Nobuko (信子, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1940)

vlcsnap-2016-12-09-01h11m57s027The well known Natsume Soseki novel, Botchan, tells the story of an arrogant, middle class Tokyoite who reluctantly accepts a teaching job at a rural school where he relentlessly mocks the locals’ funny accent and looks down on his oikish pupils all the while dreaming of his loyal family nanny. Hiroshi Shimizu’s Nobuko (信子) is almost an inverted picture of Soseki’s work as its titular heroine travels from the country to a posh girls’ boarding school bringing her country bumpkin accent and no nonsense attitude with her. Like Botchan, though for very different reasons, Nobuko also finds herself at odds with the school system but remains idealistic enough to recommend a positive change in the educational environment.

Travelling from the country to take up her teaching job, Nobuko (Mieko Takamine) moves in with her geisha aunt to save money. When she gets to the school she finds out that she’s been shifted from Japanese to P.E. (not ideal, but OK) and there are also a few deductions from her pay which no one had mentioned. The stern but kindly headmistress is quick to point out Nobuko’s strong country accent which is not compatible with the elegant schooling on offer. The most important thing she says is integrity. Women have to be womanly, poised and “proper”. Nobuko, apparently, has a lot to learn.

As many teachers will attest, the early days are hard and Nobuko finds it difficult to cope with her rowdy pupils who deliberately mock her accent and are intent on winding up their new instructor. One girl in particular, Eiko (Mitsuko Miura), has it in for Nobuko and constantly trolls her with pranks and tricks as well as inciting the other girls to join in with her. As it turns out, Eiko is something of a local trouble maker but no one does anything because her father is a wealthy man who has donated a large amount of money to the school and they don’t want to upset him. This attitude lights a fire in Nobuko, to her the pupils are all the same and should be treated equally no matter who their parents are. As Nobuko’s anger and confidence in her position grow, so does Eiko’s wilfull behaviour, but perhaps there’s more to it than a simple desire to misbehave.

Released in 1940, Nobuko avoids political comment other than perhaps advocating for the importance of discipline and education. It does however subtly echo Shimizu’s constant class concerns as “country bumpkin” Nobuko has to fight for her place in the “elegant” city by dropping her distinctive accent for the standard Tokyo dialect whilst making sure she behaves in an “appropriate” fashion for the teacher of upper class girls.

This mirrors her experience at her aunt’s geisha house which she is eventually forced to move out of when the headmistress finds out what sort of place she’s been living in and insists that she find somewhere more suitable for her position. The geisha world is also particular and regimented, but the paths the two sets of female pupils have open to them are very different. Nobuko quickly makes friends with a clever apprentice geisha, Chako (Sachiko Mitani), who would have liked to carry on at school but was sold owing to her family’s poverty. Though she never wanted to be a geisha, Chako exclaims that if she’s going to have to be one then she’s going to be the world’s best, all the while knowing that her path has been chosen for her and has a very definite end point as exemplified by Nobuko’s aunt – an ageing manageress who’s getting too old to be running the house for herself.

Eiko’s problems are fairly easy to work out, it’s just a shame that no one at the school has stopped to think about her as a person rather than as the daughter of a wealthy man. Treated as a “special case” by the teachers and placed at a distance with her peers, Eiko’s constant acting up is a thinly veiled plea for attention but one which is rarely answered. Only made lonely by a place she hoped would offer her a home, Eiko begins to build a bond with Nobuko even while she’s pushing her simply because she’s the only one to push back. After Nobuko goes too far and Eiko takes a drastic decision, the truth finally comes out, leading to regrets and recriminations all round. Despite agreeing with the headmistress that perhaps she should have turned a blind eye like the other teachers, Nobuko reinforces her philosophy that the girls are all the same and deserve to be treated as such, but also adds that they are each in need of affection and the teachers need to be aware of this often neglected part of their work.

Lessons have been learned and understandings reached, the school environment seems to function more fully with a renewed commitment to caring for each of the pupils as individuals with distinct needs and personalities. Even Chako seems as if she may get a much happier ending thanks to Nobuko’s intervention. An unusual effort for the time in that only two male characters appear (one a burglar Nobuko heroically ejects assuming him to be Eiko playing a prank, and the other Eiko’s father) this entirely female led drama neatly highlights the various problems faced by women of all social classes whilst also emphasising Shimizu’s core humanist philosophies where compassion and understanding are found to be essential components of a fully functioning society.


