Hiroshi Shimizu – Ornamental Hairpin (1941)

Nanmura, a soldier convalescing at a spa resort, accidentally steps on an ornamental hairpin and injures his foot. Emi, a geisha and owner of the hairpin, had already left the resort but comes back to retrieve the object and to apologize in person. A friendship that might or might not have romantic undertones ensues between the two. In the end, Nanmura has to return to Tokyo and leaves behind a somewhat melancholic Emi.

This rather simple story gives a lot of room for interpretation. On the DVD box, Michael Koresky writes: “Though it begins with the makings of a perfect comic “meet-cute,” Ornamental Hairpin goes on to pragmatically deconstruct Nanmura’s and Emi’s desires: for him, all is poetic, and therefore illusory; for her, life with a cruel patron has become unbearable, and she doesn’t want to return to the city.” On the blog Old Roads, Martyn Smith objects. Citing Nanmura’s assertion that his “sole has been pierced by poetry” when he stepped on the hairpin, Smith writes: “This comes from the mouth of Nanmura, but it is immediately amplified and interpreted by the older scholar sitting next to him. We see a young man who is aware of the poetic and beautiful moments of his life, and expresses them through a line like this, but that poetic moment is transformed into a narrative by the older scholar, who decides that the young man is love-sick and dreaming of a beautiful young woman connected to the hairpin. (…) The film can be seen as a warning of the use of narrative to interpret people and their motivations.”

Both sides make a compelling case but I would submit yet another interpretation. Ornamental Hairpin was shot in 1941 when Japan’s efforts in the pacific war began to intensify. There is a scene in which an old professor briefly mentions food shortage but then complains that the food at the spa is of mediocre quality. Upon hearing that it struck me how apolitical most of Shimizu’s films are. He might treat big and important themes in his movies, but he certainly treated politics in a much more oblique way than some of his contemporaries. Upon further reflecting, however, I realized that Ornamental Hairpin, by refusing to acknowledge the war and presenting the country as a paradise-like idyll, made very much a political statement by creating a sort of parallel world in which audiences could take refuge, much like Nanmura who, at the end of the movie, most certainly had to go back to combat but spent a few careless days at the spa.

The characters themselves acknowledge several times that their days at the spa take place almost in a different world, and there is a sort of dread at having to go back to Tokyo, and thus re-entering reality (“I don’t want to go back that gloomy life”, says Emi). In one scene, The group of characters Emi and Nanmura interact with all dine together and vouch to meet again once back in Tokyo, but there is a clear sense that it will never happen. This dinner does not take place in the same realm as their lives in Tokyo and they will most likely never meet again. When the characters finally do leave for Tokyo, we don’t see them do so but read about it in a diary entry. With every other person leaving, the dream state Emi and Nanmura reside in is threatened more and more.

The melancholic vibe present in the movie finds its climax in a bittersweet scene in which Nanmura finally leaves the spa. He had been walking around on crotches due to his foot injury, and we got several scenes of him doing walking exercises. In one final exercise, he attempts to ascend a set of stairs without any help. A success means that he goes back to Tokyo, a failure means that he stays longer. Of course Emi wants his foot to heal and she encourages him throughout his attempt – which also means that she roots for his departure. When he is successful, she can’t be happy for him. The last scene of the movie shows her climbing the same steps Nanmura did. Only this time, she is alone and has to finally face reality.

Thus, all the talk of a piercing of Nanmura’s sole “by poetry”, the imagined dream-like beauty of the hairpin’s owner, the timid romantic longing of Nanmura and Emi for each other ties neatly into the characters' dream-like stay at the spa. They all hide from war time reality. The hairpin is another distraction and a reason to continue to hide. War is hell. Better stay away from it.

Hiroshi Shimizu - A Star Athlete (1937)

After dabbling in education, class conflicts and childhood hierarchies, let's get back to the more light-hearted stuff for a minute. A Star Athlete, while being a minor work in the director's overall oeuvre, is nonetheless a remarkable piece in that it is a farce, as well as a studio-mandated propaganda film. In my discussion of Japanese Girls at the Harbor, I quoted Shimizu as 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." A Star Athlete clearly is a film "the company" wanted, but Shimizu makes the best of it.

We loosely follow  two students/soldiers, Ryu and Shuji, who are rivals over who is the faster runner. The film is essentially divided in four parts. Part one shows us a first race that Ryu wins. Part two shows us the soldiers marching through the countryside and performing a few exercises, part three shows them drinking/getting in trouble at a local inn. Part four functions as a comedic capper and reconciles Ryu and Shuji. Of course, Shimizu's trademark backward and lateral tracking shots are the perfect tool to capture marches and races. The running/marching occupies a large chunk of the very loose narrative and the camera always seems to be in continuous motion. The first marching scene stretches over 10 minutes, during which Shimizu's camera doesn't rest once. The only instances of static shots and surprisingly disciplined 180 degree cuts occur when the soldiers themselves are resting, be it in a field to catch their breath or in an inn at the end of a long day. As soon as they pick up their march again, the camera does so as well. A nice instance of style mirroring the narrative.

Shimizu's use of forward/backward tracking shots as the soldiers advance on the road clearly recalls the style in Mr. Thank You. Whenever the soldiers overtake someone on the road, we fade from a forward tracking shot to a backward tracking shot. Shimizu varies this technique with having a group of women run away from a  backward tracking camera and a group of children run towards a forward tracking camera. But while Shimizu certainly (and visibly) has his fun with this setup, he doesn't really expand on his technique, content with showing us more of what we have already come to love about his style. We get however the first inklings of something he would develop later: the use of fades to mark the passage of time. In once instance, a soldier carries another one away from the immobile camera over a bridge. Filmed in long shot, Shimizu uses the time lapse fades to show us their advancement without ever changing his camera setup.

With all this said, there isn't a lot to chew on from the point of view of story. Yes, there is the rivalry between our two leads, yes Shimizu hints at a romance between Ryu and a woman who might or might not be a prostitute, yes there is almost a fight between the soldiers and some guests at the inn, but it doesn't amount to much and the story clearly is not what holds our interest. Rather, we enjoy Shimizu's ability to create memorable moments. If the story can't stand on its own, there are quiet a few great individual scenes - stylistically, as well as emotionally.

Thematically, Shimizu spills the beans early on. "It is most important to win", says Shuji who constantly defies his rival. Ryu, however, prefers to relax and sleep. The question wether one should dutifully exercise and get better (for the best of the country, it is implied), or if one should be able to live ones life leisurely drives a lot of the conflict between the two leads. Shimizu subverts this rather obvious propaganda material by never exploring the question and having girls, children, card players, monks and alcohol distract our soldiers/students from doing their duty. It is pretty light material, but interesting nonetheless.