The uncertainties of the post-war world are often conveyed through the familiar “cloud” metaphor, but in characteristic fashion Yuzo Kawashima opts for something earthier in the manmade “Balloon” (風船, Fusen). Less representative of its troubled humanists than the amoral villain Tsuzuki (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) who likes to know which way the wind is blowing so he can go that way too, these balloons are up in the air because they’re afraid to land fearing the inevitable pop if they pick the wrong spot.
Our hero, former painter Murakami (Masayuki Mori), has become the head of a successful camera firm. His son, Keikichi (Tatsuya Mihashi), works with him, while his 20-year-old daughter Tamako (Izumi Ashikawa) is a reluctant student still living in the family home. Out of step with his times, he’s known as a decent and compassionate boss, offering his staff a significant wage increase in excess of that recommended by the union just because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. Unfortunately, Keikichi is much more like his conservative mother and does not quite share his father’s egalitarian principles. He’s currently engaged in a “relationship” with widowed bar hostess Kumiko (Michiyo Aratama) but treats her extremely badly, throwing money on the side table as he leaves her apartment to make it clear that he views himself as a customer and not as a lover. When Murakami re-encounters a family friend, Tsuzuki, at his father’s funeral it sets off a chain of events that will change his life completely. Now a shady nightclub entrepreneur, Tsuzuki is dead set on making his singer, Mikiko (Mie Kitahara), a star and thinks a good way to help make that happen might be to get her married to someone with money, like, for instance, Keikichi.
Raised in Shanghai, singing in French, and forever wearing berets, Mikiko may indeed be the face of avaricious post-war youth, apparently having floated along with Tsuzuki halfway across the world in search of a place in the sun. Urged on by her manager, she goes to war against Kumiko who, in contrast to the “bar girl” image, is earnest and naive. Working as a hostess places her on the fringes of the sex trade, but does not necessarily imply that she makes a living by sleeping with her customers, and she certainly seems less than grateful to receive money from Keikichi whom she believes to be her boyfriend. Mikiko willingly weaponises her sex appeal and seemingly endures no consequences for doing so, while Kumiko is roundly rejected as a “fallen woman” and deemed an unsuitable match by Keikichi’s snooty mother.
Tamako, by contrast, actively reaches out to Kumiko and attempts to make her a member of the family, never for a second considering that she might not be welcome because she can see that Kumiko is a “nice” person. Much more like her kindly father, she finds herself uncomfortable at home and mostly holes up in the attic painting. After suffering childhood polio, she’s been left with muscle weakness in her left arm and is treated like a child by her mother and brother who openly tell people that the illness has also made her “simple”. Despite all that, however, she sees only the best in people and desperately wants those around her to be happy.
The difference in her own family is brought home to her when her father takes her with him on a business trip to the much quieter, more traditional Kyoto where he has reunited with a pair of youngsters whose late parents once rented him a room when he was temporarily displaced by post-war confusion. Like Kumiko, Rui (Sachiko Hidari) is a kind person in difficult circumstances. She too is working in a bar and has done some work as a photo model, even glamour shots to earn money to pay her brother’s university fees. Rui doesn’t want to go on doing that in the future, but doesn’t feel too bad about it either because she only exposed the outside of herself, and really who cares about that.
Beginning to regret some of his life choices, Murakami wonders if he mightn’t be better to move back into the attic room in Kyoto and pray at the temple everyday like before instead of trying to make money he feels has slowly corrupted his family. Confronted with Keikichi’s near sociopathic self-involvement over his relationships with Kumiko and Mikiko, he comes to the conclusion that all he can do is cut him loose and hope he learns some humility through being forced to stand on his own two feet. Given a talking to by his father Keikichi doubles down with his misogynistic world view, insisting that “all women are whores” and all relationships are essentially transactions while claiming that he, himself, as well as men in general, is the real victim because he’s being forced to carry the can for the way the world works. Murakami isn’t having any of it, calmly asking him if he’d say the same thing to his mother, which he sheepishly admits he couldn’t.
Mikiko likens Tsuzuki to one off his metaphorical balloons, pointing out that he was an imperialist in Shanghai and now seems to have it in for the bourgeoisie, but for all his cynicism he seems to have a kind of admiration for a woman like Kumiko who carried on loving one man no matter how poorly he treated her. If only he had a woman like that, he might have found a place to land and his life would have been very different, he muses. Murakami, meanwhile, has rejected the modern city, certain that his son is the way he is because his life has been too easy and access to wealth has given him a superiority complex that’s put him out of touch with ordinary people. Disappointed with his own family, he decides to make a new one with the two cheerful youngsters in Kyoto, hoping that he will at least be able to save his daughter from the ravages of a rapidly declining society which seems primed to swallow the sensitive whole.
Currently available to stream on Mubi in the US.