Shimizu, strenuously avoiding comment on the current situation, retreats entirely from urban society for this 1941 effort, Introspection Tower (みかへりの塔, Mikaheri no Tou). Set entirely within the confines of a progressive reformatory for troubled children, the film does, however, praise the virtues popular at the time from self discipline to community mindedness and the ability to put the individual to one side in order for the group to prosper. These qualities are, of course, common to both the extreme left and extreme right and Shimizu is walking a tightrope here, strung up over a great chasm of political thought, but as usual he does so with a broad smile whilst sticking to his humanist values all the way.
Introspection Tower opens with a tour being given to a group of women guided by one of the teachers (Chishu Ryu) in which he outlines the qualities of the school. There are no high walls or barbed wire fences, the front gate remains open at all times for the children to feel free within their new environment so they can learn to want to stay until they can be reintegrated into society. The school is run like mini commune with several houses segregated by sex and headed by a teacher and a female guardian – usually his wife, though the female houses also have a female teacher. The kids spend time in conventional education in the morning followed up with physical activity and vocational training in the afternoons to help them find work later in life. Parents are welcome to visit and also encouraged to write letters (notably, all of these kids seem to be able to read and write, at least to a degree). The kids also take care of the housework amongst themselves so they learn life skills like cooking and cleaning, again meant to help them as they return to regular society.
Rather than a straightforward narrative, Shimizu concentrates on the general life of the school with particular interest in four difficult pupils – new arrival Tamiko (Yuiko Nomura), a naughty upperclass girl who has difficulty learning to muck in with everyone else, Yoshio (Jun Yokoyama, formerly known as Bakudan Kozo) who likes get into fights, Masao (Norio Otsuka) who has his head in the clouds, and Nobu who can’t seem to get on with his stepmother no matter how hard she tries. Several times the kids get fed up with their reform school lives and try to escape, only to be brought back with their tails between their legs and, being children, they are apt to fight, grouse and get upset over nothing.
Perhaps unusual given Shimizu’s reputation the film is not exclusively told from the point of view of the kids but also looks at the often difficult lives of the adults who’ve dedicated their entire existences to caring for them. Each of the teachers and guardians is fully committed to looking after the children and trying to teach them how to be functioning members of society, living with kindness and responsibility. The house leaders are referred to as “mother” and “father” and the kids are intended to think of the other residents as siblings as if they’re all part of one big well functioning family. Discipline is carried out through self reflection, penance, and apology as the offending child is encouraged to realise why the way they’ve behaved is unacceptable and why they should avoid acting in that way in the future. Endlessly patient and giving, the adults’ lives are not easy ones as a female teacher finds herself snapping and hitting a pupil while another couple wonder if they’re really making that much difference when the children continue to misbehave.
About half way through, one naughty boy causes a huge problem by temporarily draining the well which is the school’s only source of water. Faced with a number of serious issues, the teachers decide to try channelling a riverbed from the nearby lake down to the school but they obviously don’t have money to pay for it. You can see where this is going and it’s certainly the most problematic aspect of the film as these young children are suddenly expected to do the strenuous, sometimes dangerous, work of physically carving a channel in the land with shovels and pick axes. Intended to sell the virtues of togetherness and responsibility, the river construction is, in essence, the forced labour of imprisoned minors who are given no rights to refuse, are not compensated for their efforts, and are children who are not equipped to handle this physically taxing work. Shimizu films the sequence like some kind of Soviet propaganda film as the axes rise and fall rhythmically as a hymn to the beauty of physical labour, but this particular celebration of the strength of the group over the individual is very difficult to take at face value.
Whatever Shimizu intended with the river building sequence, several of the pupils earn their freedom through taking part in it, supposedly reformed by hard work and community. Their “graduation” ceremony involves them reading poems and inspirational phrases aloud as a tribute to the school, but Shimizu neatly undercuts the happily ever after image with the presence of an older boy who has returned to visit. Regarding the school as his home, he has nowhere else to go and it quickly transpires he’s lost yet another job. Even when things seem to be going well, people find out he was in a reform school and it all falls apart. No matter how good the efforts of the teachers, the kids will face constant stigma and internalised shame for the rest of their lives making reintegration into society a difficult prospect. Nevertheless, Shimizu does seem to want to believe the school can do some good in looking after these troubled children who often come from difficult family circumstances.
An odd, confused effort from Shimizu, Introspection Tower still does its best to emphasise his humanist philosophy in the broadly progressive approach of the school which truly is dedicated to to teaching these children how to live in the Japan of the day without getting into trouble. The tone is one of good humour mixed with Shimizu’s naturalistic approach to filming children which shows them for all of the complicated young people they really are, deriving both great comedy and heartrending drama from their comic escapades and melancholy backstories. Making fantastic use of location shooting once again with an approach closer to his silent work than his talkies, Shimizu’s return to the world of progressive education is a strange and occasionally problematic one which is at times hard to read but, worryingly enough, seems to have its heart in the right place.