Friday, June 19, 2009
Hiroshi Shimizu: A Perfect Summer Treat
Last winter, the other writers for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow and I were very excited when the Criterion Collection's Eclipse line announced it would be releasing four films from filmmaker Hiroshi Shimizu. They hit the streets this past March, but I didn't pick up my set until May...and it's a good thing I waited until then to do so.
The four films that come in the box set (appropriately titled Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu) seem ideally appropriate for the relaxing summer season, what with their mostly light, lyrical tone and cross-country exploration of Japanese culture that are so evocative of vacation excursions (sometimes directly so). Two of the films - The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) and Ornamental Hairpin (1941) - are even set at resorts, following the intersecting paths of its visitors and the relationships that form between them before they are inevitably broken off (providing achingly bittersweet moments in both films).
According to the DVDs' liner notes (written by Michael Koresky), Shimizu usually preferred to work with notes and outlines instead of strictly following a script. This method and its benefits can easily be seen in his films, as they largely consist of separate episodes and multiple storylines that are definitely more driven by character than plot. The earliest film in the set is the silent Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), which follows a fairly melodramatic storyline centered around two best friends and the man they both love. In my opinion, it is the weakest of the four films because of this soap opera-like story, even though it provides a solid frame around which Shimizu deploys a number of creative poetic flourishes (including dissolves, several of his trademark tracking shots and striking editing techniques).
My personal favorite of the bunch is 1936's Mr. Thank You. In contrast to Japanese Girls, its story of a kind bus driver and his passengers flows along effortlessly, showing how ideally suited Shimizu's casual approach is to the road movie structure. The film is one of the earliest examples of the road movie as we know it today and, in my books, one of the most effective. As the driver (and title character, known for his shouts of gratitude to the pedestrians who move aside for his bus) takes his passengers to Tokyo, their personalities, quirks and backstories are gradually revealed in a friendly and comfortable manner while the journey brings them into contact with a variety of people who occupy different areas of the social ladder. Simply, the film invites you along for the ride as one of Mr. Thank You's patrons, and Shimizu does his part to ensure the trip is an enjoyable one.
All of the films in this set feel to some degree like refreshing escapes that you can indulge in whenever you wish. And the best part - all of them are short and sweet, the longest only clocking in at 76 minutes. So, for those curious about this newly-released set, Shimizu-san himself or the golden age of Japanese film, take my word for it: now's the best time in the year to check out some of these recovered treasures.