JAPANESE GIRLS AT THE HARBOR: MAN OF THE PEOPLE
It’s a fitting irony that director Hiroshi Shimizu preferred to make films about outsiders, since within the expanse of Japanese cinema history, he has been something of an outsider himself. Coming of age as a filmmaker while Japan was transitioning from silent cinema to talkies, Shimizu was hardly a peripheral figure: he had much box-office success in his time. But perhaps because he was known primarily for his light films about children, he did not garner as much prestige. It wasn’t until many years after his 1966 death, first at a 1988 London retrospective of his films, and later at a small Hong Kong Film Festival sidebar on his 101st birthday, that Shimizu began to peek out of the shadow of his contemporary and friend Yasujiro Ozu.
Both born in 1903, the two directors followed similar career trajectories, beginning in the twenties and continuing, largely at Shochiku studios, for about three more decades. Yet the output of Shimizu, a workhorse as well as a craftsman, far exceeded that of Ozu: by most counts, he made more than 150 films between 1924 and 1959, at times churning out ten films a year. As with many Japanese filmmakers of that era, a great amount of this work is now lost. But thanks to a handful of restored prints and DVD releases, new generations of viewers are able to appreciate Shimizu’s steadfast artistic and moral vision. His is a cinema that always looked at contemporary Japan from the sidelines, with composure and compassion.
An innovative visual stylist as much as a born storyteller, Shimizu usually worked from rough sketches rather than scripts, and allowed environment and circumstance to shape his narratives. His renowned silent film Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), with its delicate social commentary, rendered in minute gestures and precise mise-en-scène, is a perfect example of his naturalistic yet symbolic technique, as well as a proper introduction to his abiding interest in life’s outliers. An exquisitely designed tale of the divergent paths taken by two friends in the port town of Yokohama, Japanese Girls at the Harbor paints its melodramatic plot with the lightest of strokes, allowing its setting (the film was shot on location, like many of the director’s works) to speak to the characters’ emotions: often the two protagonists, Dora and Sunako, are framed by trees and swaying branches.
The lyrical traveling shots and psychologically suggestive landscapes of Japanese Girls at the Harbor make it quintessential Shimizu. And although the film’s downward narrative spiral—concerning the social humiliations of Sunako, whose jealousy-fueled fall from grace results in her sinking into geishadom—would seem to recall those of Kenji Mizoguchi, Shimizu’s drama remains less bleak and wholly his own. Not merely a depiction of female suffering, the film also gently touches on the conflict between East and West, which plays out both in the increasingly westernized seaside town and in the different lives of Sunako and Dora, who finds domestic respectability with Sunako’s former lover Henry. If the characters don’t overcome all adversity, there is still a final sense of optimism—a positive, if practical, outlook that would define much of Shimizu’s work.
MR. THANK YOU: GRATITUDE
Filmed entirely on location and without a shooting script, the poignant, winning Mr. Thank You (1936) finds Hiroshi Shimizu completely in his artistic element. Based on a short story by Nobel Prize–winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata (also credited with writing Teinosuke Kinugasa’s landmark avant-garde silent film A Page of Madness—a much more frenzied affair), Mr. Thank You is a light road comedy with trenchant sociopolitical undercurrents, taking place mostly aboard a bustling bus as it drives to faraway Tokyo from rural Izu. Though the action is largely confined to one narrow, rickety vehicle, Shimizu manages to create and navigate a wealth of expansive drama involving his various passengers and passersby.
Like many of Shimizu’s films, Mr. Thank You is only seemingly featherweight: beneath the surface of this devil-may-care jaunt lies a dark engagement with a troubled society, Depression-era Japan. The unnamed bus driver (Ken Uehara) doesn’t merely roll through the countryside, exchanging pleasantries with local townsfolk; he provides reassurance and solace for people trying to manage through hardship and desperation. His nickname, and the film’s title, come from his spirited exclamation of gratitude (“Arigato!”) every time someone wandering in the road ahead makes way for his bus. These encounters between driver and pedestrian also give the film its central visual motif: point-of-view traveling shots from the front windshield dissolving into rear-view images of those who have been passed, growing smaller as the vehicle continues on.
Mr. Thank You’s indomitable politeness and chivalrous nature (flirtatious young women occasionally give him messages to pass along to their friends in other villages) are gradually put to the test by the travails of his most sorrowful passenger, a young woman sitting in the back of the bus, her head eternally cast downward. Accompanied by her mother, the girl is being shipped off to Tokyo to aid her impoverished family by, it is implied, becoming a prostitute. Mr. Thank You’s growing realization of her sadness, visualized in a series of subtle, empathetic glances, gives the film a real poignancy, but this is not a traditional tale of a white knight coming to the rescue. For instance, Shimizu gives the driver an accomplice, a delightfully outspoken, modern young woman, who sits near the front of the bus, blows smoke rings, chastises a stuffy, mustachioed loan salesman seated next to her for ogling other young women, and even shares booze with the passengers.
She’s a sign of Shimizu’s contemporary sensibility as well as his humane social outlook. And this openness extended to Shimizu’s life. When he had a chance encounter with some Korean laborers during the shoot, he devised an impromptu scene in which the driver has a lovely conversation with a young Korean woman who’s working on a tunnel through one of the hills on the winding route. Historically this inclusion is significant. Simply by showing this dispossessed minority group on-screen, Shimizu suggests their essentialness—literally clearing the way for Japan’s vehicles—further proving his humanity, and shouting one last “Arigato!” to his country’s most marginalized folk.
