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DVD has certainly broadened our access to Japanese movies. Companies like Criterion, Fantoma, AnimEigo and now Eclipse are opening doors to a wider selection of older classics. Eclipse's Series 15 Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu billboards a phenomenal Japanese director previously known only to experts. The four films represented span only eight years but take us from the Depression to WW2. Watching them is to discover a very modern artist with a different approach to storytelling. Shimizu's ordinary Japanese are observed in human situations -- as opposed to dramatic conflicts -- that bring out their true natures. Storylines are secondary.
Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Minato no nihon musume) is a silent film from 1933; Japan wouldn't make the full jump to talkies for a couple of years. The 71-minute drama is the odd film out in that it takes place in a large city (Yokohama) and involves intrigues such as a shooting. Two Christian schoolgirls graduate and find different destinies in a country with a growing Western influence. Sunako (Michiko Oikawa) and Dora (Yukiko Inoue) are both attracted to Henry (Ureo Egawa), a handsome motorcycle rider. Dora sadly bows out when the more forward Sunako becomes Henry's girl, but Henry's also seeing Yoko Sheridan, a worldly siren from out of town. Enraged, Sunako commits a violent crime and has to leave Yokohama. Much later we discover her working as a prostitute. Sunako returns to find that Dora and Henry have married and are expecting a baby. They try to make Sunako feel welcome, but trouble ensues anyway.
Shimizu's silent technique uses many short scenes and many inter-titles. His camera setups aren't excessively formal and he's fond of tracking shots, especially in real locations. The girls are seen walking on the same Yokohama hill at several points in the story, encouraging us to meditate on what has changed in their lives. A gap of years or a few days might be represented by a few shots of rooftops or streets. We gather that the general economy is not doing well; the sight of an ocean liner in the harbor evokes a desire to escape one's personal situation. When the shooting incident occurs, Shimizu does some fast cutting, each time jumping the camera a few feet closer to the enraged woman with the gun. The cinematic effect is well judged, as the cuts erase the woman's surroundings until she seems trapped by the frame, and must shoot.
But the overall tone of Japanese Girls at the Harbor is one of social discomfort and subdued anguish. In her professional makeup and clothing, Sunako knows that she threatens Henry's marriage just by being seen with him. Worse, she lives with an unemployed hanger-on, a failed artist only too willing to keep his woman by making a scandal. Just as in real life, the film ends without a moral judgment on its characters and nothing firmly resolved. Sunako meets her former enemy Yoko, but under entirely different conditions. Even Sunako's pimp seems to be an okay guy who thought she was special.
The cast surprises us by performing in a subdued natural style, where subtle changes in facial expression make a difference. Composer Donald Sosin performs a new score for Japanese Girls at the Harbor. It looks as though Japanese silent negatives were assembled without hiding splices, as horizontal lines bisect the extremes of the screen on every cut.
Mr. Thank You (Arigato-san) (1936, 76 minutes) is a talkie filmed on location on a narrow mountain thoroughfare leading to Tokyo. The next three films in the set all take place on country roads or at mountain resorts. The vacation informality allows Shimizu more latitude to bring strangers together.
"Mr. Thank You" is the driver of a bus (Ken Uehara of Mothra and Gorath in his second film) beloved by everyone along his route. He politely chirps "Arigato!" as he passes pedestrians too poor to ride. Flirtatious young women ask Mr. Thank You to relay messages down the line, or to buy phonograph records in the city. On this particular trip he's carrying a cross-section of passengers. Mr. Thank You's frequent stops draw criticism from a stuffy insurance salesman, whose boorishness only makes him the butt of jokes.
No story develops, just a series of discoveries about the travelers. A pretty City Girl (Michiko Kuwano) flirts with Mr. Thank You and criticizes or sympathizes with the other passengers, especially a Sad Girl in the back of the bus, who is going to the city out of economic necessity. It's assumed at first that the Sad Girl will end up in some factory job, but we later discover that her mother is selling her into prostitution.
Mr. Thank You treats his passengers with equal respect, and makes only neutral comments. He gets along rather well with the Sad Girl, and in any other story we'd expect a happy ending. Mr. Thank You instead sticks to its impression of Japanese life on the roads, where cheerful people deal with injustice and hardships. A telling episode reminds of the insularity of the Japanese culture. Mr. Thank you offers a ride to a pretty Korean, a manual laborer. But she prefers to stay with her fellow Koreans. Anti-Korean prejudice being what it is, we gather that she feels more secure that way.
