Our understanding of pre-World War II Japanese cinema has been limited not merely to those few films in distribution, but to those even in existence. Between unstable nitrate stocks (used for early films), poor preservation and earthquakes - not to mention World War II — most of those films are irrevocably lost to history. Contemporary American audiences' conceptions, in particular, are formed almost exclusively by Yasujiro Ozu's playful formalism and Kenji Mizoguchi's tragic heroines. All of which makes Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu not only an exciting, long-overdue release, but also a historically redefining moment. For the first time, American audiences will have access to one of the foundational artists of Japanese cinema, whose prolific output between 1924 and 1959 (166 films) well exceeds the combined filmographies of Ozu and Mizoguchi.
The sole representation of Shimizu's silent films, Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), is also the most genre-specific movie in the box set. A mash-up of pulp melodrama and what Paul Schrader has termed "transcendentalism" (in which directorial style elevates the film to an almost spiritual plane beyond the realm of the narrative), the story concerns two young girls, Sunako and Dora, in the port of Yokohama. Best friends, they're both in love with the same boy, a motorcycle-riding lad named Henry. Unbeknownst to them, Henry has another woman on the side. Expectedly, such a secret can't remain hidden forever, and when Sunako discovers Henry's infidelity, she shoots her rival and begins moving from port to port as a prostitute.
Traces of Josef von Sternberg's silent The Docks of New York (1928) are present throughout, particularly in the symbolic use of latticed shadows and shooting through bars to "trap" the characters. But the film is anything but a genre-knockoff: Shimizu's characteristic use of location shooting and lyrical photography are unlike anything von Sternberg or Hollywood studios were offering at that time. (The total transition to talkies in Hollywood had, by technological necessity, moved most of their stories indoors; Japan had yet to make the total leap from silents to talkies, and silents would be produced in Japan for several more years). And while expressionistic gestures appear now and then, Japanese Girls at the Harbor is largely a naturalistic work, attuned to the rhythm and textures of both nature and urbanity.
The three sound films included — Mr. Thank You (1936), The Masseurs and a Woman (1938), and Ornamental Hairpin (1941) — all share a similar narrative construction. Like extended anecdotes, they are confined to a single location and feature ensemble-type casts. Plots are but series of vignettes, with major events handled in ellipses and preference given to the passing minutiae of chitchat and everyday gestures. As Chris Fujiwara explains, "Shimizu favors a gradual and rhizomatic expansion of plotless incidents, whose critical points can be perceived only through hints, indirections, and cries and confessions that come too late. The plotlessness of Shimizu's films gives them a strikingly modern quality." Indeed, the almost real-time bus trip that comprises Mr. Thank You feels like an even more minimal version of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996).
Much like the bus itself, Mr. Thank You is a vessel for stories almost told: a mother is escorting her daughter to Tokyo where she is to be a prostitute; another man is on his way to a wake; a lecherous man with a fake mustache is trying to pick up girls. And then there are the dozens of pedestrians whom the bus-drivers stops to chat with: a woman stuck in a small town that asks for the driver to pick up a dance record for her; Korean immigrants building roads who cannot afford to take the bus. On or off the bus, Shimizu's characters are all migrants, deeply affected by Japan's economic depression, the severity of which lies beneath the surface of a charming, comical travelogue.
Both sharing a spa setting, The Masseurs and a Woman and Ornamental Hairpin reverse the situation of Mr. Thank You. Instead of being in perpetual transit, these characters are in permanent stasis. While both movies may explore the same themes of human alienation (all the more ironic considering the close quarters of the spa) and missed chances for love, they hardly seem repetitive and are distinguished in their own ways. Two shots in particular stand out as masterful. In The Masseurs and a Woman, the point-of-view shot of a blind man imagining a woman staring at him is made all the more exquisite and gut-wrenching due to the total silence of the soundtrack — a sacred cinematic moment, if ever there was one. And in Ornamental Hairpin, the the comic stumbling of a wounded Chishu Ryu (an Ozu favorite) as he attempts to walk without crutches create a tragically ironic counterpoint with love interest Kinuyo Tanaka. She will have to separate from Ryu once he is able to walk because of her own secretive past.
Seen together, the four films in Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu reveal that we have been missing out on a major director for all these decades. Shimizu's visual sensibility is completely distinct from Ozu and Mizoguchi. He has the tendency to use a double-fade in which first the characters disappear from the frame, leaving an empty set which then fades to black. His penchant for tracking shots also recalls Max Ophüls, but without the Austrian director's formal classicism — instead, Shimizu's camera moves like a blind man's hand over surfaces, objects, faces. And his narrative structures have a flexibility like few other films — in fact, Mr. Thank You, based on a story by future Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, was shot without a shooting script. The simplicity of these films is disarmingly delightful — the quirky humor hides Shimizu's mastery of craft and subtle, but biting, social commentary.
Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection
[This review originally appeared in The L Magazine on March 17, 2009.]