THE MASSEURS AND A WOMAN: SEASONAL GREETINGS
Hiroshi Shimizu’s camera traveled far and wide, and surveyed innumerable people and landscapes with humane wisdom, but never did it convey more irreducible empathy than in the shot in 1938’s The Masseurs and a Woman in which it takes on the point of view of a blind man. The image is a close-up of a gorgeous, yet distant and enigmatic, woman from Tokyo (Mieko Takamine) who has come to a resort spa and captured the erotic imagination of a sightless masseur, Tokuichi (Shin Tokudaiji). Sensing her on the street, perhaps because of her familiar perfume, Toku stops and turns his head in her general direction. The woman watches silently as he tries to locate her lovely, ethereal presence, and though we naturally witness most of this wordless exchange from her vantage point, the director inserts images of what Toku is looking at, or sensing. In Shimizu’s hands, this simple use of shot/reverse shot speaks volumes about the human longing for connection and the distances that keep us apart.
The lyrical and narratively unorthodox The Masseurs and a Woman is concerned with all sorts of missed connections and thwarted desires. A rambling tale of a cross section of people staying at an inn located in a remote mountain village, the film further reveals (after Mr. Thank You) Shimizu’s interest in untraditional story arcs. As film theorist Noël Burch wrote, “More radically than any of the more generally recognized masters of shomin-geki [the contemporary common-man film], Shimizu came to reject the concept of the linear, unified narrative.” The Masseurs and a Woman is a prime example of this. In the beginning, it seems focused on the two blind men, Toku and Fukuichi, enroute to work at the retreat as seasonal masseurs. “Sighted people these days are especially careless. You can’t rely on them,” Fuku states to his friend. But soon the film reveals itself as an ensemble piece, surveying the relative reliability of all the people Toku and Fuku come in contact with: the mysterious Tokyo woman; a father and his bratty nephew, who take a liking to her; an unseen thief stealing from patrons.
Though episodic in structure, The Masseurs and a Woman is cohesive in style, delicate and lilting and representative of Shimizu’s poetic visual sensibility. Employing his trademark traveling shot as punctuation, Shimizu treats the rural environs of the inn as a labyrinth, having his camera glide down corridors and through doors and peek around corners. All this movement serves to emphasize the relative stasis of the characters. Though the Tokyo woman seems strong and self-sufficient, not unlike Mr. Thank You’s memorably sassy modern female bus rider, she is finally revealed to have been seeking refuge from an unwanted male benefactor. Yet if Shimizu hints at attractions between multiple characters, he refuses resolution. Couples aren’t formed the way we might think they should be, and the promise of love is as transient as the inn’s guests themselves.
ORNAMENTAL HAIRPIN: LOVE'S ILLUSIONS
Like The Masseurs and a Woman, Ornamental Hairpin (1941) depicts a remote resort as an escape from life’s harsh realities, as well as a setting for potential romance. Yet these themes are intensified in Ornamental Hairpin, which presents a more overtly blossoming love story and far harsher realities. Made in the early years of World War II, Ornamental Hairpin, one of Hiroshi Shimizu’s most enduringly popular films, is infused with a mix of world-weary cynicism and poetic desire.
The film begins by following a gaggle of glamorous geisha down a forest road, as they fan themselves in the summer heat. Dwarfed by tall trees, the women are situated as part of a scene of natural wonder; as in his silent Japanese Girls at the Harbor, people and nature coexist in visual harmony. But when the women arrive at the spa, hushed beauty gives way to roof-shaking clamor, as their loud chatter rattles the peace of a guest upstairs, a stuffy professor (Tatsuo Saito). To further establish the women’s presence as a disruption rather than a gift, soon the professor’s friend, a soldier on leave named Nanmura (played by Chishu Ryu, who would soon become a regular Ozu player), severely hobbles his foot by stepping on a sharp hairpin while wading in a spring.
Nanmura tracks down the owner of the lost object, Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka), and, believing that his injury was some form of divine romantic intervention (“It’s like the sole of my foot has been pierced by poetry!”), falls for her. Though it begins with the makings of a perfect comic “meet-cute,” Ornamental Hairpin goes on to pragmatically deconstruct Nanmura’s and Emi’s desires: for him, all is poetic, and therefore illusory; for her, life with a cruel patron has become unbearable, and she doesn’t want to return to the city. The spa grants them each recovery, from physical and emotional pain, but as in The Masseurs and a Woman, love is seen as ephemeral and easily broken by outside influences: he will return to battle when healed, she will undoubtedly be left alone. Despite this pessimism, however, Shimizu was still criticized for making too light a film in a time of war (“Such la-di-da stuff,” complained critic Akira Shimizu). Ornamental Hairpin nevertheless ultimately passed muster with wartime approval boards, likely because of the presence of Ryu’s sympathetic soldier protagonist.
It’s hard to imagine this winning film causing any controversy (at a Shimizu retrospective at the 2003 Tokyo Filmex festival, it won the top audience prize, beating out even the new films in competition). Despite its wartime trappings, its good-natured, compassionate outlook feels universal and timeless, and was apparently a manifestation of Shimizu’s own spirit. Much respected and liked by his peers, the director would later practice what he preached by personally founding a school for war orphans, who were the subject of one of his most popular films, Children of the Beehive (1948)—the act of a man always searching for those outside the mainstream of society, and bringing them in from the cold.
Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.