Shimizu films all of the bus action on a real moving bus -- we assume that the dialogue was dubbed -- giving the film a strong feeling of place. The road picture is a snapshot of contrasts: poor and wealthy, rural and city. The worldly City Girl smokes and passes around a liquor flask; everybody makes jokes. At the back of the bus the Sad Girl is crushed whenever passers-by ask her mother where they're going: "Say I'm visiting a relative".
The Masseurs and a Woman (Anima to onna) (1938, 66 minutes) introduces us to a pair of blind masseurs who travel the roads, stopping at mountain inns to ply their trade. As many as six or seven masseurs bunk together, servicing the hikers, students and vacationers that pass through. Blindness makes the masseurs suitable for both male and female customers. Tokuichi (Shin Tokudaiji) becomes aware of an attractive mystery woman from Tokyo, and decides that she is beautiful just by smelling her perfume. Tokuichi fears that she may be the sneak thief who is robbing hotel guests.
The blind masseurs are adept at walking roads, navigating bridges and remembering people by their voices; they talk about having a sixth sense. Interestingly, Shimizu uses subjective POV shots to erase the distinction between what Tokuichi intuits and what he doesn't "see". We're given shots from Tokuichi's viewpoint of the mystery woman avoiding him on the street, but knowing that he's detected her. Other characters enter the picture from time to time, including a bored little boy and his father, who seems to be interested in the mystery woman as well. But The Masseurs and a Woman concentrates on the unspoken feelings that flow between a blind man and a city girl with something to hide. It's an odd, tentative romance that seems to exist only in the imagination.
Again Shimuzu allows a certain level of humor, some of it more vulgar than we might expect. Walking between jobs, the blind men boast of their heightened intuition. Yet they almost walk into a pile of manure.
Ornamental Hairpin (Kanzashi) (1941, 70 minutes) is yet another affecting story about romance that "almost was". It feels like a de Maupassant story that wants to be a romance. The film acknowledges that people pass one another constantly "on the road" and that permanent connections are difficult. This time the key characters are a soldier on leave and yet another city woman looking for a new direction for her life.
A group of noisy geishas passes through a large mountain hotel-spa, angering the studious Professor Katae (Tatsuo Saito). Another guest, Nanmura (recurring Ozu actor Chishu Ryu cuts his foot badly on a fancy women's hairpin carelessly left at the bottom of a soaking pool, and must extend his stay to recover. The accident gives Katae another reason to complain, but Nanmura mentions the poetic aspect of being injured by a beautiful item of jewelry. Against expectations, director Shimizu does not exploit the hairpin as a visual motif; it may not even be given a close-up.
The pin's beautiful owner Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka) returns to the hotel to apologize to Nanmura for "causing" the injury. The other long-term guests make room for her, in a restrained matchmaking effort. Emi helps Nanmura learn to walk on the injured foot. She's in no hurry to leave, having broken up with a man back in Tokyo. Emi's girlfriend Okiku (Hiroko Kawasaki) comes to fetch her only to discover that Emi is serious about changing her life, perhaps with Nanmura in mind.
Although the feelings are certainly there, all thoughts of love remain unspoken. Emi's hope that Nanmura will notice her doesn't take into account how she'll explain her previous life. And Namura is in no position to make promises, as he will at some point have to return to duty. But Ornamental Hairpin comes closest to the notion of love fulfilled. Emi is overjoyed when the soldier is finally able to hobble along without crutches, even as she realizes that their time together will come to an end.
Eclipse's Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is a real eye-opener, a quartet of movies filmed in a refreshingly original style by an artist with his own interpretation of Japanese life. Both Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi held high praise for Shimuzu; Mizoguchi has been quoted as saying that, "People like me and Ozu get films made by hard work, but Shimizu is a genius..."
Shimizu seems an excellent choice for special attention. His pictures are cinematically astute and their acting is remarkable, even by contemporary standards. Watching Mr. Thank You or Ornamental Hairpin, we need to reconfirm that they really were made back in the 1930s. Every film has at least one arresting moment. The tram in The Masseurs and a Woman turns a corner as it carries the mystery woman away. Shimizu's camera suddenly rushes forward to watch it disappearing down the road. The camera eye becomes the blind man's heart, yearning for his lover that never was.
All four B&W transfers are of very good quality, with the occasional scratched replacement shot. Audio is mostly very clear, and the subtitles are easy to read. Michael Koresky's informative, insightful liner notes help to clarify some easy-to-miss cultural details.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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