Pages

Hiroshi Shimizu – Introspection Tower (1941)


After Nobuko, another film in which Shimizu explores education and how it affects the students and the teachers. Introspection Tower is set at a reformatory for delinquent children at a remote location somewhere in the Japanese countryside. The kids are being taught self-reliance and independence rather than being punished in a more traditional way. They have to make their own beds, cook for themselves, go to class, perform some kind of manual labor in the afternoon and make sure of their water supply. As the principal points out at the beginning of the film, the reformatory is a small “society” in itself, in which every individual has his own task and everyone works toward the common good. Of course, this is only the theory. The kids skip school, steal from each other, fight and try to escape. Shimizu shows us these episodes and what consequences they have for the children and the teachers involved.

As is often the case with Shimizu, there is no real goal-driven narrative. The film is comprised of several vignettes and after every major turn in the story, we fade out and jump to another anecdote. This creates a rhythm to the narrative and the visuals but also makes us realize how frustrating education can be at times. Some of the students, for example, try to escape several times during the movie. But they don’t learn anything by getting caught. They simply stubbornly try anew. In one excellent scene, a husband and a wife working at the school discuss how difficult it can be to keep believing that they can touch these kids eventually. “I choose to believe that my work can still make a difference”, says the husband. But the kids challenge them time and time again, and Shimizu has no scruples showing this to us, even if it means that the narrative can get a little repetitive at times.

We spend a lot of time alone with the kids but there is little to no attempt to try to explain their behavior by reading psychological tea-leaves. As in Children in the Wind, Shimizu lets the children simply be children. Akira Kurosawa always saw children as a symbol of innocence. Shimizu however, just like Ozu it should be remarked, had a more ambivalent view. In his films, there is a clear sense that he is dedicated to the children’s cause but he also shows the darker sides of childhood: the lying, the fighting, the deceiving, and, yes, the cruelty. Thus, Introspection Tower has a frank and somewhat crude view of childhood, but the director also shows us what these young delinquents are able to achieve if they are given a purpose. To remedy water shortage at the school well, it is decided that water should be redirected from a local pond to the school. All the children chip in, they dig a riverbed and succeed in the end, and several kids who were nothing but trouble before are released from the school because they were reformed during the labor. One could see this as a kind of Spartan-marxist manifesto campaigning for delinquent child labor, or at the very least as an argument for blind dedication to a cause imposed by the powers that be (which paved the way to fascism and such). I read it more like an inspirational moral that still holds true today. Like the British rapper Scroobius Pip would say: “the system might fail you, but don’t fail yourself. Just get better.”

Introspection Tower is without a doubt the most successful directorial effort by Shimizu I have seen to date. His fascination with camera movement and how it relates to moving characters within the frame allows for some magnificent tracking shots. Rarely does he rely on close-ups (they are more of the “psychological close-up” variety). Rather, Shimizu observes everything from afar in long shots framed by vegetation, and uses his camera to follow certain characters for a time, often times leaving them and picking up on others as the story demands it, all in one elaborate camera movement. Sometimes, his camera almost takes a life of its own, like in the very first scene where we get a typical backward “walk-and-talk” tracking shot with a group of people moving towards the camera. But after a while, the characters make a right turn while the camera keeps tracking back and following the road that makes a left turn. Another variety is to have characters move towards an immobile camera, and jump cutting back on a vertical axis, dividing the characters’ movements into Deleuzian chunks that add up to one continuous motion.

While Shimizu’s long shots and cantilevered tracking shots make full use of the wide open countryside, his interiors are much more organized than in previous films. Geometrical forms prevail inside and create a clear contrast to the luscious exteriors. Shimizu uses a moving camera for outside shots, and pretty rigorous 180 degree reverse shots for interiors, highlighting how differently the children experience both worlds: they challenge limits outside and are reprimanded inside. The vertical axis that was so prominent in Nobuko is less dominant in Introspection Tower, but still a strong organizing tool of Shimizu’s frames.

All in all, a major achievement by the director.

