4 amazing films: Mr. Thank You, Japanese Girls at the Harbor, The Masseurs and a Woman, & Ornamental Hairpin
I bought Criterion Collection’s Hiroshi Shimizu box set as a lark, knowing nothing of what I would find. I ended up completely drawn in to the point where I had to search out as many Shimizu films as possible. Needing films with subtitles, I found this to be far more challenging than I expected. (Brief rant: It’s really frustrating that even the finest old Japanese films are nearly impossible to find in the States, with the exception of Kurosawa or Ozu. It goes to show just how Euro-centric we remain. I did manage to find some Shimizu through an e-bay seller’s off-site list of bootlegs which he translated. That’s it!) I’m grateful that Criterion took the risk to make their fine editions available in the Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu set. His colleague, the great filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi, once said, “People like me and Ozu get films made by hard work, but Shimizu is a genius….” I understand why he felt this way.
I imagine that Shimizu’s films might be a challenge for some viewers, as they seem at first to be rather mild and slowly paced. Not only are they, well, from Japan, but they don’t feature samurai and not quite as warm and family oriented as work by the more popular Yasujiro Ozu. Shimizu’s films move like poems or like imagistic short stories. While they have story lines, the focus is on the image and on a string of loosely linked characters. There’s an episodic quality that I very much like, as Shimizu peeks in on various groups with the sum of it all not readily apparent. Yet in all of his films there is a sense of unity that becomes clear at the end. Shimizu was a practicing Buddhist and there is a kind of peaceful, evolving, accepting concentration to his work. Let me explain by delving into my favorite of four Shimizu’s in Criterion’s set, the early talkie from 1936, Mr. Thank You.
Mr. Thank You is mostly set on a small bus that takes people through some isolated mountain communities. People come onto the bus; people leave the bus — but a few people stay, and they provide the center of the story. The bus is driven by a good looking, friendly, generous, and perceptive young bus driver who is known by people throughout the towns as “Mr. Thank You” for his tendency to call out “thank you” to those walking on the street. Various stories are united by the thread of giving and taking, of stinginess and generosity. The people who come and go provide a microcosm of people who lived in Japan in this period — everyone from wandering minstrels to sophisticated Westernized women to an old doctor and, most importantly, a mother who has sold her daughter and is taking her to work in (we assume) a geisha house. Incidents on the bus reveal the changing status of women, the state of economy (a deep depression), the onslaught of modern vehicles (as they rush past those who still walk), the lack of available men, the decline of rural life, and other situations common in this period across the world. But you don’t really think about all that as you’re watching the movie. It’s hardly ponderous; Shimizu has such a light, witty touch that you might just think you’re going on a pleasant bus ride.
And the ride really is enjoyable. On one level, Mr. Thank You works as a travelogue — I saw parts of Japan on the ride that I’ve never seen in other movies. Even in black and white, it was quite lovely as the bus wound around water and through tunnels and nearly toppled down mountainous drop-offs. There are sweeping views of fields and flowers and sensuous paths. The quaintness of ordinary people walking in groups down the street had a real sweetness. (This same look at people walking on rural roads comes up in another Shimizu film in the box set, The Masseurs and a Woman.) It felt like a final glimpse at a vanishing world. It had a certain documentary quality. All of the people did seem to represent types, and since we see them so briefly, we know them only as we might know that person we see every day on the subway. This doesn’t mean that we can’t conjecture quite a lot about their lives, though.
We do come to know more about our core characters as the ride goes on. It becomes clear that among all the light-hearted talk is a weighty situation. The pomegranate crop is so good that there is no money to be made. People can’t survive. The girl being sold as a geisha is withdrawn — nearly mute — and very unworldly. She has absolutely no idea whatsoever about life in the city. She has never heard a popular song (which is revealed in a funny scene in which girls on the road greet the bus driver and ask him to bring them back a recording as if it’s the most precious thing in the world). She is embarrassed to speak and humiliated by her situation. Her mother seems to accept it as a practical situation and only rarely reveals that it causes her grief. People on the bus discuss how commonly girls are sold, because there are too many of them and no way to feed them. It’s chilling. A doctor remarks that he doesn’t know whether he should congratulate parents on a birth or offer condolences. In many little ways the real conditions of poverty are revealed, and yet there is no great drama over it. It’s simply a fact, and people try to get by, and someone makes a joke or falls asleep. Only the bus driver as he glimpses in the rear view mirror seems to have an understanding of the wider picture, much as the director himself might feel.
