The Dancing Girl of Izu (恋の花咲く 伊豆の踊子, Heinosuke Gosho, 1933)

“Happiness is waiting for you” the melancholy heroine of The Dancing Girl of Izu (恋の花咲く 伊豆の踊子, Koi no Hana Saku Izu no Odoriko) is told by a man who truly loves her, though with his words all her hopes are dashed. Shot on location, Heinosuke Gosho’s 1933 silent is the first of several adaptations of the well-known Yasunari Kawabata story from 1926 and takes a number of liberties with the source material which are partly in keeping with the demands of contemporary cinema and partly an attempt to anchor it more firmly to the increasingly chaotic world of 1933 beset with both economic and political instability thanks to the global depression and Japan’s imperialist ambitions. The price of “happiness” it seems may be love, but perhaps stability as is much as you can ask for in an infinitely unstable world. 

Nominally speaking, the hero of this tale is a young student, Mizuhara (Den Ohinata), through whose eyes we view the transitory nature of young love and the rigidity of a society which will in the end not permit its fulfilment. The “dancing girl” however is our primary focus. Kaoru (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the orphaned younger sister of Eikichi (Tokuji Kobayashi) who inherited a literal goldmine but squandered his inheritance and forced the whole family on the road to earn their keep as travelling players. Such people occupy a kind of underclass, victims of a prejudice against those who have no fixed abode and cannot easily be identified through association with a place or people. Kaoru admits that though she has learned to bear her way of life because at least she’s with her family, signs such as the one they find in a ditch to the effect that beggars and itinerant actors are not welcome in the town fill her with despair. 

Mizuhara meets the actors when they have been unfairly accused of dumping the sign out of frustration (a child later vindicates them after confirming that it was a wandering priest who passed through shortly before). He wades into the fray to urge the angry farmers to exercise a little more patience and ends up agreeing to travel with the family to their next destination as he is himself engaged in a kind of holiday wandering around the picturesque countryside of the Izu peninsula (a popular activity for well to do students of the time). Unbeknownst to him they are already connected by mutual acquaintances in that a friend of Mizuhara’s, Ryuichi (Ryoichi Takeuchi), from the same university also lives in this town and is the son of the man, Zenbei (Arai Atsushi), who bought the goldmine from Eikichi after he went bankrupt. 

The economic subplot concerns an amoral mining engineer, Kubota (Reikichi Kawamura), who apparently has a reputation as a “slave driver” and was responsible for starting the mine which Eikichi’s father owned, the implication being that it failed because of his exploitative business practices and has flourished under Zenbei’s more compassionate ownership in contrast to the picture Kubota is about to paint of him. Having apparently failed at several other endeavours, Kubota has sworn off mines but has convinced himself that he is “owed” something seeing as Zenbei’s mine is now a success and he was the one who found it. He tries to get something out of Ryuichi, but he is unconvinced and eventually offended, accusing of Kubota of blackmail when he insinuates that there was something improper about his buying the mine from Eikichi for much less than it was worth. 

The film’s opening sequence which set up a subplot never resolved about a runaway geisha, however, showed us that Zenbei is as his name suggests a kindhearted man. He reported the geisha’s disappearance to the police not because she took off without clearing her debts but because he was worried for her safety, believing she may have been tricked into running off with an unscrupulous client. Kubota plants the seeds of resentment by convincing Eikichi that he was cheated out of the mine and is owed compensation. Eikichi, feeling humiliated, is determined to “negotiate”, but Zenbei tells him to give them his sister. 

As will be revealed later, Zenbei’s intentions are honourable and he has no thought of replacing the geisha who ran away with Kaoru but wants to take her into his household as an adopted daughter. Eikichi, however, misunderstands but is prepared to sell his sister in order to pursue a pointless revenge against Zenbei by getting money to buy another mine and thereby become even richer. Mizuhara berated him for even considering the idea of trading his sister for money, but in the end even Eikichi only sees her as capital in his rage-fuelled desire to avenge his wounded male pride and sense of impotence. He failed as head of household in losing the family fortune and now has no intention of protecting his sister from the vagaries of the world. 