Hiroshi Shimizu – Nobuko (1940)


Jumping ahead 10 years in Shimizu’s catalogue is fascinating. I complained in yesterday’s post that Japanese Girls at the Harbor is not satisfying on a story level but delivers the goods visually. Seven years later, Shimizu has obviously matured as a director, refining his camera work, while telling simple but fully formed stories. His visuals are less visceral than in the early work, more controlled and functional but still awe-inspiring. The film tells the story of Nobuko, a young and idealistic teacher from the countryside who comes to the city to teach at a private girls school. Not everyone agrees with her methods, and a lot of the students make fun of her rustic accent, but her chief problems come from a brat named Eiko who’s father is a rich and influential man, which enables her to behave as she pleases without ever being reprimanded by the teaching staff. Nobuko, however, is dead set on teaching her good manners and respect. Her conflicts with Eiko escalate, until the girl mysteriously disappears from school grounds and Nobuko is on the verge of getting fired.

With Nobuko, Shimizu’s inquiry into class relations continues. I never talked about it while discussing Mr. Thank You, Children in the Wind and The Masseurs and a Woman, but all of these films explore class relations to a certain extent. Obviously, the bus driver Arigato-San chauffeurs people of different classes and we get exchanges between a young poor girl that is being sold into prostitution, a Westernized woman who smokes and drinks alcohol, and a wannabe bourgeois who wears a fake moustache and a cheap suit. In Children in the Wind, we see class relations through the prism of child hierarchies, as the kids of an incarcerated man are banished by their former clique. And in The Masseurs and a Woman, the masseurs interact with students, rich city people and inn owners without ever receiving attention, thus revealing how people of different social affiliations communicate and regard each other.

In Nobuko, Shimizu explores class relations on two levels. When the young teacher first comes into town, she lives at a geisha house owned by a relative where she can stay for cheap. When the principal of the school finds out about it she demands that Nobuko moves out. “A geisha house is no place to live for a teacher”, she says. Nobuko finally moves to the school’s dorms. Both the geisha house and the school are exclusively populated by women but there is a very clear social divide separating the two. When some of the geishas want to visit Nobuko on school grounds, it provokes a minor scandal and she tries to get them to leave as quickly as possible. Nobuko also befriends one of the young geishas, who’s aspiration it is to become “the best geisha of all.” At school, the girls want to be the best students of all, and Shimizu doesn’t need to do more than to draw this simple parallel to make us think about the different paths of life these girls will follow simply because they belong to different social stratums.

Obviously, the somewhat na├»ve teacher from the countryside and the spoiled student with an influential father everyone is scared of is the other arena where Shimizu lets clash social origins. “She’s special? But we must treat her equally”, exclaims Nobuko. But Shimizu is not on a communist quest to synchronize Japan’s children, rather he has something else in mind: “each child is different. Scold or praise, we must treat them all with affection.” That’s Nobuko talking at the end of the film, spelling out the moral of the story. Class origins don’t matter, Shimizu argues, we are all human and deserve to be treated as such, regardless of financial potency, gender, or education. In that, Nobuko carries a very humanist message, even though the director argues in the same breath that discipline should supersede self-indulgence, validating a rather Spartan approach to school education.

The composition of his frames is equally barren. Story and images thrive on simplicity and his staging is subtle, which dupes some viewers into thinking that Shimizu is a sloppy director. There is, however, a very clear arithmetic of his frames. I discussed in earlier posts how much Shimizu relies on a vertical axis on which the characters position themselves in relation to the camera. In Nobuko, Shimizu develops the vertical axis further on two counts. First, in a majority of the frames, he creates a point in the middle of the frame towards which all the elements of the image converge. Secondly, he activates the horizontal axis by using sideways tracking shots, or by populating the left and right corners of the frame with objects or people, which in turns accentuates the vertical axis on which the main action takes place. Some variations include populating the lower half of the frame and having the main action take place in the upper middle of the frame; or having the main action (usually two people talking) take place on the far left and right of the frame with an object blocking the middle of the frame (a sort of negative of his main composition); or having two people on the left and right of the frame walking towards each other (and, in some cases, passing each other) with the middle of the frame remaining immobile.

