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Narrative In Japanese Film 3: Yamanaka

I am again going to quote at some length from Donald Richie’s A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film, with the subject this time being Yamanaka Sadao’s exquisite 1937 film Humanity and Paper Balloons:

In the second sequence of the film—a lane outside the tenement—we find that the camera is placed level with the human eye and that all shots are economically edited along a single axis. In this, Yamanaka was certainly influenced by Ozu. Though there are asides during the length of this sequence (one of them is to introduce Unno, the masterless-samurai hero of the film), in the main the camera placement of each scene during the progress along the alley varies not at all—the angle coincides with the axis.

This way of working is not often seen in American or European films of the period because these scenes could be said to “not match,” also because their sequence violates one of the assumptions of international cinema style, namely, that a film progresses by opposing shots. Shots which are compositionally similar are thought to confuse, though this Yamanaka sequence is proof that this is not necessarily so. The theory about opposing shots seems to be based on a Western assumption that narrative can proceed only through conflict and confrontation, compositionally as well as otherwise. The idea of a narrative proceeding through harmony and similarity, not often encountered in Western cinema, is seen again and again in Japanese movies.


In showing us the tenement alley, the director moves along its length, shot after shot. A precise rendering of the street is given, a believable accounting of its space, a logical introduction of the characters, and the setting up of half of the spatial metaphor. This is the closed and crowded alley itself, which, though invaded by officials from time to time, is really the safer part of the world.

When the outside world (the town outside the tenement district) is delineated, we are given no such spatial grounding. We do not know the location of the pawnbroker’s house in relation to our alley, nor the location of the bridge where one of the main characters will be killed. The temple gate, the fairground, all these “outside” locations are separate, distinct, cut off from each other. They lack the continuity of the tenement, which we were shown whole and complete. Consequently, it is the tenement which feels safe, like home, and it is the outside which is dangerous, or alien. “Spatially, Yamanaka—having set up this opposition of spaces, having fully reticulated one and left the other carefully and threateningly unreticulated—has created for himself a bipolar structure.”

Well, with all due respect to the eminent Mr. Richie, there are some aspects of this section that I’m a little unhappy with.

Firstly, the terminology in the first paragraph is wrong. The sentence “the camera placement of each scene during the progress along the alley” should surely read “the camera placement in each shot during the progress along the alley.” This mistake is repeated in the first sentence of the next paragraph as well, but thereafter corrects itself. A strange lapse (and something his editor should have picked up).

Secondly, I don’t actually agree with the conclusions Mr. Richie draws from his observations. Yes, Yamanaka does construct these opening scenes from a series of overlapping shots that, in terms of strict Hollywood continuity-style editing, would be considered ‘wrong’ because they break the 30º rule (which is presumably what Richie means when he says the shots don’t “match”). And, yes, the vast majority of narratives constructed using continuity-style editing are heavily reliant on shot/reverse shot structuring.

From these initial observations he then goes on to say that Yamanaka is doing all this to create a “spatial metaphor” where this seamless and “compositionally similar” directing represents the unified and integrated community within the alley, in opposition to the world outside which is represented by Yamanaka as a series of locations that are “separate, distinct, cut off from each other.”

However, the shooting and editing styles do not change throughout the film. When Yamanaka has to shoot a similar type of scene in the “outside” world—and where the action is confined to a long narrow space such as an alley—he employs exactly the same type of shot structure and editing style as he does in the tenement. In other words, Yamanaka is not composing these scenes this way in order to express a “spatial metaphor,” it is simply a function of the types of spaces he is shooting in. For example, here is a sequence of stills from the opening tenement sequence that Richie describes:




Compare this now to a scene later in the film that is in Richie’s “outside world” but shot in a very similar type of space:




As you can see, a very similar overall style. There doesn’t seem to be any particular “spatial metaphor” at work here that would allow us to identify the two sequences as existing in different symbolic or psychological realms: we’re just shooting in alleys!

Isn’t there also a contradiction in Richie’s piece? First he says that the “idea of a narrative proceeding through harmony and similarity … is seen again and again in Japanese movies” but then later asserts that the creation of these two spaces—the safe tenement vs. the alien outside—creates “a bipolar structure.” Surely all narrative proceeds through conflict of some kind.

Oddly enough, I do agree with the basic opposition that Richie has observed, namely that Yamanaka plays off this cosy and communal tenement against the disjointed and harsh outside world, but I don’t believe this is expressed in the shooting and editing styles. For me, it is the emptiness and formality of the outside world that distinguishes it from the noisy and vibrant tenement.

But that, as they say, is another story.

Richie, D. (2005) A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International (p.76)

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