"I can't shoot films like Shimizu."
- Yasujiro Ozu
"People like me and Ozu get films made by hard work, but Shimizu is a genius..."
- Kenji Mizoguchi
The year 2003, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yasujiro Ozu, also marked the centenary of another great director who, like Ozu, worked for much of his career at the Shochiku studios creating films that vividly expressed the spirit of his culture. But despite praise by some Western film critics such as John Gillette, Hiroshi Shimizu (1903-1966), in contrast to Ozu, has received much less international attention. There have been few Western analyses of his work and apparently no complete retrospective of his surviving oeuvre outside Japan. A 1980s Shimizu retrospective at Britain's National Film Theatre included only one of Shimizu's silents, Japanese Girls at the Harbor. On the basis of this retrospective, Alan Stanbrook in "On the Track of Hiroshi Shimizu," an appreciative article for Sight and Sound (Spring 1988, Vol. 57, No. 2, pp. 122-25), concluded that "Shimizu's world is a sunny one, where the sadness of things only rarely intrudes." Yet, thanks to the 1990s release by Shochiku Home Video of five of Shimizu's silent films, it is now clear that the director's work in the silent era was often darker in tone, even attaining a true tragic vision.
In those five classic silent films of the 1930s reissued on video - Seven Seas (Nanatsu No Umi, 1931-2), Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Minato No Nihon Musume, 1933), The Boss's Son Goes to College (Daigaku No Waka-Danna, 1933), Eclipse (Kinkanshoku, 1934), and A Hero of Tokyo (Tokyo No Eiyu, 1935) - Shimizu uses the language of silent film with poetic eloquence to capture on the screen memorable depictions of the Japanese society of his time. Portraying in minute detail the Japanese mores of the early 1930s, the films convey the conflict between the desire for individual happiness and the stern requirements of a sense of duty to the social order. Vividly evoking class inequities and hypocrisies, they simultaneously dramatize the encounter between Japanese civilization and that of the West. There is poignancy in the contrast between the traditional agrarian way of life in old Japan with all its serene beauty and the exciting, fast-paced but ultimately corrupting world of modern urban civilization. To his realistic depictions, Shimizu brought an artist's eye for composition, a love of experimentation in cinematic technique, and an ability to draw from his players, seasoned veterans of the Shochiku stock company, moving and utterly natural performances.
Hiroshi Shimizu was born in Shizuoka on March 28, 1903, to a wealthy, socially prominent family. As his father was a businessman who had spent time in the United States, he was undoubtedly exposed to Western culture at an early age. Shimizu attended college in Sapporo, Hokkaido but did not graduate. Indeed, it has been said that his film The Boss's Son Goes to College was semi-autobiographical. Soon after leaving college, Shimizu joined the newly-formed Shochiku studio in Tokyo as an assistant director and in 1924, at the age of 21, began his long directorial career. He was remarkably prolific, directing over 160 films in a career that spanned 35 years. Seven years after making his last film, he died of a heart attack in Kyoto on June 23, 1966, at the age of 63. Often remembered principally as a director of children due to the fame of his late 30s classics, Children in the Wind and Four Seasons of Children, in actuality, his works are far more varied in subject and tone.
Off-screen, Shimizu was known as something of a womanizer and playboy. (One of his marriages was to the great actress Kinuyo Tanaka, who starred in several of the director's films, including Ornamental Hairpin in 1941.) At the same time, Shimizu's love of children brought out his great sense of social responsibility. Independently wealthy, with his own money he established a home for war orphans after World War II. These two sides of his personality - the playboy and the humanitarian - are mirrored in the conflicts depicted in some of his films. Despite his privileged background, his humanitarian instincts led him to side with the common people in their rebellion against the plutocracy.
There are intriguing similarities and differences in the careers of Shimizu and Ozu. Personally, the two artists were very close, with a life-long friendship that began when Shimizu was an assistant director and Ozu an assistant cameraman. Two of Ozu's early films, I Graduated, But... (1929) and Walk Cheerfully (1930), were based on stories written by Shimizu. And both directors were sympathetic to the beauty of their country's traditions. But whereas Ozu liked to create an entire universe on the sets of his Japanese homes, preferring to perfect a minimalist style in many of his later films, Shimizu, who found special enjoyment in taking his cast and crew out on location, continued to utilize a more expansive approach. As Alan Stanbrook notes: "Nobody loved the open road more than Shimizu and he rejoiced in letting the camera track lazily back down the byways of prewar Japan." With his dislike of written scripts and studio shooting, Shimizu, like Ozu, was undoubtedly pleased that the Japanese cinema was so late in adopting sound. While he successfully directed a talkie in 1933, he quickly resumed his work in silent films, making his last silent in 1935.