In a lot of cases, we get a sweeping lateral tracking shot at the beginning of a scene that picks up on the action after a few beats by halting the camera at the very moment it captures the characters interacting on the vertical axis in the middle of the frame. We are even treated to a few of his signature backward/forward “walk-and-talk” tracking shots during a hiking trip Nobuko undertakes with her students. But even these are restrained and less demonstrative, as everything else in the film. Most of the action takes place in interiors with sparse decors and a less inquiring camera than inside the bus in Mr. Thank You. But it is a delight to see how organized Shimizu’s shots are. Finding your style and sticking to it is one thing. Developing it and letting it mature is the sign of a true artist.

Hiroshi Shimizu – Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933)


Japanese Girls at the Harbor is the most Ozu-esque Shimizu I have seen so far. From the dramatic arc of the characters, over mysterious cut-aways to certain shots that can be found in both director’s catalogues, there are a lot of parallels. Shimizu, however, has a very distinct visual identity and I am constantly amazed at his creativity and evocative camera use. In this silent film, we have less forward/backward tracking shots of people walking from or towards the camera (Shimizu seems to have taken that up a little later), but jump cuts and fades that translate the characters emotional states. The story concerns Sunako and Dora, a pair of high school students living in the harbor town of Yokohama. Sunako falls in love with the fashionable hoodlum Henry who, in turn, falls prey to Yoko, a sort of femme fatale. When Sunako surprises them at a local church, she attacks Yoko and flees to another town where she becomes a prostitute. Years later, she comes back to Yokohama and works at a geisha house. Meanwhile, Dora and Henry have married, but when Henry meets Sunako again his feelings for her are awakened anew and he has to make a decision between the two former best-friends.

A lot of the ideas present in Japanese Girls at the Harbor can already be found in Eternal Heart, released four years prior. Two women, one more traditional (in this case Sunako, who is seen in a geisha kimono for most of the film), one more modern, fighting for the love of a man who has to decide between “Japanese” or “Western” values. But where “modern” women were depicted as shallow and materialistic in Eternal Heart, they are shown as domesticated and submissive (Dora) in Japanese Girls, characteristics attributed to “traditional” women in the earlier film. Of course, Sunako is not a “traditional” woman in the same sense as Toshie is in Eternal Heart. But this reversal of the roles is certainly interesting, especially as it comes at the heels of a crime committed by Sunako that changed the lives of everyone involved.

A new element seems to be that men are shown as essentially weak and in crisis – a theme Ozu tackled time and time again. Henry stumbles from girl to girl, apparently without ever really knowing what he wants. It will be Sunako who makes him come to his senses at the end of the movie. Then, there is Miura, an awkward and poor artist who is enamored with Sunako and even follows her back to Yokohama where she treats him like her personal servant. He is seen washing clothes and dishes without ever getting any recognition from his crush. But it will be Miura who forces her to face her past and come clean with the people around her, making his role a little more ambivalent. The problem with all of this is that the script has a lot of great moments, and Shimizu certainly makes the best of it visually, but it never amounts to a fully coherent narrative. Shimizu is, of course, known for his free floating, improvised approach (Mr. Thank You being a prime example) but Japanese Girls at the Harbor is a foul compromise between improvisation and scripted content, as the narrative is stripped to a bare minimum but not episodic enough to function within Shimizu’s preferred modus operandi.

Behind the camera, however, Shimizu is at the top of his game. He bookends the movie with beautiful shots of boats leaving the harbor as a symbol of change and hope. The evocative location shooting is beautiful without being showy. He uses visual repetition to enhance the narrative. One of the most arresting moments of the film occurs in the church where Sunako sees Henry with Yoko. We get a long shot of her standing ominously in the door like a bad ghost. We close in on her in five subsequent jump cuts, until we arrive on an extreme close up of a gun in her hand. The exact same jump cuts occur again in reverse, until we’re back to the long shot of her standing in the door. Not only does this rather brute editing contrast with the calm and leisurely pace before that scene, but it evokes the emotions of both Sunako and Henry/Yoko in very simple terms. At the end of the film, Sunako happens on Yoko who lays dying in her bed. As soon as she sees her, we get jump cuts again, closing in on Yoko. The visual repetition takes us back to their state of mind during their last encounter.