Mizuhara once again intervenes and learns the truth from Zenbei, that he had been a friend of Eikichi’s father’s and has always been trying to look out for them but has recently lost patience with Eikichi who has already borrowed a lot of money from him. Zenbei is minded towards tough love, convinced his well-meaning attempts to help have only enabled Eikichi’s financial fecklessness. He doesn’t see why Kaoru should pay for his mistakes and has been putting some of the proceeds from the mine into a savings account in her name, hoping also that she may one day marry his son Ryuichi. Mizuhara is at once crushed by the painful goodness he sees in front of him, knowing that his love for Kaoru is now not only impossible but perhaps selfish. All he can do for her now is get out of the way so that she can be saved from the harsh life of an itinerant player, restored to her previous class status, and given the most elusive of all prizes in this chaotic age, stability. 

Zenbei’s plan for Kaoru is in itself a kind of miracle, the best she could ever hope for, but it’s also a minor tragedy in that it both robs her of any kind of agency to make her own choices and destroys the possibility of a romantic future with Mizuhara. To accept everyday comfort and safety, she must resign herself to giving up her love. Mizuhara asks her to do just that in an altruistic act of selflessness which recognises that without money he is powerless to help her. He’s not the one she loves (and we have no idea how he might feel about it), but Ryuichi seems to be a good and kind man, like his father Zenbei who is perhaps the face of compassionate, paternalist capitalism. The world is too chaotic for romance, but there is kindness enough if you’re lucky enough to find it, and if stability is all there is perhaps sorrow is easier to bear than hunger. 


Eclipse (金環蝕, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1934)

Shimizu Eclipse 1

Though most often remembered for his contribution to the cinema of children, Hiroshi Shimizu was also a practiced chronicler of his difficult times. 1934’s Eclipse (金環蝕, Kinkanshoku), unlike much of his other work from the period, avoids direct reference to Japan’s increasingly global or imperialist ambitions but paints its rapid shift towards “modernity” as dangerous and potentially tragic for the unlucky few who for one reason or another are unable to secure their passage towards a harmonious and prosperous future. Adopting the form of a classic romantic melodrama, Eclipse is a bittersweet exploration of corrupted social virtues which ends on an ironic note of defeated victory.

Shimizu begins in a traditional rural village which is all abuzz because prodigal son Seiji Kanda (Shiro Kanemitsu) – now a big shot lawyer in the city, is set to return and, rumour has it, is on the look out for a good country wife. Regarding a marriage to a promising young man like Seiji as the highest of prizes, the village women gossip about whom he might choose and correctly conclude Kinue Nishimura (Hiroko Kawasaki) is likely to be the front runner given her comparatively high education level, beauty, poise, and kindness. Kinue, however, has long been in love with her diffident cousin, Shukichi Osaki (Mitsugu Fujii), who now finds himself in a difficult position as Seiji’s best friend and the go-between charged with communicating his intention to marry. Called to a secret meeting by an old watermill, Kinue is shocked and offended when Shukichi proposes on behalf of someone else, strongly refusing the proposal and reminding him of all the times they had spent together during which she believed an attachment had been formed. Shukichi, whose family is impoverished, does not reject her affections but claims not to want to stand in the way of his friend’s romantic dreams.

Kinue, perhaps unwittingly setting up the ongoing drama, asks if she is to sacrifice her heart and marry a man she does not love and believes would ultimately be unhappy with a woman who yearns for someone else, in order that Shuikichi may continue to feel noble. In the end, Shukichi tries to make her decision for her by running away to the city in the hope of making a life for himself in the same way that Seiji has done. Kinue, brokenhearted, rejects the idea of marrying Seiji and runs off after him only to end up working as a bar girl under the bright lights of Tokyo. Meanwhile, Shukichi discovers that the bonds of obligation which carry so much weight the village are all but worthless in the city when his various contacts refuse to see him and he finds it impossible to gain promising employment. His big break comes when he is knocked over by the chauffeur of the man who just offered to pay his train fare back to the country and thereafter is taken into the family home as a tutor for the youngest son on the insistence of the forthright “modern girl” daughter, Tomone (Michiko Kuwano). Needless to say, the romantic drama isn’t over as Tomone also has a “cousin” who is in love with her and is also sought by Seiji who was her tutor while he was in college and she in school.