Seven Seas, the first of Shimizu's great silent films of the 30s, was scripted by Kogo Noda, Ozu's close associate, from a novel by Itsuma Maki (a pen name of the noted writer, Umitaro Hasegawa). The film is a lengthy work interweaving characters from different backgrounds and social strata in a narrative centered around the experiences of its heroine, Yumie Sone. Over two hours long, Seven Seas was released theatrically in two parts, with the first part entitled "Virginity Chapter" coming out in December 1931, while the second part, "Frigidity Chapter," followed in March 1932. Near the beginning of the narrative, at a garden party given by the wealthy Yagibashi family in Tokyo, Yumie meets Takehiko, the Yagibashis' playboy son and the brother of Yumie's fiancé, Yuzuru. Yumie, a young middle-class woman, lives with her ailing father, a retired ministry official, an older sister, and a younger sister still a child (played by a very young Hideko Takamine). Takehiko, who has just returned from a trip to Europe, is attracted to Yumie and contrives to have her stay overnight at his family's mansion where he takes advantage of her. Disgraced by Takehiko's actions, the Sone family suffers twin tragedies: Yumie's father is so shocked to learn of the seduction that he dies from a stroke, a loss that, in turn, leads to the mental breakdown of Yumie's older sister, Miwako. Yumie breaks off her engagement to Yuzuru and, determining on a course of revenge, marries the man who had wronged her. Angered by his family's treatment of Yumie, Yuzuru leaves home. He finds work as a French translator and moves into an urban middle-class neighborhood near his friends, Ichiro, the owner of a sporting goods store, and Mr. Yamanan, a tailor.
Once she is married to Takehiko, Yumie refuses all sexual relations with him, sleeping in a separate bedroom and insisting on a large monthly allowance. Unbeknownst to the Yagibashis, she spends part of her money on Miwako's hospital care while also providing Takehiko's mistress with a stipend. The Yagibashis' downfall comes about when another of their sons, Ohira, failing to obtain money from Takehiko he needs to support his geisha mistress, sells an exposé of his family to the newspapers. Faced with public shame, the Yagibashis order Yumie to leave, telling her she is divorced. She retorts that she has revenged herself for the wrong they did to her and her family. Meanwhile, Yuzuru, continuing to live apart from the Yagibashis, takes care of Yumie's younger sister, Momoko, and writes a best-selling autobiographical novel entitled Seven Seas. On the wings of his good fortune, he is reunited with Yumie. The film ends happily in the couple's new home with Miwako restored to mental health and Momoko also sharing in the joy. Interwoven with Yumie's story is a subplot involving Ichiro's good friend, Ayako, a female newspaper reporter who secretly loves Yuzuru from a distance. She is suddenly reunited with her father who had abandoned her mother to run off to America with another woman before she was born. Towards the film's conclusion, Ayako goes overseas with her father to start a new life.
For all the twists and turns of the complicated plot reminiscent of a classic 19th century novel, Shimizu's film is similarly convincing in its lifelike realism. This is due in large part to the power of the direction, the naturalistic playing, and the detailed settings. The director's mise-en-scène conveys a vivid sense of the environment in which the characters live and work - the simple middle class homes of Yumie and Ayako with their traditional Japanese furnishings; the lavish, Westernized mansion of the Yagibashis; the neighborhood sporting goods store of Ichiro and Mr. Yamanan's adjoining tailor shop in the Ginza district; the newspaper office where Ayako works; the newspaper owner's home in the peaceful countryside.
Shimizu in Seven Seas continually shows himself a master of his craft, skilfully using traveling shots to follow the characters or explore the setting and demonstrating his sensitivity to composition and imagery throughout the film. For example, when Ichiro visits Ayako in the country as she is recovering from a disturbing incident in which a man killed himself over her, the camera pans across a creek in the woods, their reflections appearing as Ichiro tosses a pebble in the water. Much later in the film, when Ichiro meets with Ayako in a field, Shimizu uses a long shot that places them against a timeless background of huge clouds appearing like a vast sea on the horizon.