Another visual trait of the film is to let character who leave a room fade out of the image like ghosts disappearing, instead of having them physically leave the room. This occurs in the second half of the movie, where Sunako literally has to face the ghosts of her past. To a lesser degree, Shimizu uses these fades to signal the passing of time, a technique still largely used today, when we see characters in the same location in various arrangement as time progresses. We also get a few cut-aways that seem unmotivated by character POV’s. This mirrors Ozu, but Shimizu is not as interested in it as his friend was and uses it more as punctuation than to tie together different scenes. This is especially the case in a climatic scene between Dora and Sunako, where we constantly cut back and forth between the two women having a heart to heart, and exterior shots of the back yard at night under the rain.

The more I write about it, the more it seems like Japanese Girls at the Harbor might have been a sort of test run for Shimizu to try out different visual techniques. Of course I haven’t seen enough of his movies (nor are there enough available) to corroborate my theory, but while the director clearly put his stamp on this movie, there are new elements I had never seen before (cut-aways, jump cuts, different uses of fades and fades to black). There is a quote from Shimizu saying, “next year, I’m going to make only three films the way the company wants me to, and in exchange I can make two films that I want.” I wonder if Japanese Girls might be one of the studio movies. Not that it’s bad. It simply feels like a tentative work of an inquisitive director who had a strong enough output (and creativity) to use some of his movies as dry runs. Still exciting, but less substantial.

Hiroshi Shimizu - Children In The Wind (1937)


One aspect of Shimizu's oeuvre I hadn't yet discovered was his fondness for working with children. A lot of his films concern children's issues, he loved shooting with them, and he even adopted several orphans after World War II. Children in the Wind is a film told exclusively from the point of view of children and the honesty and simplicity with which Shimizu treats their problems is disarming and powerful. We follow the brothers Sampei and Zenta and how they deal with the threatening disintegration of their family when their father is arrested for embezzlement. Zenta is the calm and studious one ("a teacher's pet", says his brother), while Sampei is the delinquent one getting constantly in trouble. We spend a lot of time with the children, exploring their playing routines, examining their hierarchies. Children build up their own worlds and live in it, appropriating their surroundings as they need. Shimizu shows us all of it with a naturalistic frankness that reminds us of our own time when we were living in made-up worlds, wholly unaware of how cruel and unfair life can be sometimes.

Zenta and Sampei get a taste of this cruelty when their father is first fired from work and then arrested. The same kids they used to play with mock them and throw them out of their clique and Sampei is sent away to live with a retired school master. His behavior, of course, doesn't improve and Shimizu gives us a string of bittersweet scenes that show us how Sampei gets himself into trouble (one time, he runs away to see the "sea monsters") and how the adults react to that. Eventually, Sampei returns home and the father is released from prison when it turns out that he is innocent.

When the plot dictates the characters' actions, Children in the Wind is at its weakest. While the plot with the father is interesting in that we get to see the kids' reactions to it (and some wonderfully touching moments with their mother), Shimizu needs to resolve that conflict and the way in which he does it is not worthy of the rest of the film. Shimizu had no shooting script for Mr. Thank You and I wonder if there was an elaborate shooting script for Children of the Wind. A lot of the scenes with the kids feel improvised and more naturalistic for it, the dialogue is raw and unpolished, but very realistic. At no point did I have the impression to see child actors, I simply saw children behaving like children. It seems that Shimizu did not alter that at all. What could have been an overly sentimental film is saved by the film's honesty.

We get less tracking shots in this film, but Shimizu develops the vertical axis in his frames a lot more. Virtually in every shot, the characters walk towards or from the camera. I read some comments about the film that complained about the lack of staging in this movie. I would argue quite the opposite. His framing might not be as elaborate as his peers Ozu or Mizoguchi, but that doesn't mean that he is a careless director. Rather, the simplicity of his frames allow for a more natural feel of his films. Ozu's I Was Born, But… shares several similarities with Children in the Wind. The big difference is that Shimizu made a film from the children's perspective and Ozu made a movie from his own perspective. Two very different approaches that result in two very different films stylistically.