While our driver Mr. Thank You embodies the virtues of kindness and politeness, it is the sassy young woman in Western dress who consistently does the right thing. While Mr. Thank You drives along, she-who-has-no-name watches the others, cracking jokes, mouthing off, and passing around a flask. She is a wanderer; she would be an entertainer if she could sing, she says. We don’t hear her tale of woe (as is so often revealed in early Japanese films); for all we know, she has no woe. Aside from being wistful, and unsuccessfully flirting with the driver, she seems to have made peace with her situation. (There is one great moment, though, when one of the passengers says that no matter how bad the girls have it, the boys have it rough. And she stares at him. For a long time.) And it is she who finds the solution to the potential-geisha’s problems. She breezes in, she breezes out, and it’s the last we see of her. She is played by an actress named Michiko Kuwano who unfortunately died young, and I loved her in this.
Oh, and Mr. Thank You tosses in a number of pop culture references, as with this little joke about the changes in films (and how slow they are to be discovered in the mountains):
Traveling on: not all of Shimizu’s films are as upbeat as Mr. Thank You. Japanese Girls at the Harbor is an odd gothic melodrama about a murderous schoolgirl who comes to lead a life of disgrace. This is a silent film from 1933, and one of the things I liked most about it was the way the intertitles sometimes entwine with the visuals to create a fable effect. So there will be the beginning of a sentence — beautiful shot — middle of sentence — another cool shot — and end of sentence (moving on into the story), as if the film is truly being narrated by a knowing and rather kindly voice. Though this is a story that might lend itself to all manner of narrator judgment (after all, our heroine shoots someone, becomes a prostitute, and seduces her best friend’s husband), the narration seems generous. The errant schoolgirl punishes only herself; there is no call for retribution upon her. (This is, in fact, rather puzzling. Although she goes into hiding for awhile, she does reappear in her home town and even briefly helps the woman she shot. Yet there’s no apparent fear of arrest, and no one really seems to mind much that she actually shot this flirty Western-dressing interloper in the first place.) Nor is society taken to task for what happens to any of the women. There are really few American silents that were as open-minded about its female transgressors — if it wasn’t her fault, it had to be someone else’s. It was refreshing to have the moral stance off the board; it meant I could come to my own conclusions about the characters. This was a trait I enjoyed in all four of the Shimizu films that I saw. And, in fact, the only person I actually disliked in the film was Henry, the charming guy that all the girls wanted. It in fact seemed quite telling that there were apparently no other appealing guys in all of Japan, given the way these three women fought over him.
All of this aside, what I most appreciated about this film was its visuals. Frame by frame, there were simply stunning shots. Shimizu uses several unusual devices, as when some people leave a scene by simply dissolving and disappearing, or when a change in location can be indicated by one woman at her window, while her friend, miles away, is shown in another. People are often framed by doors and windows, doors opening and closing.
There was a sweetness to its visual portrayal of the two girls who become women, a real affection toward them and their friendship. I felt it captured something fleeting and true about close female friendships, especially in adolescence. This is treated in a delicate, poetic manner, and to me these scenes are the best parts of the film. After the girl commits her crime, the film shifts into a different phase. Then it becomes the story of a geisha, one seen often in the Shochiku films of the period, treated in varying ways by Shimizu, Ozu, and Naruse, and probably others whose work is lost. Because we’re gotten to know our fallen heroine, there is real poignancy to her grief and her attempts to carry on. This is not at all heavy handed; it’s done quite beautifully as in a scene where she smiles and says the right geisha things, only to have it come apart in a simple glance away. She switches on her role; she switches it off, all in the space of a second. There’s something very true in that; who hasn’t done it? There is no need for dialogue or histrionics to get across the woman’s pain. The actress Michiko Oikawa is wonderful — Sunako could be dismissive and cruel, but the actress made me sympathize with her by the way she reveals how she is suffering underneath it all. Oikawa is also not a traditionally pretty actress; she has an unusual face, a ferocious face, and that made her interesting to watch. She is not a victim and she is not demure. Neither is she particularly evil. She is passionate about her emotions.