Thematically, the film is dominated by the implied class conflict between the rich, decadent Yagibashis and their prey, the far less prosperous Sone family. Shimizu's film is thus closely related to the leftist Japanese "social tendency" films of the time denouncing the inequities of a rapidly industrializing, urbanized capitalist system in which the wealthy class exploited the struggling middle class and proletariat. The film repeatedly arouses the spectator's ire against the Yagibashi clan, such as the scene in which Yamanan the tailor suddenly appears in the family's exclusive club to insist it is their responsibility for Takehiko to marry Yumie in order to rectify the injustice done to the Sone family.
The rich gallery of characters enables Shimizu to develop his thematic concerns. Like his social class and his family, Takehiko, the principal villain, shows himself to be a hypocrite. In the very first scene when he returns from his tour abroad, he speaks disapprovingly of a short-skirted Japanese flapper on the train, calling her the kind of girl that is giving Japan a bad reputation. The Yagibashi family demonstrate not only hypocrisy but callousness and outright cruelty in their attitude towards the humbler Sone family. Particularly insensitive are the disrespectful comments of Takehiko's brother, Ohira, on the death of Yumie's father in front of the grieving family. Takehiko, later speaking to Ohira at their club, says, "It was quite a show - the old man died, the beautiful lady cried," further illustrating the maliciousness rooted in their class conscious snobbery. Their avarice and arrogance is all the more glaring when contrasted with the honesty and humanity of the middle-class characters, Ichiro and Yamanan, the kind of hard-working tradesmen who are the backbone of Japanese society.
Yuzuru stands apart from the rest of the Yagibashi family. Spurning the life of a parasitic idler, he takes an upstairs flat in the same building in which his friends, Ichiro and Yamanan, have their businesses. There, when not working as a translator, he devotes his time to writing. In an ironic juxtaposition, while Ohira's lust for money brings about his family's public disgrace when he provides the tabloids with lurid details of their private lives, Yuzuru mines his experiences in an artistic manner that restores luster to the Yagibashi name. The film thus takes a clear stand in favor of honest, creative work over the predatory pursuit of monetary gain.
Through the actions of his heroine, Shimizu deftly combines feminist assertiveness with Japanese traditionalism, infusing his film with much of the same sympathy for women rebelling against male rule that is also found in many of the contemporary works of Mizoguchi and Naruse. Yumie, refusing to be a passive victim of male aggression, takes a revenge that is magnificent in its sheer audacity. Indeed, in one scene, her manner of exacting retribution adds a touch of humor to the story. With the couple installed, at Yumie's orders, in separate rooms in a luxury hotel during their honeymoon, Yumie teases Takehiko unmercifully. She telephones him and, although fully clothed, coyly tells him she is taking a bath. When an expectant Takehiko tries to enter her room, she threatens to scream. She continues to assert herself throughout the film. In a later scene in their home, she frightens him off with a pistol when he comes into her bedroom. On one level, Yumie embodies a modern woman of independent spirit defying a class-bound, patriarchal society bestowing privileges and license on the male heir as she undermines the arrogant power of the Yagibashis. At the same time, she is loyal to centuries of Japanese traditional filial piety, defending the honor of her family by avenging her father's death and the assault on her virtue, and using part of the money she extracts from the Yagibashis to aid her older sister. Because of her indomitable spirit, Seven Seas, unlike many dramatic Japanese films of the era by Shimizu and others, has a positive resolution.
Still another leitmotif that Shimizu develops through the experiences of the characters is the idea of foreignness, implied in the film's very title. This thematic undercurrent is present in the opening scene in which Takehiko, returning from Europe, is depicted as a corrupt product of Western influence who apes the ways of wealthy gaijin, puffing on a long cigarette holder. Shimizu further underscores the gulf between East and West when, early in the film, Ayako's editor, an Englishman obsessed with her, commits suicide after she rejects his proposal of marriage. The shocking scene with the young woman returning to find his lifeless body after hearing the gunshot could serve as a metaphor for the West's disruptive intrusion into the calm pattern of traditional Japanese life. As a professional influenced by Westernization, Ayako is representative of the new working woman that was beginning to revolutionize Japan. Her experiences with the English editor, her discovery of a father who had abandoned her for an illicit affair in America, and her later effort to reconcile with her parent by traveling abroad exemplify modern Japan's ambivalent relationship with the outside world viewed both as a destroyer of its culture and a possible restorative.
Shimizu develops this theme further in his lyrical 1933 film, Japanese Girls at the Harbor. Here, he places the Western-Japanese encounter at the center of his narrative and imagery. Most of the film's action takes place in Yokohama, the great Japanese port city where East and West meet. From the opening shots of the harbor, where a ship with the name Canadian Pacific is seen, the spectator is plunged into this juxtaposition.
