Ornamental Hairpin, 1941. One of my favorite sequences in any film is the remarkably fluid lateral dolly shot through the financially ruined Furusawa household that opens Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion, so it is particularly satisfying to see Hiroshi Shimizu further refining this technique in the seemingly effortless, long take, outdoor tracking shot of a pair of weekend vacationers from Tokyo (a conversation about the pleasure of having the powder removed from their faces suggest that they are geisha) descending onto a hot spring resort that cuts into a lateral dolly shot through the rooms occupied by the longer-term residents of a resort inn. This visual convergence in Ornamental Hairpin serves as an impeccable foreshadowing of the narrative intersection between the two groups as one of the young women from the weekend revelers, Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka) inadvertently loses her ornamental hairpin in the spring waters and is “found” by a soldier in recuperation from a war injury (Chishu Ryu) who cuts his foot on the object. Attempting to downplay the incident, the soldier calls the episode as almost “poetic”, a sentiment that the professor (Tatsuo Saito) then misconstrues as the soldier’s implicit romanticism for the owner of the hairpin – “a poetic illusion” that now seems within grasp when Emi decides to come in person in order to retrieve her property and personally apologize for the mishap. Filmed during the uncertainty of the Pacific War, Shimizu’s seemingly escapist, insular tale, based on a Masuji Ibuse short story, nevertheless reveals a crepuscular, allegorical meaning in the juxtaposition of the residents’ romanticism towards the owner of the ornamental hairpin, and the final shot of Emi in mid-step ascending the staircase – a state of limbo, isolation, and fugue – a reluctant return to reality and dissipation of the poetic illusion.
The Ball at Anjo House, 1947. Filmed during American postwar occupation, The Ball at Anjo House is a curiously atypical Japanese film that hews eerily closer to the privileged, dysfunctional families and moral abandon of The Magnificent Ambersons or a Douglas Sirk melodrama than a Shochiku middle-class shomin-geki: the proud family patriarch, Tadahiko (Osamu Takizawa) who continues to harbor the illusion that his name will be sufficient to secure credit and save the family mansion from foreclosure; the aimless, playboy son, Masahiko (Masayuki Mori) who seduces a maid with empty promises of marriage and instead, latches on to Yoko (Keiko Tsushima), the daughter of the blackmarketeer, Shinkawa (Masao Shimizu) to whom his father is financially indebted; the prudish daughter Akiko (Yumeko Aizome) who once spurned the affections of the handsome family chauffeur for an ultimately (and scandalously) failed marriage to a socially prominent man; the pragmatic, devoted daughter (Setsuko Hara) who accepts the family’s change in fortune and is inspired by the idea of forging a new beginning (and, perhaps, away from the intractable social codes that bind their class). Filmmaker Kozaburo Yoshimura’s portrait of the privileged class, scripted by Kaneto Shindo, is highly formalized and stilted, but nevertheless, presents a provocative portrait of the inevitable democratization of class structure – and, more importantly, the chaotic upending of social order – in postwar Japan (as symbolically encapsulated in the physical toppling of the ancestral samurai family armour that is prominently displayed in the main entrance of the estate). Perhaps the most incisive sequence in the film is revealed in the sublime father and daughter tango that concludes the film – a change in sentiment (and literal pace) that hints at an image of struggling to keep in-step with the uncertain, disorienting, and foundation-less realities of contemporary, postwar society.
Army, 1944. Keisuke Kinoshita’s wartime film, Army is anything but the rousing call to arms and reinforcement of patriotism that the authorities had envisioned the film would be. Known for his Ofuna-flavored shomin-geki “women’s pictures”, Kinoshita subverts the official themes of duty, allegiance to the emperor, and national glory. Contrasting the emotional (and philosophical) rigidity of the family patriarchs through several generations as they try to instill the virtues of service and duty as career officers against the exquisitely haunting final sequence of an extended tracking shot of the mother, played by the great actress and frequent Mizoguchi heroine (and erstwhile muse) Kinuyo Tanaka, running alongside her son as the new military recruits march through the streets in a send-off parade before being deployed to the battlefront, the lingering image of the price of war becomes imprinted, not in the father’s stern and uncompromising life lessons but in the complexity of emotions revealed through a mother’s anxious, tearful farewell.
The Lights of Asakusa, 1937. A well-crafted riff on Yasujiro Shimazu’s familiar shomin-geki films, this time transplanted to a group of Western opera stage actors working in the bustling theater and entertainment district of Asakusa in old downtown Tokyo, The Lights of Asakusa is a charming and elegantly realized ensemble slice-of-life serio-comedy. Centering on the acting troupe’s attempts to harbor a virginal young chorus girl from the lecherous advances of one of the theater’s most powerful patrons – and abetted in no small part by the troupe director’s wife and principal actress Marie (played by the legendary screen and stage performer, and frequent Ozu and Naruse actress, Haruko Sugimura) – the plot provides a simple backdrop for the ecletic personalities of the film’s cast of characters: a struggling painter who derives inspiration from European art, a veteran actor who contemplates retirement after being jeered onstage, a lonely arcade worker who longs to escape the tawdry lights of the district, a well-intentioned actor (Ken Uehara) whose off-stage samaritan deeds and insistence on fairness and righteousness rival the heroics of his on-stage persona, an older, world wise chorus girl who takes it upon herself to protect her young co-worker’s honor. Eschewing plot in favor of richly textured characters, the film is a thoughtful and affectionate portrait of camaraderie, pragmatism, and human decency.