Hiroshi Shimizu – Mr. Thank You (1936)


Having seen only three of Shimizu’s films so far, the following thought crossed my mind: if Ozu’s work can frequently be reduced to intricate family dramas and the decline of the patriarchy, if Mizoguchi’s work can be described as being concerned with female explorations of modernity and, say, if Kurosawa’s work can be seen as a humanist eradication of Japanese history, Shimizu has to be the one director concerned with travel and migration and what it symbolizes for a population living in times of upheaval. I am generally wary of such sweeping characterizations, but I am fascinated by the very idiosyncratic and original feel of Shimizu’s movies and by the careful tuning of his style to his narrative flow. For there is no better way to evoke the sensation of travel (equaled with forward motion) than to have a camera that unrelentingly tracks back and forth as we move along. In Mr. Thank You, billed as being the first Japanese road movie ever made, Shimizu uses the device of the tracking shot copiously, giving us the sensation as if we were part of the travel.

The film follows the bus driver Mr. Thank You, who holds his name from the fact that he always thanks people who make way for his bus when he overtakes them on the road, and various passengers. There is no goal-driven narrative, no story so to speak, the film is comprised of small vignettes and character moments. We never find out the names of any of the characters and in most cases we don’t know where they travel to or why, with the exception of a 17-year old girl on her way to the capital where she is to be sold into prostitution by her mother who accompanies her. There is another young girl on the bus, dressed in modern clothes, who may or may not be a prostitute herself and who warns the 17-year old that Tokyo is full of “badgers and sly foxes”. But the 17-year old has no choice. Her family is poor and selling herself is the only way for her to get by.

This is where the larger theme of the film emerges. Under the cheerful surface of the movie lies a serious consideration of a poverty-ridden Japan struck by recession, where workers are forced to travel long distances to find badly paid work and where young people have it especially hard. “Young girls don’t smile anymore” says a sleazy man on the bus, and another one remarks: “it’s bad to have kids now”. The passengers constantly talk about how better it was in the past (drivers were more considerate, girls smiled, etc.) and it is one of Shimizu’s achievements with Mr. Thank You that he is able to make potent political observations by having his characters talk about seemingly trivial things. The recession is hardly mentioned specifically, the hardship of the rural migrant workers is never really alluded to, and the 17-year old’s mother eventually tells everyone that they are visiting relatives in Tokyo so as to not embarrass her daughter. Shimizu let’s the character’s situations speak for themselves, and simply shows us the dichotomy between the bus (sign of technological advancement) and various carriages, coaches and wagons creeping along the dusty country roads (not to mention all the people who travel by foot, and even chickens who Arigato-San dutifully thanks as well for letting him drive passed them) without insisting on it. In this context, it only makes sense that the film ends before the bus ever reaches Tokyo. The capital remains a symbol – for modernity, poverty, despair, but also for prosperity and, strangely, hope.

As mentioned, tracking shots are the main stylistic ingredient of the movie. Shimizu uses what can only be described as point-of-view shots of the bus approaching someone on the road. As they move to the side in order for the bus to overtake them, we fade to a point-of-view shot of the rear of the bus, pulling away from that person, as we hear Mr. Thank You shout "Arigato!" Shimizu uses this device countless times and it is the linking element between the various episodes inside the bus. There, Shimizu uses 180 degree reverse cutting almost exclusively, but the action never seems stagey or claustrophobic. By simply positioning his camera on different points on a vertical axis, the director creates enough variety that we are never bothered by the contrivance of the bus interior. Come to think of it, the forward and backward tracking shots could be described as 180 degree reverse cutting as well, making it Shimizu's chief editing technique in this movie, although he hadn't used it as systematically in the two films I discussed earlier.

With every Shimizu movie I see I become more eager to explore further. I only wish more of his work was available.

Hiroshi Shimizu – The Masseurs and a Woman (1938)


Since so few of Shimizu’s films are available to us, it is very interesting to browse the internet and read what fellow explorers of his work have to say. Here is a thread on criterionforum where some of Shimizu’s films are discussed that have been released on DVD. What strikes me is the general passion for his work and the longing to see more. It seems Shochiku had announced three years ago that five box sets containing pre-war Shimizu films were to be released, but so far only two have seen the light of day and there seems to be no further information available if the additional three dvd sets are to be released in the near future. Apparently, there are VHS copies floating around of Shimizu silent films that were broadcast on TV at some point, as well as some of his later work and I will try to get my hands on them. I find that the obscurity of Shimizu’s work also contributes to his appeal and I’m excited to see where my exploration might lead me. So far, the consensus seems to be that his defining stylistic features are his reliance on tracking shots, his use of depth of field and his “spontaneous” camera placement. All of these characteristics are well present in The Masseurs and a Woman, a delightful leisurely ensemble piece, that Shimizu also wrote.

