There´s a lovely review of The Balloon by Hayley Scanlon that well conveys the plot and main themes of the film and can be accessed here so I won´t linger much over those aspects. I do want to underline how moving and beautiful I find The Balloon to be. It´s a film that grows on you. There´s nothing formally inventive that sweeps one off one´s feet. Yet this is closely observed work on social mores in postwar Japan, beautifully structured and tightly plotted. The film is built around a series of oppositions: The national vs the foreign, the modern vs the traditional, Tokyo-Kyoto, art vs commerce, rich-poor,-men-women, home vs nightclubs, respectable women and women living on the margins, two sets of siblings (brother and sister), two mistresses (one a kind widow, the other a worldly and cynical showbiz adventuress), two patriarchs — our hero who knows who he is, and his double but opposite, who´s like a balloon, going where the wind takes him, and changing his views depending on what´s convenient.
Yuzo Kawashima is generous and open hearted. Everyone has their reasons. But this does not mean he does not judge. Rich young men who think all women are whores, who seem to have no empathy, and think everything is a transaction are shown in a bad light. as are cynical young women who want to be stars and think nothing of destroying others for sport. But the film understands even as it condemns. What´s especially lovely in The Balloon is the way the film sides with those women who are most fragile and most vulnerable. Money´s important but it´s not everything and at the end father and daughter find happiness in a smaller city, with parks, poorer but gentler people, and traditional culture. It does not feel as conservative as it sounds.
It´s telling that the film made my fingers itch to capture so many images but it was really to covey dialogue rather than visuals (though those are very nice and work very well too.
I´m quickly becoming enthralled by Yuzo Kawshima´s portraits of social mores in post-war Japan. In Till We Meet Again, the problem is the confrontation of divorce with patriarchy: ‘men only want to treat women as pets’ says Yachijo (Yumeji Tsukioka) to her father Kaji (So Yamamura). Kaji has been ignoring his wife Shigeno (Fukuko Sayo) since they got married. She´s taken refuge in her cat. Kaji himself has rescued a girl, Kyoko (Michiyo Aratama) from the red light district and set her up in a boutique: she´s in love with him but it´s not reciprocatedl His daughter Yachigo is unhappily married to Kappei (Tatsuya Mihashi) and she´s soon falling in love with a bumbling scientist she met on the train, Sone (Rentaro Mikuni). Meanwhile Kappei himself will meet and fall in love with Kyoko. It´s a sexual roundelay shot as a chamber-piece with modernity as a backdrop.
So far, so typical of 1950s melodramas. As you can see in the sub-titles of the images below, the phrases are stock ones we´ve seen and heard and been witness to dramatisations of all of our lives:
But it´s the treatment of these, the way they speak of modernity, westernisation, individual fulfilment against social conscription, the very idea that happiness matters, that is so beautifully realised here. The shots are all small scale, intimate, the camera holding characters against a background like in a trance as couples form, re-form, as individuals struggle between personal desires and social constraints, all done low-key, restrained, not contained, articulated but in a gentle fashion. All these characters want is to have someone to talk to and pierce through the isolation coupledom has enchained them in, to share, to be themselves, to be valued. The patriarch, who has always done what he wants, finds these concerns bewildering and unfathomable. But the younger generation will act on their desires, in a gentle way. I love the attention to detail in Kawashima´s films, the slow revelations, how they´re feminist but tactful in their critiques. This is a lovely film and very moving.