Travel with Judge Daryl Loomis as he walks the streets looking for crazy people to talk to.
Legendary Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (Floating Weeds) said of the subject of this 15th edition of Criterion's Eclipse series, "I can't shoot films like Hiroshi Shimizu." In what context Ozu said that about his longtime friend and colleague, I don't know, but despite his feelings on the subject, very little of Shimizu's catalog has been released in the West. What a shame, because these Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu are four quietly beautiful films which eloquently show the details in the daily lives of ordinary Japanese people.
Facts of the Case
Japanese Girls at the Harbor: In the East-meets-West trade town of Yokohama, Sunako (Michiko Oikawa) and Dora (Yukiko Inoue) walk down the harbor every day, watching the ships come in and out, on their way home from Catholic school. They make schoolgirl promises about staying together forever, but Sunako falls in love with a hoodlum on a motorcycle as soon as she meets him. Sunako must leave town, however, after a violent act of jealousy humiliates her. Years later, she returns a seasoned traveler to try to lead a reputable life, but finds the town she grew up in has changed.
Mr. Thank You:
The Masseurs and a Woman:
The connection of the four films in this set comes in the title. We travel with Hiroshi Shimizu over the winding roads of Japan, into the inns and spas that house people on the outskirts of society. These residents, noble as their intentions may be, are prostitutes, gamblers, and outcasts who don't care for the city and, if these films are any indication, neither did Shimizu. He stays in the rural hills, the resorts and roads where the films take place are pristine, natural beauty that seems like it couldn't exist. Shimizu paces the film very slowly, as well, giving his audience time to drink in these landscapes. With the same love that he shows to the land, however, he shows to the people who live in it.
Japan was still producing silent films long after Hollywood had stopped and, in 1933, Shimizu returned after a brief stint in sound production to direct Japanese Girls at the Harbor. While silent, this film delivers the most complicated plot and some of his most innovative filmmaking in the set. Unlike American silent films, it looks nearly identical to a sound film, intertitles aside; there are few of the camera tricks and ultra-emotive performances often used across the Pacific. Some of the first images seen are North American ships in harbor. There is a definite transcontinental feel to the film and the characters represent all walks of life in a harbor town like Yokohama.
Three years later comes Shimizu's funniest film in the set. A sweet comedy about a kindly bus driver, Mr. Thank You is a near-perfect hour long road film. You could make a drinking game out of the driver saying "Thank you" and, as he drives along saying it to traveler after traveler, he meets people of all sorts of interest along the way. Picking up some and having to kick some off, each one has a story to tell and Mr. Thank You is there to listen. Ushara's performance is very good, both fun loving and wise. He learns lessons from his passengers and even falls in love with them once in a while.
The final two films take place in spas and are very different in tone; quieter than his earlier work in this set and more concerned with character than with story. The Masseurs and a Woman follows the wanderings of our two blind masseurs. We find out some about them, but we learn more from the people they visit. The story splits alternately between the masseurs and the spas' guests and Shimizu gives us a web of interconnected plots. While these plots may not ever be fully resolved, together they make a very compelling picture.
Finally, from 1941, we have something of a war comedy in Ornamental Hairpin. Following the structure of The Masseurs and a Woman, the camera follows around a character, who meets another and the camera starts following that person. This loose style creates a sense of reality about the film; the life they live is so boring, it couldn't be anything but real. Shimizu does a fantastic job keeping subtle drama moving and, while that might amount to little more than a soldier with a cut on his foot walking from tree to tree, the director makes it feel important. The message of the simple beauty of rural life is a nice elegy to a lifestyle that was already on its way out when the film was made.
The films, while short, are packed with detail and very well performed. My first experience with Hiroshi Shimizu and he is a surprising discovery. I hope Criterion releases more of his films, whether on the Eclipse series or not.
All four of the films in Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu look fairly good, given their ages, but none of them have the classic Criterion treatment. If having the films in the Eclipse series released means they go out without the same level of restoration, I'll be glad they're out, but they certainly aren't of the same high standard as under the Criterion brand. Surprisingly, the best transfer of the bunch is the silent film, which has little degradation while the trio of sound films often show their age. It is always watchable and, when it's at its worst, the scratches and fading doesn't last very long. The sound is standard mono. A little background noise exists, especially in the silent film, but it is never distracting. The only extra, if you can even call it that, is an optional piano score for Japanese Girls. Without it, there is no sound at all so, unless you have your own score queued up to use, this selection is not exactly optional.
I'd travel with him any time. Criterion is commended for releasing lesser-known filmmakers under this Eclipse label. I can't wait to see what they release next. It is a crime that so little of Shimizu is available, but this should help to correct that.
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Scales of Justice, Japanese Girls At The Harbor
Perp Profile, Japanese Girls At The Harbor
Distinguishing Marks, Japanese Girls At The Harbor
• Optional score
Scales of Justice, Mr. Thank You
Perp Profile, Mr. Thank You
Distinguishing Marks, Mr. Thank You
Scales of Justice, The Masseurs And A Woman
Perp Profile, The Masseurs And A Woman
Distinguishing Marks, The Masseurs And A Woman
Scales of Justice, Ornamental Hairpin
Perp Profile, Ornamental Hairpin
Distinguishing Marks, Ornamental Hairpin
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