The story is rather incidental and loosely follows two blind masseurs, Toku and Fuku, who work at a mountain retreat for the season. Toku is attracted to a woman from Tokyo who might or might not be involved in mysterious thefts that are occurring at different inns at the retreat. Another guest from Tokyo makes friends with her and postpones leaving the inn as he gets more and more intrigued by her. Ultimately, nothing substantial happens, but we learn why the woman is there and what her secret is. At its core, The Masseurs and a Woman is a comedy of manners, and most character beats are based on reversals of situations. In the first scene of the movie, the masseurs ascend a hill and are passed by young students. Later, Toku and Fuku massage the students. But they do it so hard, that the students are unable to hike the next day. To add insult to injury, some female students make fun of them because of that. In another scene, the son of the guest from Tokyo tickles Toku’s nose with a shrub and makes him sneeze. The boy laughs. Later, he holds a fan in front of Toku’s face, but this time the blind man grabs it. The boy cries. The most obvious reversal occurs when the son’s father meets the woman from Tokyo. Prior to that, he tells his son to pack his things to go home. But the son wants to stay. Once the father meets the woman, he tells his son that they will stay longer, but by then the boy is bored of the place and wants to go home.

Much of the film’s conflict, so to speak, is achieved in this way and it is at times amusing, at other times more upsetting to see how Shimizu turns the situations on their heads. He frequently does it in an elliptic manner, contributing to the humor. In one instance, Toku gets into a physical fight with the students who outnumber him severely. We fade to black. Fade in to reveal the students limping along with bruises and band-aids on their faces. The reveal of the woman’s secret is also achieved by reversal of situation. Toku learns by chance that the police is raiding the inns in order to find the person stealing from the guests. Suspecting her to be the thief, Toku grabs the woman and runs away with her. When she finally finds out what’s going on, she comes clean with him. And reveals that she is not the thief. Strangely, The Masseurs and a Woman is mostly apolitical, which is remarkable if one takes into account that it was written and shot in 1938. There are some passing remarks about a longing for an urban environment that translates into Toku’s fascination with the woman, specifically since she is from Tokyo. Talking to other masseurs, Toku expresses his ambivalence with the city when he remarks wonderingly that “women are working in Tokyo!” Attraction and repulsion with the modern lifestyle are thus expressed by the characters, but only tangentially.

Shimizu shoots all of this in his own idiosyncratic style. I was amazed by the amount of tracking shots, and how differently he uses them throughout the movie. We open with Toku and Fuku ascending the mountain. Shimizu films this with an extended “walk-and-talk” tracking shot. The characters walk towards the camera on a vertical axis in the middle of the frame, and the camera simply tracks back. The director uses this procedure for all the outdoor hiking scenes, as well as when the characters walk through the mountain retreat. Another variety of the tracking shot is used for indoor scenes. Shimizu follows his characters in profile, usually filming them from a certain distance with various objects, doors or walls blocking our view intermittently. Furthermore, there are several instances when Shimizu uses the tracking shots to reveal different characters performing different tasks independently from one another within the same shot. One last curious occurrence of a tracking shot happens at the very end of the film. The woman from Tokyo leaves the retreat and Toku tries to catch up with the wagon that takes her away. He is unsuccessful. We cut from her face looking back at the retreat, to Toku’s disappointed visage. Then, the camera shakily tracks forward and around a bend to catch one last glimpse of the wagon in the distance. Fade out, the end.

Again, Shimizu is more interested in shooting his subjects from different distances than in following the 180 rule all of the time. This is especially the case in outdoor scenes when two characters are simply talking, or in a scene where Toku crosses paths for the first time with the woman from Tokyo, scents her smell and tries to follow her (shown above). Shimizu cuts from vivid close-ups to medium shots, to long shots in seemingly random order. The characters walk towards or from the camera (again on a vertical axis) in a lot of instances, contributing to a rather disorienting sequence. But with almost each shot, Shimizu reveals a new piece of information that is vital to our understanding of the scene. Shimizu might play around gleefully with camera positioning, but he never forgets that he is directing a movie.