The values of the old world and the new are in constant conflict with each other though ultimately it is the failure to act decisively on one’s emotions which causes the greatest harm. Shukichi, knowing his family is poor and a marriage to Seiji the “better” social and financial option for Kinue, insists on nobly sacrificing himself in what he sees as her interest but in doing so rejects her own agency or right to choose her future, assuming she will simply passively pass into the arms of Seiji with no resistance. Kinue, however, resists by following him to Tokyo but, unable to find him, is forced into the sex trade to support herself. Meanwhile, Shukichi continues to break hearts in the city – firstly that of Tomone who has apparently fallen in love with him despite their class difference, but also that of Kayo (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) – the sister of the chauffeur who knocked him over. Still in love with Kinue he diffidently (but not categorically) rejects the affections of the two women but also refuses to act on his feelings for Kinue until he tries a last ditch attempt to “rescue” her from a fall into a life of prostitution through a worrying act of frustrated physical violence (something which ultimately fails).   

The final resolution is brought about by Seiji who, unlike Shukichi, has been able to reconcile his essential nobility with the forward moving nature of the times. Seiji, figuring out that he’d come between a loose arrangement between Kinue and her cousin, is full of remorse and steps back without a second thought, desiring only happiness for all rather than victory or conquest. Again, at the end, becoming the second choice match for Tomone, he returns to fix what he half feels he has broken by “rescuing” Kinue himself through an act of gentleman’s diplomacy and then giving his friend a good talking to. The problem becomes less of one of East and West, town and country, past and future, but personal integrity. Tomone laments that her “selfishness” has caused pain to others – something for which she is trying to make amends in becoming a “good wife” to Seiji, but this is a lesson Shukichi has been slow to learn. His failure to integrate his conflicting desires coupled with a feeling of social inferiority due to his family’s reduced circumstances and standing in the village has effectively created this web of broken hearts and ruined futures, all of which might have been avoided if he had been braver and chosen to stay at home with the woman he loved at his side, living a life of simplicity but with emotional integrity.

These twin destinies are reinforced by the final scenes which find Seiji and Tomone boarding a boat to the West to immense fanfare and celebration, while Kinue and Shukichi are perched aboard a baggage train, he standing and she sitting dejectedly, silent and apart as the rails speed away behind them. The city recedes and the chance of future happiness for our reunited lovers seems slim despite the conventionally romantic nature of their togetherness as they return home drenched in defeat. Seduced and betrayed by the bright lights of Tokyo, Kinue and Shukichi seem bound for the life they should have lived if they’d only been brave enough to fight for happiness at home rather than succumbing to the false promises of modernity but it remains to be seen if their time in the city can be “eclipsed” by a new hope for a traditional future or will continue to overshadow their simple and honest lives in the days to come.


Introspection Tower (みかへりの塔, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)

vlcsnap-2016-12-10-01h34m55s187Shimizu, 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.


 

Children in the Wind (風の中の子供, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2016-12-06-23h27m52s218It would be a mistake to say that Hiroshi Shimizu made “children’s films” in that his work is not particularly intended for younger audiences though it often takes their point of view. This is certainly true of one of his most well known pieces, Children in the Wind (風の中の子供, Kaze no Naka no Kodomo), which is told entirely from the perspective of the two young boys who suddenly find themselves thrown into an entirely different world when their father is framed for embezzlement and arrested.  Encompassing Shimizu’s constant themes of injustice, compassion and resilience, Children in the Wind is one of his kindest films, if perhaps one of his lightest.

Brothers Zenta (Masao Hayama) and Sampei (Bakudan Kozo) live a fairly comfortable life in a small town with their accountancy clerk father (Reikichi Kawamura) and doting mother (Mitsuko Yoshikawa). Older brother Zenta is the stereotypically good boy who studies hard, gets good grades, and causes no trouble. Sampei, by contrast, is a handful. Running out of the house to play Tarzan with the other neighbourhood kids even though he’d promised his mother he’d stay home to study to improve his awful performance at school, Sampei is the loveable rascal that no one quite knows what to do with. Despite their mother’s protestations, the boys’ father is content to let Sampei run riot for now, he’s only young after all.

