It’s customary to link Sadao Yamanaka’s name with regret and loss—regret over the loss of life (at age 28, as a Japanese conscriptee in China), over the loss of films (of the 26 films he directed from 1932 to 1937, three still exist). Yamanaka is one of the filmmakers whose reputations are most tinged with the particular melancholy that clings to the fragility and evanescence of a medium that was never supposed to survive and whose existence always seems embattled in one way or another. The substantial Yamanaka cult in Japan is inspired by passionate love and devotion—the love of private collectors, for example, such as the one who saved a print of Kochiyama Soshun (1936) so that it could eventually be added to the slim corpus of surviving Yamanaka masterpieces (the existence of the print was known at the time Noël Burch was writing To the Distant Observer in the 1970s, but the film itself had not yet surfaced).
Yamanaka was a cinephile, as was Shintaro Mimura, who wrote the screenplays for all three surviving films, and so were the six friends with whom they formed the so-called Narutaki group of Kyoto—eight writers and directors who revolutionized the jidai-geki (period film) in the 1930s by bringing it up to date in speech, manner, and concerns. The critic Shigehiko Hasumi has likened this group to the French New Wave—a comparison supported on several grounds: the members of the group were young, their collaboration was independent from studio sponsorship and the institutional structure of cinema, they were avid filmgoers with strong likes and dislikes, and they wanted to modernize their country’s cinema by drawing inspiration from what they considered the best of recent Hollywood cinema. (That meant, for Yamanaka, such films as Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets , Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel , and Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night . Hasumi has identified Lady and Gent (1932), a film by Stephen Roberts—who also died young—as a source for Tange Sazen: The Pot Worth a Million Ryo  and John Ford’s 3 Bad Men  as a source for Kochiyama Soshun.)
The subversiveness of Yamanaka’s modern cinema is, in part, a matter of infusing comedy and social criticism into the chambara (swordplay film). It also involves a mise-en-scène that outlines the world of a film with a deceptive ease, calm, and fluidity while laying stress on things shunted aside (like the discarded pot in The Pot Worth a Million Ryo) or hidden away (like the kidnapped women in Kochiyama Soshun and Humanity and Paper Balloons ), on folds and gaps, on the unwritten side of history and what goes on in places of amusement and places where the poor mingle. Instead of heroic deeds, Yamanaka emphasizes the casual, almost invisible evasions and the minuscule decisions that make for what the official logic of society would brand as irresponsibility and treason.
Yamanaka shifts his stories from the plane of duty to the plane of enjoyment. (In so doing, he resembles Hawks, the American filmmaker with whom he has the most in common.) The emphasis on communal drinking in Humanity and Paper Balloons slows down the plot and imbues it with a feeling for impertinence that doubtless reflects Yamanaka’s own response to life, while making the film’s depiction of a tiny community on the margin of history more immediate and poignant. In The Pot Worth a Million Ryo, a comic poem in praise of laziness, the impoverished Lord Genzaburo (Kunitaro Sawamura), instead of searching for the title artifact, which he has lost, hangs out all day at an archery parlor in the company of pretty women. In Kochiyama Soshun, the masterless samurai Kaneko (Kanemon Nakamura) is less interested in his assignment of collecting small-business owners’ protection payments than in the chances his work gives him to visit the pretty Onami (Setsuko Hara, in a delightful early performance that might have remained an image-defining one had she not gone on to postwar sublimity with Kurosawa, Ozu, and Naruse). Kochiyama himself (Chojuro Kawarasaki), an easygoing small-timer, runs a gambling parlor on the upstairs floor of the tiny izakaya (bar) of his girlfriend (Shizue Yamagishi). The couple’s pleasant aimless banter (before their relationship sours over a fatal misunderstanding) sets the tone for the film, which plays like a series of situations being observed in the background while something else is going on—except that Yamanaka insistently omits the something else.
One result of Yamanaka’s shift to the plane of enjoyment is an indifference about motive. Why does the barber Shinza (Kanemon Nakamura) kidnap the pawnbroker’s daughter, Okoma (Noboru Kiritachi), in Humanity and Paper Balloons; why does the destitute samurai Unno (Chojuro Kawarasaki) help him; and why do Kochiyama and Kaneko collaborate to free Onami from the pleasure brokers in Kochiyama Soshun? From one point of view, the characters’ motives appear derisory; from another, too grave to be named; and Yamanaka’s own point of view, taking in both, plays the other two off each other to expand the moral and cosmic dimensions of his heroes’ doomed efforts. Space is enlarged too: Yamanaka favors medium and wide frames and a way of photographing people that constantly underlines their alliances and inclinations. The fleeting encounters between Unno and Shinza early in Humanity and Paper Balloons make the ronin’s eventual offer of assistance to the barber feel inevitable, and Kochiyama Soshun is driven entirely by the characters’ unspoken sympathies and antipathies.