Hiroshi Shimizu – Eternal Heart (1929)


The great Kenji Mizoguchi once said that Ozu and him made movies by hard work. “But Shimizu is a genius.” Born in 1903, the same year as Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu directed his first film at 21 and is credited with directing 163 films during a career that ran from 1923 to 1959. The majority of his work is sadly unavailable to us, and he has been largely overlooked in the West where Ozu has always overshadowed him. In his book To The Distant Observer, Noel Burch writes that Shimizu is “the most ‘spontaneously Japanese’ director of his generation’”, that “his ‘work on the signifier’ has none of the advanced complexities of Ozu, Mizoguchi, Ishida or even Naruse at his best”, and highlights the director’s “’spontaneous’ insistence on camera distance”. On his blog, David Bordwell writes that “Shimizu wasn’t an obsessive planner (…) Some days, uncertain about what to do, [he] would shut down the shoot and take people swimming”. But “I don’t want to leave the impression that Shimizu was careless”, Bordwell begins the next paragraph.

This seems to be the Western critic’s general attitude towards Shimizu’s work. He is appreciated as a strong craftsman, but ultimately falls short of the sacred cows Ozu and Mizoguchi. I am obviously not arguing that these directors are anything less than cinematic giants, but while Ozu’s work (which I reviewed here) satisfies me primarily on an intellectual level, Shimizu tickles me emotionally while also showing an impressive stylistic range. Ozu’s rigorous editing and staging might be unmatched, but Shimizu’s more flamboyant, or “spontaneous” style is engrossing and exciting and visceral in a way Ozu’s films are simply not. It would be tempting to approach Shimizu’s films in comparison to Ozu's but that would mean to deny Shimizu to stand on his own, which would be unfair. Both men were highly influential to the Japanese cinema (and beyond!) and Shimizu’s stylistic and narrative techniques merit the same critical scrutiny as Ozu’s.

Eternal Heart (also known as Undying Pearl) is Shimizu’s oldest surviving film, but his 56th directorial effort. It tells the story of Toshie (Emiko Yagume, who appeared in a number of Ozu’s pre-war films) who works as a secretary and is in love with her fellow co-worker Shozo. But the young man is more interested in Toshie’s sister Reiko who wears Western clothes and seems generally more appealing to him. Toshie selflessly promotes the relationship while being courted by her elderly boss Katayama. When Reiko begins flirting with other men because she grows increasingly bored with her marriage, Toshie tries to fix the relationship but ultimately fails. Never fully realizing what kind of feelings Toshie harbors for him, Shozo leaves Japan for the United States – alone.

Shimizu’s “spontaneity” becomes immediately apparent: he likes to play around with camera angles. Wholly uninterested in 180 reverse shots, he places the camera at various distances to his main subjects, separating the shots with intertitles. In one long confrontation between Reiko and Toshie, Shimizu even uses one single shot, but orchestrates an elaborate choreography for his two leading ladies and tracks his camera back and forth. To give his frames more depth, Shimizu frequently blocks one half of the image with a large object (a car, a table), squeezing the characters in the upper half of the frame, but also distancing them from the audience on a vertical axis. At other times, he uses shadows, or objects hanging from the ceiling to suggest depth of image, but also to give his frames more texture.  There are some visual repetitions (a pan shot from a moving vehicle, an umbrella tossed around by Toshie and then Reiko) but nothing as systematic as in Ozu's work.

The script, written by Tokusaburo Murakami, clearly pits "modern" women against "traditional" women. Shozo has the choice between Reiko, who wears Western clothes and is interested primarily in money, material things and shallow entertainment, and Toshie who wears kimonos, is more submissive but wants to find true love and commitment. Reiko, the presumed "modern" one, has nothing but contempt for Toshie's job and makes fun of her because of it, oblivious to the fact that Toshie is independent and, in fact, much more "modern" thanks to her employment even if she has "traditional" values. It is ironic then that Shozo, who couldn't find his happiness with a westernized woman, leaves for the United States at the end of the film. And Toshie, who entertained the thought of going out with her boss Katayama to compensate for her deceived love for Shozo, finally decides against it and keeps her integrity. These rather broad characterizations may seem simplistic, but Eternal Heart is very interesting in that it is an early incarnation of the social realist film Shochiku, who employed Shimizu, would be famous for in the following years.

