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.


 

Forget Love for Now (恋も忘れて, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2016-09-21-02h01m08s449Sad stories of single mothers forced to work in the world of low entertainment are not exactly rare in pre-war Japanese cinema yet Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1937 entry, Forget Love For Now (Koi mo Wasurete) , puts his on own characteristic spin on things by looking at the situation through the eyes of the young son, Haru (Jun Yokoyama). Frustrated by both social and economic woes, little Haru’s life is blighted by loneliness and resentment culminating in tragedy for all.

Oyuki (Michiko Kuwano) is a single mother and bar hostess in a port town. Her young son Haru loves his mum even though he’s often on his own but after he makes the mistake of inviting some of the other boys back to his mother’s apartment and they end up getting doused in her rather pungent perfume, the other kids’ mothers figure out what Oyuki does for a living. Predictably they forbid their kids from associating with Haru because his mother is “a bad woman”. After repeatedly trying to keep hanging out with the other children, Haru starts skipping school to avoid the constant exclusion entirely. When Oyuki finds out about this she is very upset and has him moved to another school but the old group of kids and the new group of kids are not entirely unconnected and so Haru is unable to escape the prejudice his old group of friends hold for him.

The film never goes into how Oyuki ended up on her own with a young child or what might have happened to Haru’s father but Oyuki’s role as a single mother is not the reason the pair are excluded from the other families. Lacking other opportunities, Oyuki is forced to into work as a bar hostess even though she clearly hates it and bears it only for her son’s sake.

Her job is to entertain men in the bar to keep the drinks flowing, always smiling and flirting to keep dull men trapped in the false hope of real connection. She gets paid very little for this as we find out early on when she tries to spearhead a kind of union movement in the bar by questioning why their work costs them so much – they have to pay for their outfits, food and drink out of their own wages when the girls working at other establishments get a share of the alcohol profits which they have helped to generate but Oyuki and her friends get only their meagre salaries. Their pleas fall on hard ears with the tough as nails mama-san who isn’t going to permit any kind of mutinies in her establishment. This is made clear later on when one employee tries to quit her job at the bar and move to Kobe in search of more lucrative employment but is beaten black and blue by the bar’s goons.

Oyuki’s single ray of hope comes in the form a sinister figure lurking in the shadows outside her apartment. Eventually becoming friends with Oyuki and her son, the man represents a possible happy ending in which he beats the depression, finds a better job and takes them both away from this world of poverty of degradation. Needless to say this is not to be – the man’s attempts to find a solution to everyone’s problems take to long and he is simply too late. Not only that, his well meaning words of advice to Haru that he should make sure to win against the bullies next time have disastrous consequences.

In essence, Forget Love For Now is “hahamono” in which Oyuki bravely sacrifices everything of herself in her son’s name, committed to the idea that he will progress through his education to university and repay all of her efforts by becoming a fine man. Society, whilst praising the idea of the self sacrificing mother, does not approve of the things she has to do in that very sacrifice she’s making and refuses to allow her success in her mission. The true tragedy is that the little boy, Haru, is aware on some level of everything his mother is doing for him and loves her so much that he is willing to sacrifice himself for her – rendering her long years of suffering entirely pointless.

In the end, Oyuki has nothing. As the title of the film tells us, not even love is permitted to her as she loses both her son and the possibility of romance as her well meaning man makes a now equally pointless sacrifice of his own. Forget Love For Now is somewhat atypical in Shimizu’s output as it ends with no hope in sight, strongly condemning this rigid society which forces women to act in a way of which it disapproves and then refuses to support them when they do. Shooting mostly on stage sets rather than the naturalistic settings featured in much of his other work, Shimizu crafts an emotionally devastating tale of maternal sacrifice cruelly frustrated by a cold and unfeeling society.