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Friday, July 11, 2008

Neglected master Shimizu gets boxed with subtitles


Special to The Japan Times

Fans of classic Japanese films lament the difficulty of exploring the nation's cinematic heritage, when only works by acknowledged greats such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu achieve wide international distribution.

News photo
Old classic: A still from Hiroshi Shimizu's "Children of the Wind." (C) 1937 SHOCHIKU CO., LTD.

DVD releases within Japan cover a wider spectrum, but rarely offer the option of English subtitles, sorely needed by many. At last, one of Japan's leading studios, Shochiku, has released two box sets of films by Hiroshi Shimizu, a neglected minor master, and they're subtitled and mostly in sparkling prints.

Hiroshi Shimizu (1903-1966) was a colleague of the more famous Ozu, whose family dramas, such as "Tokyo Story," are internationally acclaimed, at Shochiku during the 1930s and '40s. Shimizu too often made films about families, concentrating on children (usually boys). One of the Shochiku box sets contains four of Shimizu's children's films; four films about wanderers make up the other.

Among the highlights are "Nobuko," set, uncharacteristically, in a girls' school, and charting the conflict between a teacher and a rebellious child; "Mr. Thankyou," following a bus driver and his passengers on a journey across the Izu Peninsula; and "Ornamental Hairpin," tracing the emotional undercurrents among guests at a hot-spring resort.

The charm and grace of Shimizu's films are deepened by an undertone of sadness. "Children in the Wind," for instance, depicts two brothers whose father has been accused of embezzlement. "Introspection Tower" is about a home for delinquent children. Shimizu's films about adults focus on vagrants or fallen women, such as the troubled heroines of "The Masseurs and a Woman" and "Ornamental Hairpin."

These movies preserve priceless glimpses of a Japan now consigned to history. Shooting on location whenever possible, Shimizu recorded the beauty of provincial regions barely touched by development. He particularly loved the Izu Peninsula, whose picturesque villages, hilly landscapes and dirt roads are an enticing backdrop to events in "Mr. Thankyou," "Children in the Wind" and "Four Seasons of Children." The old-fashioned onsen (hot spring) resorts of "The Masseurs and a Woman" and "Ornamental Hairpin," with modest wooden buildings beside pristine rivers, provide an insight into the pastimes of the leisured classes before mass tourism.

"Japanese Girls at the Harbour," by contrast, shows a cosmopolitan prewar Yokohama, with its busy harbor and the foreigners' quarter known as "The Bluff." The little Anglican Christ Church is still a recognizable landmark, although, ironically, it has twice been gutted and rebuilt since Shimizu made his film.

There are also intriguing topical references. A charming scene in "Children in the Wind," where one boy plays at being a champion Olympic swimmer while his brother improvises a running commentary, evokes the upcoming 1940 Olympic Games, assigned to Tokyo. Ironically, the outbreak of World War II delayed that event for 24 years.

Other films by Shimizu touch on the harsher realities of the era. "Mr. Thankyou" is a film of such exceptional charm that many viewers overlook its darker side: the poverty and desperation of the Depression, crystallized in the plot strand about a girl on her way to become a prostitute in Tokyo.

But these films are not merely a nostalgia trip or a history lesson. In many ways, they are unerringly contemporary, perhaps more so after recent social changes. In the ordered, increasingly prosperous Japan of the '70s and '80s, where large companies offered lifetime employment to most, Shimizu's focus on vagrants and migrant workers must have seemed anachronistic. It is more in tune with modern realities, when guarantees of job security are vanishing, and a younger generation of workers eschew the corporate career ladder for part-time or casual work.

Equally, Shimizu's focus on lonely or alienated children chimes with a modern masterpiece like "Nobody Knows," Hirokazu Kore'eda's moving account of kids abandoned by their mother, which scooped its teenage star, Yuya Yagira, an award for Best Actor at Cannes. There's an attractive symmetry in that Shimizu's "Children in the Wind" was among the first Japanese films to play at a foreign festival, screening at Venice in 1938.

In the intervening 70 years, Shimizu has enjoyed other festival and retrospective screenings abroad, and foreign residents of Tokyo had the chance to see subtitled prints in his centenary retrospective at the 2003 Filmex festival in Tokyo. But these DVD releases may gain him the wider audience he deserves.

The Hiroshi Shimizu Film Collection, Vol. 1 and 2, is available in stores or online via CD Japan (cdjapan.co.jp).

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