Keisuke Kinoshita - Twenty-Four Eyes (1954)


Twenty-Four Eyes is without a doubt Kinoshita’s most well-known film in the West and, by all accounts, is unmatched in its popularity in Japan. In the year of the film’s release, Kinoshita won the prize for Best Film of the Year by the national critics association, upsetting Kurosawa who released Seven Samurai that year, as well as Naruse and Mizoguchi. But filmmaking is not a competition, and it is understandable how Kinoshita struck a nerve with Twenty-Four Eyes. Released after the occupation and its censorship, the film fully indulges in an appreciation of values like family, community, humility and friendship, as well as a sorrowful dismissal of the second World War. Unapologetically sentimental and nostalgic, the film refrains from being overly declamatory by concentrating on a strong main character, Miss Oishi, played by the incomparable Hideko Takamine who delivers here an unforgettable performance, and poignant social commentary.

Twenty-Four Eyes follows the teacher Miss Oishi over the course of two decades, as she sees 12 first graders she is teaching age into adults. Some of them are drafted to war, some of them can’t escape poverty, some of them marry and have a happy life, some of them die. Miss Oishi who strongly bonded with all of them during their time as first graders, often has difficulty coping with the fact that life tears at them as they get older. One of the main concerns of the films is to inquire when these children lose their innocence, when the cruelties of life become too apparent for them to overlook. Kinoshita’s script, based on a novel by Sakae Tsuboi, uses the kids as symbols for the aspirations of a rural youth and how life deceives all too often. Miss Oishi wants to see all of her students go to high school and succeed, but when the mother of a girl dies after giving birth, the girl must stay home, take care of her despondent father, and finally work as a waitress although she is still a girl.

Some of the boys want to become soldiers and fight for their country, although Miss Oishi tells them that she prefers fishermen and shop keepers. Some of them are drafted (the draft age in Japan was lowered to 14 by the end of the war) and die in combat, while others go off to the mainland to work. One girl can’t participate in a field trip because her family is too poor to pay for it and refuses to come back to school out of shame. While Kinoshita never pursues any of these destinies in depth, he offers us a compelling survey of what it meant to live in the countryside at that time, untouched by most of the sweeping historical events of pre- and post-war time. There is a clear sense that life is a circle, a process that eventually takes up everyone, and Miss Oishi, while unable to do so, tries to protect her favorite “twenty-four eyes” from it because she knows that life can be unforgiving and nothing matches the innocence of childhood. Twenty-Four Eyes is the most powerful and bittersweet testimony to the joys and carelessness of childhood I have seen to date.

Kinoshita’s social commentary is more oblique. He had always been criticized for his dismissal of Japan’s partaking in the war, and Miss Oishi clearly doesn’t feel pride for her country’s soldiers but sees the war’s destructive effects on a generation of children and adolescents who were sacrificed to a cause they and most everyday people couldn’t grasp remotely. There is also a minor storyline about one of her colleagues being arrested because he is accused of being a “Red”, but for the most part, Kinoshita refrains from moralizing and lets Miss Oishi’s view speak for itself. For being a Kinoshita film, Twenty-Four Eyes looks surprisingly chaste. The director refrains from formal experiments, but a lot of the elements that he would develop later on (the reliance on outdoor location shooting, the Western-influenced music and singing that comments directly on the action, the wide angles, the extended period of time covered by the story, the theme of time and how its passing affects us) are already in place. For me personally, it is noteworthy that Twenty-Four Eyes and Immortal Love were the two films I was most invested in, and they are the ones that display the least formal experiments. Kinoshita’s handwriting is clearly visible, but he concentrates more on the narrative and it makes for more poignant storytelling. While I admire his audacity as a visual artist, I enjoy his storytelling sensibilities even more. I hope that more of his films will be available to us in the near future, as the small sample of his body of work I was able to see thus far made me curious and hungry for a lot more.