When their father is accused of embezzling company funds, sacked, and later arrested, the boys’ world begins to crumble. The other kids won’t play with them anymore, their dad isn’t home, and their mother is worrying about money now that her husband has lost his job. Sampei is packed off to an uncle’s while Zenta stays behind to try and get a job to help out. Unfortunately, Sampei does not take well to his new environment and starts misbehaving even more than usual by disappearing up trees, riding a bucket down a river, running off to meet kappa, and even trying to run away with the circus!

All of this is told more or less from Sampei’s point view meaning that the facts of his father’s case recede into the background while Sampei’s worry and confusion comes to the fore. Having been in the office to deliver his father’s lunch when the coup occurred, Sampei can tell something awful has happened and tries to comfort his dad by closing all the blinds to block out the nosy kids’ faces peeking in from outside, and grabbing his father’s hat to get him to come home. Reassuring his dad that it’s all fine because he can just start a better company of his own, Sampei puts a childishly brave face on things while his ashen faced father walks home in silence. Of course, because Sampei is a child, no one explains to him exactly what’s happened, so no one explains it to us either, but we can perhaps infer a little more from the adults’ passing conversation than the still innocent Sampei.

The boys’ relationship with their father is one of the film’s warmest elements as, in contrast to the stereotypically austere salaryman dad, he delights in playing with his children, even breaking off from worrying about his impending doom by launching into a game of sumo. Sampei and Zenta know their father couldn’t have really done anything bad, so they aren’t really worried and though they miss him, they are sure he’ll be home soon. It’s not until fairly late on that they start to realise the gravity of the situation and how difficult things are for their mother, but once they do they become determined to support her too.

This being a (happy) Shimizu film, the injustice is finally undone and everything goes back to normal which what all children always want. Children, more than adults, are apt to forget quickly and so it’s not long before the other neighbourhood kids start responding to Sampei’s Tarzan call once again. In a typically nice touch, Sampei even invites his arch rival, Kinta – the son of the man who framed his dad for embezzlement in the first place, to come and see the approaching circus with him. A final gesture of reconciliation signals the end to hostilities as a possibly life changing event becomes a humorous summer interlude in the boys’ early lives. Warm and lighthearted, Children in the Wind is perhaps not as cutting or incisive as some of Shimizu’s more socially conscious efforts, but is filled with his characteristic compassionate humanism in its childlike certainty in justice and the willingness to forgive and forget.


 

Notes of an Itinerant Performer (歌女おぼえ書, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)

notes-on-an-itinerant-performerFilmed in 1941, Notes of an Itinerant Performer (歌女おぼえ書, Utajo Oboegaki ) is among the least politicised of Shimizu’s output though its odd, domestic violence fuelled, finally romantic resolution points to a hardening of his otherwise progressive social ideals. Neatly avoiding contemporary issues by setting his tale in 1901 at the mid-point of the Meiji era as Japanese society was caught in a transitionary phase, Shimizu similarly casts his heroine adrift as she decides to make a break with the hand fate dealt her and try her luck in a more “civilised” world.

At 25 years old, Uta (Yaeko Mizutani) jumps ships from one acting company to another having been promised better work by a roguish fellow performer. Tired of the strenuous life of travelling from village to village, putting on folk plays and street performances, Uta is thinking of quitting the business and looking for a job as a maid or something similar which is at least in the same place everyday. In a stroke of luck, she comes into contact with a kindly tea merchant who takes pity on her and suggests she come to live with him where she can teach his teenage daughter how to dance.

Uta becomes a member of the Hiramatsu household but not all of the inhabitants are as generous of spirit as Mr. Hiramatsu (Hideo Fujino) himself. The oldest son is away at college but the daughter, Nuiko (Kyoko Asagiri), has no interest in learning to dance and resents her father’s “adoption” of such a “common” woman. Youngest son Jiro (Haruhiko Tsuda) is similarly unimpressed with Uta’s presence, making her new home less than welcoming. To make matters worse, Mr. Hiramatsu abruptly dies leaving his business and household in disarray. Oldest son Shotaro (Ken Uehara) returns and feels as if he ought to abandon his studies and take over the company, but as a student he has no experience of running a business and lacks his father’s knowledge of the tea industry. Uta encourages him to return to university and finish his studies if only so that the prestige of a degree might help him later if he decides to restart the business. She also volunteers to act as a guardian for Jiro and Nuiko though Shotaro is wary seeing as they know each other so little. He then makes a surprising suggestion – that he and Uta marry, making it perfectly natural that she take care of everything at home while he’s away studying in the city.