The story is concerned with Sunako and Dora, two schoolgirls at a Christian school in the foreigners' district of Yokohama, and their involvement with a young man named Henry. As the names Henry and Dora indicate, at least two of this triangle are Eurasian, a Western identity further underscored by the Christian school representing another alien element in a predominantly Buddhist and Shintoist country. In the beginning of the film, the girls are seen walking together and pledging their friendship in a tree-shaded field overlooking the harbor. Henry then appears riding a motorcycle, a speedy means of modern transport symbolic of Westernized affluence. When Sunako asks him to take her for a ride, he obliges and soon the two become inseparable. As she rides behind him on the motorcycle through the countryside in the bright sunlight, she experiences a sense of freedom that contrasts with the dark, cloistered gloom of the church's school where she lives and studies. Later, however, the two drift apart when Henry joins up with a local underworld gang. He abandons her for Yoko Sheridan, a young Eurasian woman (played by Yukiko Inoue who, in real life, was the daughter of a Dutch man and a Japanese woman). Alerted by Dora that Henry has gone to a dance hall with Yoko, Sunako later finds the couple in the church and, in a jealous rage, fires a gun at Yoko, wounding her. Following a term in prison, Sunako travels from one harbor city to another where she works as a prostitute in order to survive. Soon, she takes up with an artist who attaches himself to her and follows her from city to city. After a stay in Kobe, she returns to Yokohama where she encounters Henry in the bar of a hotel and learns that he has married Dora. When Dora later tries to visit her in her apartment, Sunako, ashamed of her work, slams the door in Dora's face, telling her it's not a place for women customers. Despite this, Sunako, believing that Dora and Henry's home is the one respectable place where she might be welcomed, visits the couple in their small, Western-style house. Henry walks Sunako home after the visit, urging her to go straight. She replies she wants to go back to living honestly so much that he can't even imagine it, but she can't seem to do it.
During Sunako's absence, the artist with whom she has continued to live strikes up an acquaintance with the next-door neighbor who turns out to be Yoko Sheridan. Badly in need of any kind of work, Yoko offers to do the laundry for the artist. Following Henry's chance meeting with the artist during a visit to the apartment when Sunako is out, the painter, overcome by jealousy, seeks Dora out to inform her that her husband has been seeing a lot of Sunako. Dora corners Henry and Sunako in Sunako's apartment. Once the couple leave, Sunako, realizing her friend, the artist, is responsible for the confrontation, angrily throws him out of her apartment. After this encounter, Henry spends more and more time drinking in bars. Dora, desperate to find him and tell him she is pregnant, turns to Sunako, informing her of her condition and asking her where Henry can be found. Sunako then locates Henry in a bar and takes him home, urging the couple to reconcile.
Back in her apartment house during a rainy night, Sunako is told by the artist of the pitiful condition of their neighbor, ill and even forsaken by the doctor. Sunako thus once again meets Yoko, the woman she had shot. Saying she is dying and that it is a fitting end, Yoko warns Sunako to avoid her fate by returning to an honest lifestyle. "What if the world won't forgive me?," Sunako asks. To which Yoko replies, "You endure it until they do forgive you." The film concludes with Sunako's departure abroad with the artist as her traveling companion. Now dressed in a type of kimono indicative of her new respectable life style, Sunako suggests the artist should throw his paintings of her as an entertainer into the harbor. Dora and Henry are shown on the shore watching the ship depart. The final shot is of the painting of Sunako floating in the water, symbolic of the old way of life she has abandoned.
For all the film's incorporation of Westernized elements, it remains profoundly Japanese in much of its poetic imagery as well as its prevailing ethos. The emphasis on societal propriety in a "shame" culture dooms both Sunako and Yoko to an outcast existence after the shooting in the church. Yet there is also the opportunity for renewal and transformation. Henry is first saved from his association with gangsters by his marriage to Dora. Later, when he begins frequenting bars, it is Sunako who redeems him by reuniting him with his wife and their expectant child. Having taken this step towards her own reclamation, Sunako ultimately takes charge of her destiny by going abroad with her artist-paramour in search of a new life. The artist makes for an intriguing contrast to the heroine. Content to follow her around, painting her picture, living off her and taking care of their apartment, he assumes the traditionally dependent woman's role, a characterization that reaffirms Sunako's position, like Yumie's in Seven Seas, as the dynamic, assertive center of the narrative. In the end, he even sacrifices his art for the sake of a fresh existence with her in another setting. As with Ayako's overseas travel with her father in Seven Seas, a journey abroad offers the characters the hope of renewal.
