Shimizu Hiroshi

in 28th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Chris Fujiwara

“Don’t ever talk about logic and theory to a director from Shochiku.” (Teruo Ishii, assistant director on several Shimizu films)

The excitement of discovering the work of Hiroshi Shimizu at the retrospective at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival was as strong a feeling as any I’ve experienced in connection with cinema. That a director so brilliant, original, and prolific could have remained unknown to me until now (except as a name in books) renewed my appreciation of the vastness of what, in the cinema of the past, can yet be experienced for the first time.

Shimizu was born in 1903, the same year as Ozu, and, like Ozu, was associated for much of his career with the Shochiku production company. It would be difficult to say that the two directors have much else in common; nor does Shimizu appear greatly to resemble Mizoguchi. Having seen only three Shimizu films (out of a staggering total of 163, made from 1924 to 1959), any assessments I can make are, obviously, at best provisional, but it seems clear that Shimizu must be considered as the equal of his two greatest Japanese contemporaries and as someone who took his own path and was not influenced by theirs. The following notes on Shimizu’s “Forget Love for Now” (1937), “The Masseurs and a Woman” (1938), and “Notes of an Itinerant Performer” (1941) attempt to describe Shimizu’s work in six aspects.

1. Anarchy and unpredictability. Shimizu is interested in the repetition of movements, in the dispersal of static situations, in moving away from triteness through a careful and vigorous imbalance. The unexpected plot turns throughout “Notes of an Itinerant Performer” reflect the free choices of the heroine (Yaeko Mizutani), an actress who leaves her troupe to become the protégée of a tea merchant and who then, after his death, dedicates herself to his family. Unlike Mizoguchi’s “Tale of the Late Chrysanthemums”, to which Shimizu’s film invites comparison by its theatrical background and by its theme of female self-sacrifice, “Notes of an Itinerant Performer” insists on social obligation as potentially liberating. This insistence would appear to be less conservative than anarchistic.

2. This awareness is linked to a sense of individual life as a journey, which is common to all three Shimizu films I’ve seen (and also pronounced, no doubt, in such films as “Mr. Thank You” [1936]). The main characters in “The Masseurs and a Woman”, which takes place at and around a resort-area inn, are transients: a group of blind masseurs, who migrate with the seasons, and several visitors to the inn, including a mysterious woman from Tokyo (Mieko Takamine) who turns out to be in flight from her lecherous patron. The characters of “Forget Love for Now” contemplate going to another place and starting over; their problems come from staying in the same place: compelled for economic reasons to spend her nights at the club where she works as a hostess, the heroine, Yuki (Michiko Kuwano), neglects her young son, Haru; and he courts disaster by repeatedly returning to the boat hangar favored by a gang of neighborhood boys.

3. Punctuation and verticality. In “Forget Love for Now”, a lateral tracking shot follows Yuki returning from taking Haru part of the way to his new school. The relationship between the figure and the background remains constant, and the figure stays in the same place in the frame throughout the shot; instead of the progressive unfolding of spatial adventure characteristic of Mizoguchi’s long takes, Shimizu offers a precise and pointed spatial statement. In “The Masseurs and a Woman”, camera movement tends to be punctual: a lateral movement shows a corridor, then an expanse of wall, then a doorway. Perhaps there is something of Ozu in the vertical-axis (forward and backward) camera movements in “Forget Love for Now”. In any case, Shimizu is always interested in the expressive possibilities of camera movement: “The Masseurs and a Woman” ends with a totally unexpected and paradoxical “subjective” traveling shot that imitates the faltering steps of a blind man after a cart departing up a winding road.

4. Contraction. “Forget Love for Now” and “The Masseurs and a Woman” share a narrative structure that starts with a succession of lengthy sequences and moves to passages of shorter and shorter scenes, some merely vignettes. This structure, mirroring the process of analysis, doesn’t merely quicken the pace of the film but suggests that as we approach the understanding of the characters that Shimizu wants us to achieve, he feels freer and freer to omit descriptive and repetitive material.

5. Plotlessness and modernity. In Shimizu, plot is whatever the film is doing at the moment. “The Masseurs and a Woman” is structured, ostensibly, as a series of episodes involving various people at the inn. The main narrative line concerns the growing interest that a young man (Shin Saburi) and his nephew take in the Tokyo woman, but this line develops in an unexpected way and is cut off abruptly; another potential plot line involving a series of thefts remains completely undeveloped. Shimizu favors a gradual and rhizomatic expansion of plotless incidents, whose critical points can be perceived only through hints, indrections, and cries and confessions that come too late. The plotlessness of Shimizu’s films gives them a strikingly modern quality, which the films inflect in various ways: through the modernity of decor in “Forget Love for Now”, through the eccentricity of the scenes showing the blind masseurs and their attempts to identify the people they pass on roads, through the Brechtian social criticism of “Notes of an Itinerant Performer”.

6. Subversion of the couple. In “Notes of an Itinerant Performer”, the relationship between the heroine and her dead patron’s son is imbalanced and ambiguous; they never quite come together until the extraordinary final scene, in which they are united in a startling and bewildering manner. In “Forget Love for Now” and “The Masseurs and a Woman”, the couples that the films seem to be trying to establish are never formed. Shimizu’s films share a structure of avoidance, of missed connections and mistimings, of advances sidestepped. It’s quite clear that Shimizu distrusts the romantic couple as a basis for either narrative closure or the expectation of happiness. On the other hand, he places much faith in children, who are central to all three of the films I’ve seen and who evidently figure centrally in “Children in the Wind” (1937), “Children of the Beehive” (1948), and other Shimizu films.