Like many a Shimizu hero, Mr. Hiramatsu is a good hearted man but perhaps lacking in practical skills. Though he seemed to be prosperous and successful, the business was on the rocks and he dies leaving a number of debts behind him and total admin chaos for Shotaro as there is no clear successor to keep the business running in Mr. Hiramatsu’s absence. Luckily for Uta, Shotaro is also a kindhearted man like his father (in contrast to his siblings) and has no desire to suddenly throw her out when his father promised to look after her. He is, however, at a loss as of how to take care of everyone with no money coming in.

Even before Mr. Hiramatsu died, not everyone was happy about his decision to take in a travelling performer and an old friend begins to warn him about the danger of rumours. Friend of the family Kajikawa feels he has a stake in this as he intends his daughter Ayako to marry Shotaro and thinks it’s a done deal (though Mr. Hiramatsu does not seem particularly wedded to the idea). Ayako and Nuiko are also good friends and Ayako does seem like the ideal bride for Shotaro as a member of his own social class and a business connection for the family. Shotaro, however, proposes to Uta without really thinking things through. It is, in one sense, a purely practical decision but one that is likely to meet with a degree of social opposition.

Uta left her life as a travelling performer because she wanted something more conventional. Her mother died when she was six and she never knew her father. Her only happy memory of family is the time spent with her grandmother who died when she was twelve. Uta resents her lack of status as a member of a lowly order of entertainers and longs for something grander but has also internalised a deep seated sense of inferiority. Hence when Jiro and his school friends refer to her as a “monster” living in the house, she half accepts their prejudiced view of her. Nevertheless, she wants to honour the kindness that Mr. Hiramatsu offered her and also deeply respects his son, Shotaro, possibly even developing romantic feelings for him. Despite continuing to feel herself unworthy, Uta does the unthinkable by almost singlehandedly resurrecting the tea business when presented with an opportunity from a foreign company. Even after becoming a formidable business woman and winning the respect of Nuiko and affection of Jiro, Uta still feels herself out of place in the mercantile world and ultimately opts to leave in order to pave the way for the “proper” union of Ayako and Shotaro.

When Shotaro and Uta meet again she tells him that she left because she found his middle class world of “decency” too rigid and full of dull formality. Her “housewife” life was a hard one – getting up early, no smoking, no drinking. At least as a travelling performer she can sleep in and have her share of fun. This produces a quite shocking and strange scene in which Shotaro strikes Uta violently, knocking her to the floor. He repeats his earlier promise to marry her and invites her to come home as his wife, a “decent” woman, and full member of his social class whatever anyone else might have to say about it. Shotaro is apparently a man of his word but there is real feeling implied in his actions as opposed to duty or obligation. Nevertheless, this quite surprising scene of domestic violence used as a tool of coercion does not speak to Shotaro’s otherwise kindly personality and undercuts the “romantic”, if melodramatic, quality of the scene. This may be another instance of Shimizu’s aversion to romantic resolutions or romance as a solution to crisis, but one expects better from a director generally so keen to underline the hardships faced by women in his society.

Despite being filmed well into the era of the talkies and long after Shimizu himself had made the jump to sound, Notes of an Itinerant Performer makes use of frequent intertitles setting the scene or providing explanatory background material. Conversely, it also anticipates a more recent trend by allowing the discussions between the “American” (actually heavily accented European) and his interpreter to take place in English with Japanese sidetitles for parts not subsequently translated in the dialogue. In fact, this broadly positive foreign presence seems an odd inclusion for the fraught political world of 1941 (the film was released in March, just nine months before outright hostilities would commence with the USA which had been effecting a series of trade sanctions with the expansionist nation since 1938) even if the deal itself is taking place in the comparatively more open society of 1901.

