Arts & Events

The Cinematic Poetry of Hiroshi Shimizu

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday August 06, 2009 - 10:46:00 AM

Japanese director Hiroshi Shimizu, nearly unknown in the West, was a friend and sometime collaborator of his better-known contemporary Yasujiro Ozu. 

The two share many qualities. Though their techniques differed, their themes were similar, and both evinced an uncommon compassion and abiding empathy for their characters. 

Criterion has released a box set of four Shimizu films, none of which have appeared on DVD in this country before and only one of which has ever had much exposure on American movie screens. “Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu,” part of Criterion’s Eclipse line of DVD releases, is aptly named; not only does it refer to the fact that the director shot these films largely on location in the mountains and seaside towns of Japan, but it also calls to mind his distinctive and eloquent use of the traveling shot. 

Shimizu’s camerawork is not technically complex—it usually involves simple movements forward or backward or from side to side—but it is employed so artfully and with such grace that his moving camera speaks volumes about his narrative, his characters and his perspective. 

Like Ozu, Shimizu uses simple and very direct techniques to convey so much more than script or image can suggest. His style is almost Hemingwayesque in that he imbues the most elementary building blocks of his artistic language to suggest a vast world of emotion, humanity and depth. He employs his camera the way a poet chooses just the right word, a simple word, and emphasizes it with a sharp, poignant delivery. 

Shimizu’s work is deceptively slight; he strikes a delicate balance between pathos and lighthearted entertainment. His films are full of wit, intelligence and an overwhelming sense of compassion. He views his characters with patience and wholly without judgment, using landscape and setting—dappled light, swaying branches, timelessly pastoral meadows, bridges over gentle but relentless streams—to convey their dilemmas, perspectives and personalities. 

Mr. Thank You (1936) may be the most accessible and pleasing of the set’s four films. It features an effective motif, first introduced as comedy but employed with greater poetry and depth as the story develops. A bus driver traverses the same landscape each day, transporting rural folks to the big city and back. As pedestrians and bicyclists step aside to let his bus pass along the narrow mountain roads, he tips his hat and cheerfully calls out “Thank you,” earning him his affectionate nickname. The film gradually becomes more thoughtful, and even, in small ways, political, as Shimizu moves us gently from a lighthearted travelogue to a sociological examination of Depression-era Japan. 

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), the only silent film in the collection, is something of a melodrama, but again with a light touch, tracing a love triangle that contains disaster, tragedy, redemption and ambivalence. 

In The Masseurs and a Woman (1938), the traveling shot is again deployed. The film opens with the camera retreating before two blind hikers, masseurs on their way to seasonal work at a mountain spa. The two converse like characters from a Beckett play, talking of nothing on the way to nowhere. 

Gradually something of a plot unfolds, though it is a slight one. Characters, each with his or her own brand of loneliness, interact at the spa, seeking connections with one another, like ghosts grasping for something tangible to hold onto. It is a Winesburg, Ohio-like poem of emptiness, with people tentatively reaching out but pulling back for fear of...what? Rejection? Success? Disappointment? Vulnerability? The specifics of their lives are withheld; details about the woman at the center of the intrigue are only slowly revealed. Another traveling shot depicts her from the point of view of one of the blind masseurs: he senses her nearby as she passes him on the street, a ghostly, mysterious and tremendously sensual presence—a woman simultaneously earthy and real but slightly beyond reach, a romantic and erotic dream, a scent, a gentle breeze, a feeling that can’t quite be pinned down. 

Ornamental Hairpin (1941) bears resemblance to Ozu’s film, especially his early work, in that it depicts multiple generations and stages of life in one dense milieu—from the boredom of children who have exhausted the pleasures of games, to love burgeoning among the young, to pragmatic middle age, to the wisdom and weariness of old age, as well as its poignant regression in the form of an old man who is as eager for a game of Go as the children are for any game at all. And the middle-aged bear the brunt of both, sandwiched between the demands of their children and parents. 

The film also contains perhaps Shimizu’s most effective and devastating use of the traveling shot. You can see it coming in the final minutes as Shimizu beautifully establishes the themes of his closing sequence. A young woman retraces her steps through fields and streams and groves, the backdrops of a now-concluded romance. We have watched as she aided a young soldier in his recovery from an injury, helping him to take small steps one at a time until he could walk again without crutches. Her sentimental journey takes her across a narrow bridge across a stream, through a meadow and into a grove of trees, her face always obscured by a white parasol. Finally she comes to the foot of the stairwell that served as the final test of the soldier’s recuperation. The angle of the parasol changes and her face is revealed, looking up toward Shimizu’s camera as it patiently waits for her to begin her ascent. And when she does, Shimizu cuts to a view from the side, the camera tracking with her one step at a time as she begins the hard climb of her own recovery from wounds less visible but no less crippling.