In spite of everything, life carries on, a fact that's both wonderful and horrible in 1937's Humanity and Paper Balloons (人情紙風船)
, the final film of Sadao Yamanaka--Yamanaka died of dysentery at the age of 28 the following year while serving in World War II. Set in 18th century Japan, it's an ensemble film depicting the lives of various people in a slum community, effectively using comedy and naturalistic character development to show how these people have been conditioned to see one another as disposable.
The film opens on a morning when the community are slowly discovering that an impoverished samurai who lived among them has committed suicide the night before. We overhear some of the gossip that starts to go around about it, and we gather that the samurai was forced to hang himself rather than commit hara-kiri because he'd long ago sold all his blades. Led by a barber named Shinza (Kanemon Nakamura) people in the neighbourhood take the samurai's death as an excuse to throw a party.
The landlord reacts in shock to the atmosphere that's more like celebration than a wake though one suspects he's more worried about property damage.
The film introduces and develops several characters, including an amusing blind man who knows exactly who stole his silver pipe at the party and is just waiting to take it back until after the thief gets the flue fixed.
But mainly the film focuses on Shinza and another down on his luck ronin samurai in the community, Unno (Chojuro Kawarazaki). Unlike his neighbours, Unno and his wife clearly feel the disgrace of their living situation and every day Unno tries to speak to the local lord, Mouri, whose position, Unno believes, was achieved only by the aid of Unno's father. So Unno constantly tries to present a letter from his father to Mouri, hoping to be taken into Mouri's service, but guards at the gate of Mouri's manor invariably turn Unno away and Mouri constantly puts Unno off whenever they meet in the street.
Through all this, Unno acts as though propriety demands he never directly acknowledge that Mouri clearly has no intention of ever employing him. Despite always being turned away at the manor gate, Unno always humbly submits when Mouri tells him he can't talk now when they meet in the street and that Unno should come to the manor the next day. But Unno's despair gradually starts to show through his facade, and he starts to drink more, despite promising his wife he wouldn't.
Mouri is trying to arrange a marriage for a wealthy pawnbroker's petulant, sheltered daughter. Shinza, who's being bullied by the local gangsters allied with the pawnbroker, comes across the daughter alone taking shelter under a temple arch one rainy day.
The movie doesn't take any of the typical routes for a melodrama you might expect from here and we see Shinza and Unno have motives that the language of those melodramas couldn't understand. When Shinza kidnaps the girl, enlisting Unno's aid, it doesn't even seem like he wants money. He certainly has no interest in assaulting her. His and Unno's demands seem entirely based on humiliating the more privileged class, and after this neither of them seems especially concerned about dying. It's an eloquent final statement on the lives they've been forced to lead up to that point.