Shimizu's technique and imagery in Japanese Girls at the Harbor is both expressive and experimental with poetic touches throughout, a fresh revelation of the unique qualities of the silent cinema that had by then been rendered an anachronism in the West. The beautiful location shots of the harbor and the city of Yokohama, viewed in the distance from the top of a hill, establish from the beginning a sense of place and environment, the crossroads of cultures that produces the characters. Then there are the shots of the trees' leaves moving in the breeze intercut with the distant view of Henry arriving on his motorcycle as Sunako and Dora converse in a field near the harbor; and Henry's courtship of Sunako unfolding in a series of brief shots showing them riding on the motorcycle by the seashore, in the mountains, and in the town. When much later in the film, Sunako returns to Yokohama and she and Henry visit their old haunts, Shimizu captures the feeling of nostalgia with another series of brief shots showing the various roads in Yokohama they had traveled, culminating in their return to the field seen at the beginning of the film.
To depict the shooting in the church, Shimizu uses an unusual, dynamic montage technique. He rapidly jump-cuts from a long-shot of Sunako to closer shots, with the single word, "God!," repeated three times in larger and larger lettering in the intertitles. Shimizu also demonstrates a sensitive eye for detail as in the shot of an unrolling ball of yarn that becomes wound around Sunako's and Henry's legs when they dance to the accompaniment of a Victrola. An excellent example of his mastery of mood can be found in the repeated shots of rain pouring outside on flower pots and windows intercut with Sunako's gloomy reunion with the dying Yoko on her sick bed. Shimizu also uses an avant-garde technique for a playful bit of humor. When Sunako is reunited with Henry in the hotel bar where she works, her male employer says, "Well, maybe I should disappear since I'm just an intrusion," at which point through camera trickery, he literally disappears from the shot in a dissolve.
Later that year, Shimizu directed his first talkie. However, because the Japanese film industry was so slow to adopt sound, Shimizu, like his contemporaries, Kenji Mizoguchi and Heinosuke Gosho, returned to silents for several more years following his initial foray into sound. His 1933 silent film, The Boss's Son Goes to College, released with a sound track, has a few concessions to the new medium. For example, the college class bursts into a chorus of song, and the voice of a radio sportscaster is heard throughout the film's climactic rugby game. For the most part, however, the sound track is limited to a musical score and some sound effects. There is no spoken dialogue; the characters' speech continues to be conveyed on the screen by the intertitles. Of course, when the film was shown theatrically in Japan in the 30s, the traditional benshi provided a live, oral interpretation of the film's intertitles, along with added dialogue and narration.
The Boss's Son Goes to College is probably Shimizu's most overtly autobiographical film of the period, reflecting not only his early experiences at college but also his life as a celebrated figure in the movie world. The story deals with Fuji, nicknamed Waka-danna (Young Master), the star athlete on his university's rugby team. The son of a wealthy soy sauce manufacturer, Fuji basks in the glory of his athletic celebrity. Attracting the attention of admiring young women, Fuji resists family pressure to settle down and marry after college. Instead, he spends much of his time drinking and womanizing, behavior which eventually leads the college officials to expel him from the team. He becomes romantically involved with the sister of one of his teammates, a girl performing in a musical revue. Fearing the possibility of the tabloid press reporting on the affair, a scandal which would bring negative publicity to the team, and needing Fuji to win the big game, his peers decide to reinstate him. First, however, they discipline him by administering a beating. For her part, the revue girl is forced by her brother to agree to break off her relationship with Fuji. The film climaxes with the game during which Fuji's skills lead his team to victory. As it concludes, Fuji is seen in the locker room shower sadly reading the revue girl's farewell letter he has just been given. Paralleling Fuji's story are the experiences of his brother-in-law. The family arranges his marriage to one of Fuji's two sisters, but he soon begins neglecting his duties to his wife, spending his nights away from home, drinking and carrying on with geisha girls.