This film, which has a pretty trite plotline, is carried by Oikawa’s Sunako and by some quirky elements. I am a huge fan of the actor Tatsuo Saito. Usually he plays sympathetic dad-types or lovably cranky professors; here he follows Sunako while wearing a beret and toting painting canvases. He literally washes her underwear while she supports the household. He’s not especially likable, though. He’s in fact just rather…strange, as much as I felt for him. I always find this actor funny, a bit goofy and out of place. Ozu played on that quality quite poignantly when using Saito in his films. Here he’s funny in a peculiar way, as if the actor is laughing at his own character, who is all angles and puzzlement and head tilts. He is also featured in some of the film’s best moments, as when he and a friend attempt to sell art on the street, talking about the lack of jobs as people pass quickly by, not looking; “There’s a lot of people in the world,” he says (shot of feet passing at their eye level) “too many people.” That this fellow takes matters into his own hands at a certain point provided an interesting plot twist. His presence also adds a certain bohemian element into what would be an otherwise standard working girl scenario, as he hides the dirty laundry (literally) and has his paintings thrown at him. Shimizu is so wonderful at coming up with these small odd touches that might seem unimportant, but that actually make the film worth watching. (And that painting-toss scene actually uses a hallway, a door, and a long shot to great comedic effect while giving the scene a kind of balanced unity. It’s so good!)
It’s strange how little Shimizu is known. He was big in his day, directing 160 movies. Japanese Girls at the Harbor actually uses some motifs that are practically goth (murderous schoolgirls in uniform and all). I’ve seen plenty of anime films that might as well be direct lifts. Unfortunately, many of the people who might like this movie would probably not be caught dead watching a silent film. It’s a shame, because it’s terrific.
Ornamental Hairpin and The Masseurs and a Woman were the two other films in this box set. I loved Ornamental Hairpin, but as it’s made in 1941, it just slips beyond the purview of this blog. It’s a sweet, sad little movie with a very sympathetic heroine. Like Mr. Thank You, it brings together a disparate group of random people and then disperses them. This film again includes Tatsuo Saito and another actor who appeared in many Ozu films, Chishu Ryu. As with the other films, it has beautiful cinematography and features elements of the natural world. And it has a similar setting to the one he uses in the film The Masseurs and a Woman, with both films using a vacation retreat on the Izu Peninsula to bring everyone together.
Both The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) and Mr. Thank You refer to the economic depression and the difficulty of men finding work, with the masseurs concerned that they will lose their jobs to women. Although The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) was my least favorite in the set, it was still fun to watch and allowed Shimizu to practice techniques that he later used more effectively in Ornamental Hairpin. (A long winding bridge and an adorably obnoxious child are used similarly in both.) The Masseurs is primarily of interest because it features blind people — the very sufficient and competent masseurs. They can out walk and out work all of the other travelers in the movie, including two young groups of hikers. Although there are some jokes at their expense, the film takes them seriously for the most part, and one masseur is the hero of the story. This masseur, Toku, is a kind of all-seeing eye who picks up on all kinds of details that sighted people miss, and his ultimate vulnerability is touching. Like Mr. Thank You, this is an upbeat little movie, and its good humor nearly masks its statements about the self-sufficiency of the supposedly handicapped.
I’m so glad that I came across this box set. These are wonderful films. (Personally, I like his work more than I like the more popular Ozu’s, in part because the women are more complex.) It would be great to see more Shimizu films released in the West, but I’m not holding my breath. A number of writers have conjectured that Shimizu films don’t sell in Japan or the West, and we’ll probably never see more. I hope that isn’t so. For now, I’ll watch bootleg versions of the other films and wait. Everyone who hasn’t seen Shimizu should check out this reasonably priced set Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu in Criterion’s Eclipse series.