Hiroshi Shimizu made over 160 films during his relatively short career but though many of them are hugely influential critically acclaimed movies, his name has never quite reached the levels of international renown acheived by his contemporaries Ozu, Naruse, or Mizoguchi. Early silent effort Japanese Girls at the Harbor (港の日本娘, Minato no Nihon Musume) displays his trademark interest in the lives of everyday people but also demonstrates a directing style and international interest that were each way ahead of their time.
A classic melodrama at heart, Japanese Girls at the Harbor begins with two school girls living their humdrum lives of commuting back and for to school in early 1930s Yokohama. Dora and Sunako attend a Catholic school in the “foreign quarter” of the city and are devoted best friends who swear they’ll stick together for ever. However, motorcycle riding bad boy Henry rips right through their friendship in the way that only a bad boy can. Sunako abandons Dora at the harbour to ride off with Henry (later apologising to her understanding friend) but it turns out that Henry likes hanging round with gangsters and also has something going with an older lady called Yoko.
Dora tells Sunako if she really loves Henry she’ll just have to accept him for what he is before going off to find the cheating louse herself and give him a piece of her mind. However, when Sunako catches Henry and Yoko together she loses the plot entirely and ends up running off out of the city. Time passes and Sunako returns but in shame as she’s become a prostitute living with a painter whom she doesn’t seem to care for very much at all. Can she repair the damage with the now married Dora and Henry and get herself out of the hell her existence has become, or is she forever doomed to the life of a fallen woman?
Made in 1933 just as Japan was heading into its militarist era, Japanese Girls at the Harbour has an oddly international mindset with its Western houses, names and a Christianising atmosphere. An international port, there’s plenty of the outside world to be found in Yokohama where things seem to leave much more often then they arrive. Sunako says watching the boats leave makes her feel sad, but it’s she who will go off on one of Shimizu’s trademark travels, running from a crime of passion and the ache of a breaking heart.
A true friend, Dora has not abandoned Sunako and is willing to welcome her back into her home. Henry, the first to meet Sunako (at her place of employ) is torn between the old attraction, feelings of guilt over what’s happened to her, and his responsibility to Dora as her husband. Shimizu introduces an interesting metaphorical device as Henry and Dora wind a ball of wool whilst sitting together in their Western style house but as soon as Sunako arrives it falls onto the floor and begins to unravel, eventually becoming tangled up around the feet of Henry and Sunako who dance in the living room while Dora prepares a meal. Suddenly seeing her married life unravel just like this shaggy ball of wool, Dora, though still devoted to her friend, begins to feel a little afraid that Sunako may be about to jump back on the bike with Henry, just as she did all those years ago.
Shimizu’s interest is much more with the two young women than it is with Henry who remains very much a prize not worth winning. This is Sunako’s fallen woman story – eventually she comes to feel that she’s bringing too much disruption into the lives of her old friends who were getting on so well before. Henry and Dora were her last lifeline to her old self, the only old friends she could still count on, but if she wants to save them (and herself) she will have to stay away and lose them forever. Her redemption lies in self sacrifice, in giving up something that made her profoundly happy for its own good despite the immense amount of suffering she will incur in doing so.
Shimizu was one of the earliest proponents of location shooting and he does make good use of the atmospheric Yokohama streets before heading indoors for the seedy, smoky clubs and cheap tenement housing. He also introduces a series of strange jump zooms at two moments of unusually high emotion which add a degree of panic to the scene as well as heightening the nuanced reactions of the characters in question. This, coupled with his use of dissolves which often sees characters simply evaporate from the frame like unwelcome ghosts of memory, lends to the almost noir-ish, melancholic tone with its dream-like blurring of the real and the merely recalled.
An interesting example of international cross pollination in the early 1930s before hard line militarism became entrenched, Japanese Girls at the Harbor is a pregnantly titled story of a wronged woman abandoned on the shore and left with the choice to board a boat to fairer climes or remain behind and risk destroying what she most loved. The past becomes something to be absorbed and then put to rest. Ghosts cannot travel by water, and so you must leave them behind, like girls at the harbour staring sadly at departing ships.
Japanese Girls at the Harbor is the first of four films in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu box set.
Video clip of a climactic scene which showcases Shimuzu’s jump zoom technique (presented without musical score but does have subtitles for the really quite amazing intertitles which are a definite highlight of the film).
(Video clip courtesy of Mubi)