While on the surface lighter in tone than Shimizu's other silents of the period - there are no deaths or other tragic incidents in the story - The Boss's Son Goes to College is, nevertheless, a work with serious thematic implications. And, despite being part of the sports film genre that had originated in Hollywood, it is a highly personal work steeped in Japanese cultural values. Humor, to be sure, is present. For example, there is the running gag when Fuji, behind his father's back, uses a string to extract paper money from the till downstairs. Another humorous scene occurs after Fuji invites one of his sisters and her school friends to watch the team practice. When the sister ends up in the forbidden quarters of the team's locker room, Fuji's responsibility for this embarrassing incident is the immediate cause of his expulsion from the team. But for all the levity of these and other scenes, the film remains highly dramatic in its depiction of a conflict between the hero's personal desires and his greater responsibilities to his family and his society. It is tempting and perhaps too easy to view this as simply a manifestation of the conformist Japanese "group" ethos hostile to the claims of the individual. In this case, however, the dichotomy has been presented in extremes. Fuji, after all, is not pursuing a constructive or fulfilling life of individual self-expression but is merely indulging himself in a series of hedonistic pleasures, a manner of living that threatens to destroy him in the future. While others of his teammates enjoy carousing, it is Fuji who shows a particular lack of responsibility in his refusal to commit himself to marriage or any permanent relationship. It is only after his expulsion from the team that he meets the revue star and it would appear he is starting to genuinely fall in love with her. But, given the course of his existence up to that point, it is equally possible that the romance might turn out to be merely the latest in a string of transitory liaisons with women. The parallel example of his brother-in-law's equally profligate life is yet another indication of the perils to the Japanese family posed by the lures of modern urban pleasures.
As with most of Shimizu's films, there are no villains in The Boss's Son Goes to College. (Seven Seas, with the rich, callous Yagibashi family, was exceptional in that respect.) Shimizu presents his characters' actions with relative impartiality, showing them unfolding in the context of a society founded on the values of filial piety and the team ethic. He does not flinch in dramatizing the stern, even extreme reaction of those seeking to curb the behavior of individuals defying the prevailing mores. Thus, the other members of his team beat Fuji to discipline him for his infractions, while, in the privacy of the revue star's apartment, her infuriated brother repeatedly strikes her with his fists, shouting at her to apologize in front of the whole team. Not that the traditional values go unchallenged in the film. When, for example, Fuji's father tells one of his employees, another prospective son-in-law, that he doesn't want him to turn out like his son, that he wants him to marry one of his daughters and inherit the family business, the young woman protests that he can't force such things on the young man. "That way of treating employees has long been obsolete!," she declares. But in the end, it is the team spirit which wins out. Donald Richie terms this a common Japanese assumption "that duty and inclination are incompatible." The end of Shimizu's film is therefore what Richie calls "open-ended," neither tragic nor conventionally happy but rather a mixture and compromise. Fuji is once again the triumphant conquering hero, the hope of his family, his school, and his nation. Yet he has had to give up what may have been the girl of his dreams. Indeed, the final shot of The Boss's Son Goes to College was most likely inspired by the closing image of Harold Lloyd's great college football comedy, The Freshman, which was enormously popular in Japan. Shimizu, however, completely reverses the mood. In Lloyd's film, the ordinary middle-class American kid, formerly scorned as a weakling by his peers, emerges as a hero through perseverance and in the fade-out is reading his girl friend's love note in the locker room shower immediately following his triumph on the football field. Shimizu, on the other hand, depicts his privileged Japanese hero having to surrender some of his personal desires in order to regain the respect he had earlier enjoyed. And just after his victory on the athletic field, it is his girl friend's letter of rejection that he reads in the locker room shower. In this entire dramatic situation, there is undoubtedly an echo of Shimizu's own life-long tension between leading a self-indulgent, playboy existence and his deep sense of social responsibility. The temptations that pile on Fuji as a consequence of his sports hero status are analogous to the enticements that were inevitably part of Shimizu's life as a major figure in the colorful world of the cinema.
Unlike Seven Seas and Japanese Girls at the Harbor, there is less direct reference to the West in The Boss's Son Goes to College. Certainly, there are some fairly superficial signs of the outside world. The revue star lives in a modern, Western-style apartment, complete with posters of American movies on her wall. (Perhaps significantly in light of the looming Japanese militarism, the posters include those of two renowned pacifist films set in World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the 1933 Paramount aviation film, The Eagle and the Hawk, with Fredric March, Cary Grant, and Carole Lombard. Additionally, they serve as a reminder in this silent film of the coexistence of talkies and silents that continued in Japan.) There are also the obvious facts that the game of rugby, the focus of the narrative, was itself a Western import, adopted by the Japanese as recently as 1897, and that the kind of musical revue depicted in the film was another Western derivation, inspired by such lavish American stage spectacles as The Ziegfeld Follies. Yet, such is the Japanese gift for assimilation, that, by the time of Shimizu's film, these no longer seemed like foreign or Western institutions but rather, a part of Japanese culture. It is quite possible that the beautiful revue star could be seen as a Westernized or at least more modern heroine who simultaneously attracts the rebellious hero and repels her tradition-minded brother. On the whole, however, the conflicts and contrasts in The Boss's Son Goes to College no longer involve, as did earlier films, a readily apparent juxtaposition between the West and Japan, but represent a much more culturally internalized struggle over the divided impulses of the hero in an urbanized society.