In many ways about transitionary periods both in terms of society and of the self, Notes of an Itinerant Perfomer seems conflicted right up until its “Reader, I married him” inspired intertitle. Uta crosses a class border, transcending her lowly origins through selfless sacrifice, pure heartedness, and perseverance yet finally she is dragged across by violence and condescension rather than self acceptance or personal transformation. Filled with ambiguity, Notes of an Itinerant Performer reflects the uncertainties of its times and is noticeably less forgiving than Shimizu’s general outlook as its problematic finale demonstrates.


 

Star Athlete (花形選手, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2016-09-23-01h52m32s055Japan in 1937 – film is propaganda, yet Hiroshi Shimizu once again does what he needs to do in managing to pay mere lip service to his studio’s aims. Star Athlete (花形選手, Hanagata senshu) is, ostensibly, a college comedy in which a group of university students debate the merits of physical vs cerebral strength and the place of the individual within the group yet it resolutely refuses to give in to the prevailing narrative of the day that those who cannot or will not conform must be left behind.

Seki (Shuji Sano) is the star of the athletics club and shares a friendly rivalry with his best friend Tani (Chishu Ryu). Tani likes to train relentlessly but Seki thinks that winning is the most important thing and perhaps it’s better to be adequately rested to compete at full strength. While the two of them are arguing about the best way to be productive, their two friends prefer to settle the matter by sleeping. The bulk of the action takes place as the guys take part in a military training exercise which takes the form of a long country march requiring an overnight stay in a distant town. The interpersonal drama deepens as Seki develops an interest in a local girl who may or may not be a prostitute, casting him into disrepute with his teammates though he’s ultimately saved by Tani (in an unconventional way).

Far from the austere and didactic nature of many similarly themed films, Shimizu allows his work to remain playful and even a little slapsticky towards the end. These are boys playing at war, splashing through lakes and waving guns around but it’s all fun to them. Their NCO maybe taking things much more seriously but none of these men is actively anticipating that this is a real experience meant to prepare them for the battlefield, just a kind of fun camping trip that they’re obliged to go on as part of their studies. The second half of the trip in which the NCO comes up with a scenario that they’re attempting to rout a number of survivors from a previous battle can’t help but seem ridiculous when their “enemies” are just local townspeople trying to go about their regular business but now frightened thinking the students are out for revenge for ruining their fun the night before.

That said, the boys do pick up some female interest in the form of a gaggle of young women who are all very taken with their fine uniforms. The women continue to track them on their way with a little of their interest returned from the young men (who are forbidden to fraternise). Singing propaganda songs as they go, the troupe also inspires a group of young boys hanging about in the village who try to join in, taken in by Tani’s mocking chant of “winning is the best” and forming a mini column of their own. After this (retrospectively) worrying development which points out the easy spread of patriotic militarism, the most overtly pro-military segment comes right at the end with an odd kind of celebration for one of the men who has received his draft card and will presumably be heading out to Manchuria and a situation which will have little in common with the pleasant boy scout antics of the previous few days.

Physical prowess is the ultimate social marker and Seki leads the pack yet, when he gets himself into trouble, his NCO reminds him that “even stars must obey the rules” and threatens to expel him though relents after Tani takes the opportunity to offer a long overdue sock to the jaw which repairs the boys’ friendship and prevents Seki being thrown out of the group. Seki’s individuality is well and truly squashed in favour of group unity though Shimizu spares us a little of his time to also point out the sorrow of the young woman from the inn, left entirely alone, excluded from all groups as the students leave.

Employing the same ghostly, elliptical technique of forward marching dissolves to advance along the roadway that proved so effective during Mr. Thank you, Shimizu makes great use of location shooting to follow the young men on the march. Though the final scene is once again a humorous one as the two sleepyheaded lazybones attempt to keep pace with the front runners, the preceding scene is another of Shimizu’s favourite sequences of people walking along a road and disappearing below a hill, singing as they go. However, rather than the cheerful, hopeful atmosphere this conveyed in Shiinomi School there is a feeling of foreboding in watching these uniformed boys march away singing, never to reappear. Shimizu casts the “training exercise” as a silly adolescent game in which women and children are allowed to mockingly join in, but he also undercuts the irony with a subtle layer of discomfort that speaks of a disquiet about the road that these young men are marching on, headlong towards an uncertain future.


