Hiroshi Shimizu was a contemporary of Yasujiro Ozu during the heyday of the silent films of the 30s and is virtually unknown outside of Japan. Criterion has collected four of his films in Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu. The films are: Japanese Girls At The Harbor (1933), Mr. Thank You (1936), The Masseurs And A Woman (1938), and Ornamental Hairpin (1941). Shimizu has a flair for framing scenes, mise-en-scene, using outdoor locations, and editing that brought the narrative together. It seems that the prodigious Shimizu (he made over 100 films and often as many as ten a year) often focused on outsiders and made social commentary in most of his films. All the films have informative essays written by Michael Koresky, a staff writer for Criterion.
In his silent film, Japanes Girls At The Harbor, Shimizu telsl the story of a love triangle that has its origins in Yokohoma. There are many sumptuous shots of the surrounding hills and harbor of Yokohoma throughout the film as we see Sunako's (Michiko Oikawa) downfall related to her relationship with a petty criminal, Henry (Urero Ugawa). She wounds her rival, the worldly Yoko Sheridan (Ranko Sawa), with Henry's pistol in a fit of jealousy. Sunako has no choice but to go on the run and to work as a bar hostess to survive. Meanwhile, Henry goes straight and marries Sunako's best friend Dora (Yukiko Inuoe). Sunako returns to Yokohoma with a starving artist in tow and reunites with the couple causing strife in their relationship. They urge her to give up her wicked ways and go straight, which she finally tries to do in the end as she leaves Yokohoma for her new life.
Mr. Thank You (1936) is based on a four page short story by writer Yasunari Kawabata. The "Mr. Thank You" in this story is a kindly bus driver who shouts "Thank you!" to everyone who yields right of way to his bus, he also delivers messages for people living along the route, and even delivers records to those who can't afford to take the bus into the city to buy them. Among the passengers on this particular trip are: an open-minded modern girl, a close-minded lecherous mustachioed insurance salesman, and a mother accompanying a young daughter whom she intends to sell into prostitution. This is not Ozu territory, furthermore, according to the accompanying essay Shimizu made an impromptu scene, after a chance encounter with Korean laborers on the shoot, in which the driver has a nice conversation with a young Korean woman. As Koresky states, the inclusion alone is worthy for representing a dispossessed and marginalized minority on screen and their essentialist for clearing a road for the Japanese-showing Shimizu's humanity. Shimizu has utilized these road encounters by showing the under developed countryside that was still living in the past. In the end the girl is saved from her fate as a plaything for men. The film is another triumph for the director.
The Masseurs And A Woman (1938) is another story of a fallen woman. In this story that takes place at an onsen inn in Izu, two blind masseurs have several encounters with guests: a mysterious woman from Tokyo, a man with his adopted nephew, and some students out on a hiking trip. There is a rash of thefts and one of the masseurs suspects the mysterious woman who turns out to be running from her benefactor, as she is a kept woman. The film ends on an ambiguous note ala Naruse. The film has lots of great location shots from Izu.
Shimizu's masterpiece might be Ornamental Hair Pin (1941), which is another film set at a hot springs inn and concerns another fallen women, Kinuyo Tanaka, playing a geisha that has left her patron and hopes to start a new life. There are a whole host of characters: a cranky professor, an aging grandfather and his two grandsons, a henpecked husband and wife, and most importantly a wounded soldier played by a youthful Chisu Ryu-who later go onto to become one of Ozu's favorite actors. The slight fare of this films can be contrasted with the fact that Japan was at war at the time of the filming, but seems far removed from this slice of life at an onsen and the suspense of whether the soldier will propose to the one time geisha. The ambiguous endings remind one of Ozu and Naruse, but the constant use of fallen women is more reminiscent of Mizoguchi. Shimizu deserve greater recognition, hopefully, more films will be released and seen in the west in the future.