Most of the film's imagery, the world that it depicts, is very much in the Japanese tradition, whether it is the sparse, classical interior design of the hero's family home, the practice of arranged marriages, or the geisha quarters where the young men seek pleasure. The sense of traditional Japan is further emphasized by the beautifully evocative musical score on the sound track, replete as it is with warm, melodious Asian harmonies. Even the high-kicking chorus girls' dances in the revue are accompanied by a bouncy, up-tempo Oriental melody. Thematically, the struggle between a decadent life of pleasure and larger societal responsibilities was hardly unique to the Japan of the 20s and 30s. It was a dilemma equally true of the Tokugawa era, as portrayed in the works of Saikaku and Chikamatsu, and, indeed, can be seen as far back as The Tale of Genji with the prince forever oscillating between his illicit amours and the demands of his position. The Boss's Son Goes to College thus appears to mark something of a shift in Shimizu's interests from a Japan reacting to outside Western influence to a Japan increasingly preoccupied with its own internal cultural and societal conflicts.
In 1934, Shimizu returned to a wide-ranging depiction of Japanese society in Eclipse. As with The Boss's Son Goes to College, the silent film is accompanied by an outstanding musical score, interweaving Asian themes throughout. There are some sound effects on the track but no spoken dialogue, and the only vocalisms are two theme songs over the credits by respectively male and female singers. The female vocalist repeats her song once more in a later scene. Adapted from a novel by the celebrated writer, Masao Kume, Eclipse portrays a cross-section of Japan, including both the country and the city, at a time of rapid social changes fuelled by the pressures of urbanism and the emerging capitalist society. The story is centered around the devastating experiences of two villagers, Shuichi Osaki, and his cousin, Kinue Nishimura, when they leave their hometown for the metropolis of Tokyo.
As the story begins, the village is abuzz with news that Shinji Kanda, a young man who has just become a Master of Law, has returned from Tokyo. With such a promising future, he is seen as a desirable match for any young woman in his community. However, the girl he wishes to marry, Kinue Nishimura, is, in fact, in love with her cousin, Shuichi Osaki. Although Shuichi is a university graduate just back from studying in Tokyo, he is considered by the townspeople less desirable as a prospective husband since his farmer family has much less money and position than his friend, Shinji. But when Shuichi tries to act as a go-between for Shinji, Kinue refuses Kanda's offer of marriage, reminding Osaki that she has loved him since childhood. Nevertheless, it soon becomes news in the village that Shinji wants to marry Kinue. Shuichi departs for Tokyo for greater employment opportunities, leaving behind a heartbroken and bitter Kinue. After several unsuccessful attempts to find work with a large company, Shuichi is eventually employed as a private tutor to the young son of the wealthy Iwasaki family. Tomomi, the boy's older sister, becomes more and more attracted to Shuichi. Shinji Kanda, who had himself been Tomomi's tutor some years before, returns to the Iwasaki home for a visit and what turns out to be his first encounter with Shuichi since the latter left home. Shuichi learns for the first time from Shinji that Kinue had also left for Tokyo shortly after Osaki's departure.
Soon after, dramatic changes in the Japanese government cause an economic upheaval adversely affecting the fortunes of the Iwasaki family. Mr. Iwasaki is forced to close his large Tokyo household and retire to a smaller home in the country. Shinji has offered to marry Tomomi, an offer her father wants her to accept. But secretly in love with Shuichi, Tomomi asks him to marry her instead. Refusing her proposal, he leaves the Iwasakis' employ and goes into business as a porter with their former chauffeur. For her part, the chauffeur's sister, Kaiyo, begins working as a hostess at the Ginza Palace where Kinue Nishimura, now a hostess, instructs her in her new profession. When Kinue accompanies Kaiyo to her apartment to meet the man Kaiyo calls her older brother, she discovers that he is none other than Shuichi. Still in love with him, she is shocked by the sudden encounter despite the fact that she had been looking for him since her arrival in Tokyo. She starts drinking heavily and, when Shuichi visits her in her lonely apartment, she drunkenly tells him to go away and return to Kaiyo, who, she correctly surmises, is herself in love with Osaki.