 

The Golden Demon (金色夜叉, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2016-09-22-02h33m21s455Perhaps best known for his work with children, Hiroshi Shimizu changes tack for his 1937 adaptation of the oft filmed Ozaki Koyo short story The Golden Demon (金色夜叉, Konjiki Yasha) which is notable for featuring none at all – of the literal kind at least. A story of love and money, The Golden Demon has many questions to ask not least among them who is the most selfish when it comes to a frustrated romance.

Poor relation Kanichi (Daijiro Natsukawa) is a university student living with friends of his deceased father. He and the daughter of the family which took him in, Miya (Hiroko Kawasaki), have grown up together and formed an emotional attachment they each believed would naturally lead to marriage. However, Miya has received a proposal from a wealthy gentlemen which her cash strapped father is strongly advising her to accept. Though she loves Kanichi deeply, Miya is torn – both by a feeling of duty to marry well and keep her parents in comfort, and by a fear of leaving her middle-class lifestyle for a life of uncertain poverty with the still studying Kanichi.

When she ultimately agrees to the arranged marriage, Kanichi becomes angry and accuses Miya of placing monetary concerns over true feeling. Disappearing from Miya’s life entirely, Kanichi determines to destroy himself in a vicious quest for revenge. Abandoning his idealistic, progressive concerns, Kanichi becomes a heartless money lender with a plan to one day amass a great fortune only to throw it in the face of his former love. When Miya’s husband, Tomiyama (Toshiaki Konoe), appears at his door apparently fallen on hard times, Kanichi’s plan looks set for success.

In true Shimizu fashion, he remains non-judgemental of his characters save for that of the elderly money lender who, when questioned by his son, offers a series of flimsy justifications for his line of work which his son brands dirty and disgraceful. The money lender points out that he’s only operating a business – he never attempts to hide his terms so customers know they will pay a heavy price for the loans, and thereafter the decision is their own. When his son points out how selfish a point of view that is and that all he’s doing is exploiting the desperation of vulnerable people, he’s told that he reads to many books and should learn to live in the “real world”. If Shimizu wants to criticise anything at all (even obliquely, this is 1937), it’s this “real world” thinking which legitimises the selfishness of those who seek to profit from the misfortune of others.

The same money lender has a somewhat strained relationship with his equally cynical wife. After she complains about his complaint about how much makeup she’s putting on “to go to a temple”, he tells her that his jealously proves he loves her. She’s a precious object that he’s afraid of losing to another man. To him all is about possession. Kanichi, who once thought himself so different is more or less the same as he refuses to think about why exactly Miya has made the decision she has, or even allow her the right to make that decision. Obviously broken hearted, he decides to abandon emotion all together as “you can’t trust the human heart.” He even attempts to enact the final terms of the usurious loans on the contracts of some of his university friends who, just as he was with Miya, are unable to understand how he could be so cruel to those he was once so close to. Even Tomiyama, who had hitherto looked after Miya as a husband should finally exclaims “I can’t love you without money” as if in a tacit acceptance of the fact that he essentially bought her, obtaining her duty and service but not, perhaps, her heart.

In contrast some of Shimizu’s other work he focusses much more on Kanichi’s moral meandering than on Miya’s suffering but she herself pays a heavy price throughout. In sacrificing her love for Kanichi and a chance at a self directed future in agreeing to the arranged marriage, Miya ultimately chose to familial duty over romantic feeling. Having grown up in comfort, a degree of fear may have also influenced her decision but the choice has broken her own heart just as much as Kanichi’s. Guilt and a regret threaten to frustrate her new married life even though she does her best to become the ideal wife. Miya searches for Kanichi to obtain his forgiveness but Kanichi is nowhere to be found.

The eventual reunion is one of chilling coldness and repressed emotions which causes only more pain for everyone involved. Neatly avoiding melodrama, Shimizu opts for a more realistic solution in which everyone realises the error of their ways. Kanichi perseveres in his desire for vengeance yet leaves feeling like “the stupidest man in the world”, pausing only to offer a few words of parting encouragement to Miya if stopping short of forgiveness (or an apology which she is most likely owed if only for the previous ten minutes of cruelty). The past remains the past and must be accepted as such, yet there is at least a glimmer of hope for Kanichi whose abortive plan of revenge may have reawakened within him the very thing he’d been trying to bury even if the future for Miya seems nowhere near as certain.