Yamanaka’s insistence on seeing the characters within plural contexts determines his editing patterns, which are often extremely subtle. With The Pot Worth a Million Ryo, Yamanaka anticipates Bresson in his mastery of transition-by-negation (a character ends a scene adamantly refusing to do something; cut to the character, in a new scene, doing what he said he wouldn’t do). The oblique and elliptical treatment of a clandestine love affair in Humanity and Paper Balloons is discreet in a way that suggests a director who respects his characters’ intimacy while declining to enter into their lyricism. The montage, rather than hurrying the story along, locates each of the numerous characters and story strands exactly and definingly, so that their placement in the film becomes a succinct commentary on social destiny. In Humanity and Paper Balloons, a class allegiance they can no longer afford to maintain isolates Unno and his wife (Shizue Yamagishi)—a tragedy that Yamanaka views as a kind of self-imposed quarantine, as his framing and cutting emphasize the couple’s separation from their neighbors and from each other.
Yamanaka’s plots are neat and ingenious to an almost Guitry-esque degree—as always, I’m speaking only of the three extant films (in its centenary tribute, the National Film Center in Tokyo will show several films written by Yamanaka but directed by others, along with surviving fragments, their running times measured in seconds, of four Yamanaka-directed films)—but the element of causation in them is remarkably weak. Each film pivots on unpredictable chance occurrences, such as Genzaburo and his pot both turning up at the archery parlor in The Pot Worth a Million Ryo. Chance dominates Yamanaka’s characters and links them together—a metaphysical fact that expresses a social fact: people in the lower strata of society are less protected from chance. This affliction also provides a redeeming attraction, which perhaps explains why Genzaburo chooses to spend his days in the shitamachi rather than try to improve his station.
The most important things in Yamanaka’s universe (and a universe it is, though only three films wide) are the smallest: the seemingly worthless pot that turns out to be worth a million ryo; the small knife whose opportunistic theft early in Kochiyama Soshun turns out to be a crucial link in the plot; the borrowed umbrella that Shinza undertakes to return near the end of Humanity and Paper Balloons, and which, with graceful insistence, he surrenders upon realizing he won’t be able to complete his mission; the paper balloons (in both Humanity and Paper Balloons and Kochiyama Soshun). Humanity is a paper balloon: the absence of a connective to or no in the Japanese title, Ninjo kami fusen, suggests an equation, as Freda Freiberg notes in a valuable essay on the film in Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts (edited by Alastair Phillips and Julian Stringer), and not just a conjunction. Humanity is also: a borrowed umbrella, an old pot, a small knife, a blind man’s pipe, an urgent letter that its addressee will never read (the latter two examples are from Humanity and Paper Balloons).
In the title of Yamanaka’s final film, the word that is translated as “humanity,” ninjo, means not the human race (for which the language has another word, jinrui) but human feeling. In the title of the film, it indicates no precise direction for the plot but opens up the chaotic and unpredictable space of impulses. It acknowledges a level of existence (what I earlier called enjoyment and which might be called feeling, a tone quality of living) that cannot be directly expressed or that is taken for granted, which is to say, repressed. In Yamanaka’s cinema, ninjo embraces, rather than society as it is ordered, the very disorder of society: impromptu performances at a hastily declared wake that turns into a party; a man’s impulse toward a girl with whom he will never make love and for whom his affection is not mainly what we would call sexual, though it is also that (and so in English there is no word for it, maybe); two men recognizing each other as allies even though they’re supposed to be enemies. Progressively renouncing a cinema of plot and action, Yamanaka celebrates energies whose glory lies in their fleetingness—energies that can scarcely if at all be chronicled as they expend their fireworks.
All of which has something to do with why Yamanaka’s is a cinema of women, though it seems to belong to a “male” genre. Appropriately, the female characters signify their discomfort with this genre by being unwilling or unable to speak. Some footage seems to be missing from the print of Kochiyama Soshun in the sequence involving the suicidal courtesan Michitose (Junko Kinugasa)—a lacuna that makes her situation and attitude unclear but also makes her death more purely a martyrdom. She appears in the film for less than three minutes but stands out in it as an unsolved mystery and an unanswered reproach. The two main female characters in Humanity and Paper Balloons signify their discontent with the men in their lives mostly by withdrawing in the frame and not speaking. (Yet, late in the film, a short moment of neighborhood women chatting brings in, with a sudden shock, a value system diametrically opposed to that of the men who have dominated the film.) In Kochiyama Soshun, Onami, who speaks so exquisitely when she speaks, has no words to express her hatred for her brother’s selfish carelessness, so she slaps him, in one of the most affecting scenes in any film—its impact increased by the presence of a little boy, a mute witness, slowly backing away from the incomprehensible, unavowable sight of violent protest.
At the end of The Pot Worth a Million Ryo, calm reigns, and an archery target is hit (Yamanaka finishing his film with an exclamation point). It’s a little like the end of Hawks’s To Have and Have Not: less a definitive triumph of good over bad than a moment of equilibrium before the next battle. The shot that closes Kochiyama Soshun—someone running farther and farther away from the camera in a back alley—is (speaking metaphorically) another arrow fired, this one into uncertainty. Hard as it is to watch the last shots of Humanity and Paper Balloons without being aware that they are the last images in the last film of a man who would die a few months after taking them, they should also be linked to the concern with the random, the fugitive, and the temporary that runs through all three films. That is the level where, for Yamanaka, everything happens; there is no transcendence (as there is with Mizoguchi), only the tenacity of a vision that remains alongside what it sees.