A Star Athlete, 1937. Hiroshi Shimizu’s government-pressured, militarism-era film A Star Athlete is a breezy, refreshingly lighthearted, and subtly subversive slice-of-life comedy that centers on an all-day student march in formation and armed combat drills through the rural countryside for military training exercises. Shimizu demonstrates his deceptively facile adeptness and virtuoso camerawork through a series of extraordinarily choreographed plan sequence shots: a track-and-field race around the campus track between the school’s start athlete Seki (Shuji Sano) and his constantly spurring – and sparring – team mate (Chishu Ryu); an extended dolly sequence of the students’ march as bemused villagers and flirtatious, love-struck young women alternately respectfully step aside, playfully trail, obliviously obstruct, and amorously chase the dashing students in uniform; a mock battlefield charge assault through muddy fields as a guilt-ridden motley crew of travelers on the road scramble to flee from the students in a mistaken belief of being chased in retribution for their petty transgressions during their brief stay in the village.
Every Night’s Dreams, 1933. Mikio Naruse’s elegantly distilled early silent film Every Night’s Dreams provides an archetype for the filmmaker’s recurring themes: pragmatic, determined women who tenaciously hold onto their failing relationships, weak men who lead a life of increasing dependence on the women they mistreat, life stations that grow baser as characters paradoxically strive to improve their situation. Structured in the framework of a melodrama, the story chronicles the life of a popular bar hostess and single mother named Omitsu (Sumiko Kurishima) as she struggles to rebuild her fractured family after her chronically unemployed husband (Tatsuo Saito) unexpectedly returns. Stylistically, Naruse incorporates a series of innovative camerawork: temporal cross-cutting, elliptical montage, and recurring shots of disembodied framing (most notably, in a night time sequence of running legs) the serve, not only to provide a compact precision – and therefore, emotional tension – to the film’s pervasive atmosphere of entrapment and existential stasis, but also to reflect the characters’ sense of disorientation and economic instability.
Woman of the Mist, 1936. In the essay Woman of the Mist and Gosho and the 1930s from the book Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History, Arthur Nolletti examines the complex narrative and visual strategies employed by Gosho that culminate in what would become one of his most accomplished works. Perhaps the most indicative of this style is his use of irony and subverted expectation. As the film begins, Bunkichi (Takeshi Sakamoto), an affable ne’er-do-well who married late (after sowing quite a few wild oats in his own youth) is approached by members of the community to head a collection drive for a commemorative lantern, a level of responsibility for which his wife Okiyo teasingly calls into question his suitability. Bunkichi further proves his irresponsibility when his widowed sister Otoku asks him to speak her son Seiichi in order to advise him to concentrate on his studies (instead of frittering his time reading novels) and instead, takes the young man out for a night of drinking. However, when Seiichi becomes involved in an even more serious – and potentially life-altering – predicament, Bunkichi takes him under his wing and assumes responsibility to mitigate the consequences of the young man’s indiscretion. Gosho’s richly textured home drama is a refined and seemingly effortless examination of duty, sacrifice, and maturity. The film’s curious title, a reference to the out-of-favor geisha turned Ginza bar hostess Terue, provides an evocative and haunting metaphor for human transience.
Our Neighbor Miss Yae, 1934. From the seemingly effortless opening tracking shot through a middle-class neighborhood that terminates to a shot of two young men practicing baseball pitches in the backyard of their suburban home (and accidentally breaking the window of a neighbor’s home), Yasujiro Shimazu illustrates his remarkable agility with the medium in the sublime shomin-geki (home drama), Our Neighbor Miss Yae. Ostensibly chronicling the story of a budding affection for the girl next door, Yaeko (Yumeko Aizome), the film is also a complexly (but gracefully) choreographed portrait of contemporary 1930s Japan, as the two households broach an array of traditional and modern social realities from divorce and extramarital affairs, to a young woman’s sexual forthrightness, independence, and virginity. Shimazu’s elegant command of narrative and camera is bolstered by the equally strong, natural performances of the actors (most notably, the great character actress, Chouko Iida), resulting in a remarkably fluid and delightfully satisfying slice-of-life portrait of prewar Japan.
The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine, 1931. Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine is a breezy and efferverscent slice-of-life comedy on a harried – and easily distracted – freelance writer (Atsushi Watanabe) whose deadline for a commission work to write a play for a theater company in Tokyo is quickly approaching. Scouting for a suitable retreat where he can complete his draft, the playwright comes upon a house for rent in a quiet, rural enclave and decides to move in with his young family. However, the seemingly idyllic town soon proves to be a source of its own distractions, from mice scrurrying in the attic, to stray cats foraging in the garden, to the children waking in the middle of the night to demand their parents’ attention. The final straw comes when a jazz band begins to rehearse at a neighboring house, prompting the playwright to pay a visit to the lady of the household, a Western-dressed moga (modern girl) who invites him to their jam session. The first all-talkie motion picture made in Japan, the film effectively showcases the strength of the technology, from evocative sound effects, to subtle inflections in dialogue, to the fully formed presentation of unconventional, cutting-edge music: a fitting and ebullient celebration and warm embrance of modern ways, creativity, and an open mind.
Acquarello, 2005 [reprinted]