The Balloon

The Balloon (1956)

Directed by Yuzo Kawashima. Screenplay by Shohei Imamura and Yuzo Kawashima.

My favourite streaming service, MUBI have been doing a retrospective of Kawashima films the last few weeks and I hadn’t seen this one before.

Like much of Kawashima’s work, this black and white feature is a classic melodrama in the style of Powell and Pressburger or Douglas Sirk – that is, nuanced, complex, tragic but ultimately, uplifting. It concerns a successful camera manufacturer in post-war Tokyo and his family – adult rakish son, disabled but lovely daughter and his dutiful wife form his household. This is juxtaposed by the son’s mistress (who befriends the disabled sister), a shady nightclub owner (who knows the parents) and the femme fatale, who sings in the nightclub and becomes the son’s new lover. Complex, right? It gets better. The father once lived in Kyoto and returns there on a business trip, meeting the daughter of the family who helped him in a time of great need, immediately after the war, and he starts to dream of better days and a better future.

It doesn’t look much on paper, but Kawashima manages to pull all the threads of this most complicated narrative together in a way that is simply beautiful. Straddling the old and new ways of life, this is a film that looks back with regret but looks forward with hope. The framing and photography are lovely, much improved from his previous film Till We Meet Again (1955) and the script is surprisingly lean, yet gives opportunities for each of the characters to shine.

The delicate balance of gender and generational difference (a feature of Kawashima’s oeuvre of this period) is on full display here, and the ending is just gorgeous. I can’t believe I hadn’t seen this film before!

Recommended for anyone who has an interest in Japanese cinema, film history or just enjoys a complex, well-told story.

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