 

Ornamental Hairpin (簪, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)

ornamental hair pinShimizu goes on holiday! Again! Actually, when you think about it going on holiday is always inherently sad because just like everything else holidays end and you have to return to whatever it was that made you want to go on holiday in the place only with the painful reminder that a more cheerful world exists and you’re no longer in it. That rather depressing preamble out of the way, it’s time to join the temporary residents of a small hot springs resort in the picturesque countryside where a mislaid hairpin is about to kickstart a series of mini epiphanies in the diverse collection of guests.

We arrive at the inn in the company of Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and her friend Okiku (Hiroko Kawasaki) on a brief visit from the city. The inn is very full right now with a festival in town and everybody seems to want a massage! Another guest, the extremely grumpy professor Katae (Tatsuo Saito), is put out that the tour groups are sapping all the hotel’s resources and complains vociferously to his go partner who is staying at the inn with his two grandsons Jiro and Taro. Other guests at the inn include a mild mannered husband and his wife, Mr. (Shinichi Himori) and Mrs. (Hideko Mimura) Hiroyasu, and a recuperating soldier, Mr. Nanmura  (Chishu Ryu). Eventually the tour groups go home taking Emi and Okiku with them, but Emi discovers she’s left her ornamental hairpin behind and sends a letter offering to pay for the return postage if anyone should find it.

Mr. Nanmura finds it in his foot one day as he’s enjoying the hot springs and even though he’s not that bothered about it, complaining expert Professor Katae can’t make enough of a fuss about the supposedly shoddy conditions at the hotel. When the hotel owners write to Emi and explain to her what’s happened she jumps straight on a train to apologise in person.

Nanmura had actually been quite happy about getting skewered by the pin. He says he found it “poetic”, as if the atmosphere of the place had penetrated deeply into his skin. The supposedly learned Katae doesn’t quite understand the soldier’s poetic leanings and starts debating whether the owner of the pin will be pretty or not, as if that would make a difference to the soldier’s romantic construction of events. Emi is indeed very beautiful, through perhaps a little sad and obviously contrite about the pin. Everyone in the inn is quite invested in witnessing a true love miracle between the bizarrely crippled soldier and the wounded beauty from Tokyo.

Once again the inn is a constructed world, a safe haven far away from the trouble and strife which exists outside it. The guests indulge themselves in the tranquil atmosphere taking in the beautiful scenery and killing time on otherwise trivial pursuits which occasionally include projecting a kind of narrative on their new found friends. The two boys, totally bored by this deliberately unstimulating environment, turn everything into a competition – even cheering on their grandfather as snores along side the equally noisy professor with the result that pretty much no one else is getting any sleep. Later they help the injured soldier recover with a set of endurance games which see him trying to walk unaided from one tree to another and eventually across a bridge.

Further comic relief is provided by the Hiroyasus with the husband being the sort of mild-mannered man who has no idea what he actually thinks so he just goes along with everything everyone says (and later checks with his wife who has the ultimate authority). Hiroyasu often defers to the professor whose authoritative tone gets things done for him though he is in fact an extremely self centred prig who just loves to complain out of a desperate need to be validated. He’s the loudest snorer of all and is keeping everyone awake yet he constantly complains about the noise of the other guests and is quick to shout at the inn keeper when he can’t get a massage because they’ve been booked by the visiting tour groups the very presence of which also annoys him. Eventually he gets so grumpy he just goes home which is probably a win/win for everyone.

But what of Emi herself? She too is escaping from something. The loss of the ornamental hair pin and its rediscovery leading her to the inn and perhaps to Nanmura has pushed her into a further consideration of her life in Tokyo. She doesn’t want to go back, this brief respite has been too pleasant and she wishes it could go on like this forever, though she knows, of course, that it can’t. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do now, but at least while she stops at the inn the sun will light the way. This is 1941, Nanmura will probably be going back to the war, the future is uncertain for everyone, but in here everything is beautiful, calm, safe. It’s just a shame it can’t last.


Ornamental Hairpin (簪, Kanzashi) is the fourth and final film in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu box set.

Clip of one of Nanmura’s “trials” (no subtitles):