also the darkest. In this, a broad portrait of an impoverished area, Yamanaka achieves a vividity and a clarity of presentation that the other two films only hint at. Encompassing the struggle of an entire area, Yamanaka again uses a simple plot device, this time a kidnapping and ransom incident, to draw a cross section of characters in another ensemble piece.
Drafting the involvement of a leftist theatre group, as he did apparently a year before in one of the lost films, Yamanaka achieves a naturalism of performance that adds believability to this more dreary tale. Just as the other two films inverted the conventions of the traditional period drama, as well as mixing in aspects of many genres, Humanity and Paper Balloons aims for subversion. Rather than romanticising the moral vigour of a time ran under the 'bushido' code of honour, Yamanaka creates a film showing how awful and desperate the period was, and how fragile that code could be, in turn invoking suggestion as to how the time in which he was filming might be the same.
Bookended with suicide, Humanity and Paper Balloons is devoid largely of the humour present in the previous two films, but comes with a lot more weight, as well as a greater technical accomplishment. The cinematography is significantly better than in the films shot only years before, a mixture of the low level interior shots Yamanaka's friend and coworker Yasujiro Ozu is famed for, and moody exteriors with atmospheric dashings of rain and shadow.
Yamanaka, in all three films, uses the Jidaigeki genre of period dramas to draw parallels to the modern existence. Humanity and Paper Balloons achieves this best, and most brutally, but all have value in their varying levels of pessimism. At the start of Humanity and Paper Balloons, one character says, with a bleakness representative of the film to follow, " this party, i mean wake. Actually its all the same." Yamanaka, dead before he was thirty like French director Jean Vigo, had the ability to make films both critical and uplifting, that leave behind promise of what could have been. Unlike Vigo though, Yamanaka left a legacy of produced films as well as the many unmade ones. Whether these, currently lost, will ever be seen again, remains unclear, but the statement left in three that exist is strong enough without them.