Their next meeting occurs when Shuichi and the chauffeur pick up a couple who turn out to be Kinue and a man who has been escorting her around town and at the Ginza Palace for some time. The destination is a seaside resort hotel where Kinue is to have sexual relations with the man. When, at the door of their hotel room, the paramour attempts to bribe Shuichi to keep silent about the tryst, Osaki angrily attacks him, knocking him to the floor. Shuichi confronts Kinue alone in the room, reproaching her for falling into prostitution. Then, in a fury, he strikes her repeatedly. Meanwhile, the paramour has alerted the hotel management, causing a commotion that is stopped only by the timely arrival of Shinji and Tomomi whom he has recently married. At Tomomi's request, Shuichi sees her alone. She tells him that she and Shinji are going abroad on a tour of the West and "maybe we'll stay there forever. This may be the last parting of our lives. I'll be happy if the memories of our younger days become something to laugh about." The film ends with Shinji and Tomomi on the boat waving to the people seeing them off, followed by the final shot of a defeated Shuichi and Kinue riding ingloriously in an open baggage compartment on the train that is apparently carrying them back to their native village.
In Eclipse, Shimizu returns to the expansive canvas of Seven Seas. However, unlike the earlier film with its predatory Yagibashi family, there are no individual villains or "heavies" in Eclipse. Instead of judging individual characters harshly, Shimizu conveys his feelings about the direction of contemporary Japan through the unfolding of the narrative's incidents and their effect on the characters. An idyllic view of traditional rural Japan dominates the opening scenes - for example, the close neighborly relations of the villagers, as well as the symbolic shots of the turning waterwheel and the landscape views of the countryside. But the burgeoning urbanism and materialism of the new capitalist order centered in the metropolis is starting to undermine this peaceful way of life. It is the emphasis on wealth and social position that prevents Kinue's marriage to the man she truly loves, Shuichi Osaki. Eventually, the girl who had said she wanted nothing more than to settle down as a farmer's wife ends up entrapped in the corrupt environment of the big city, sinking into a morass of alcoholism and prostitution. Shuichi, too, is irresistibly drawn to "the neon lights of Tokyo" with its jazz and modern girls. But the glamour of the modern metropolis inevitably proves to have, like the Ginza Palace itself, a false glitter, a veneer that barely conceals an underlying emptiness and desolation at the heart of the city.
The "eclipse" in the film's title would seem to refer, not only to the downturn in several of the protagonist's fortunes, but to the eclipse of Japanese spiritual and human values by a new culture of wealth all too willing to sacrifice love and personal relations to the pursuit of status. The class stratification in the city is illustrated by Shuichi's initially unsuccessful attempts to obtain a job with the companies in Tokyo, even though one of the capitalists, Mr. Iwasaki, hailed from Osaki's hometown. When informed that Shuichi wishes to meet with them, both tycoons refuse, instructing their assistants to tell the young man that they are out. Meanwhile, the businessmen continue to hold strategy sessions, plotting to gain greater power. A persistent Shuichi next goes directly to the Iwasaki home, but Mr. Iwasaki, again ignoring him, orders his servants to give him money to pay for his return trip home. It is only because of a car accident that Shuichi finally obtains a position with the Iwasaki family. The Iwasakis' chauffeur runs down Shuichi while he is walking away from their home in the rain. The injured man is taken to the hospital where he is visited by Tomomi and the chauffeur's sister, Kaiyo. Thanks to Tomomi's intervention, Mr. Iwasaki hires Shuichi as a tutor to her young brother.
Like The Boss's Son Goes to College, there are no Western or gaijin characters in the film. Yet the influence of the West is apparent in some of the characters, especially Tomomi, as well as in a striking usage of a contemporary Hollywood film. With her independent spirit, Tomomi is the epitome of the beautiful, alluring, modern young woman. She drives a car, she plays a round of golf and, unlike Kaiyo and Kinue, who are clad in the traditional kimono, she is always seen in Western dress. The lure of the West also appears in the film's denouement. Much like the protagonists of Japanese Girls at the Harbor or Ayako and her father in Seven Seas, Tomomi seeks out travel to the West with her husband, Shinji, as a kind of refuge from Japanese society. Indeed, her closing statement to Shuichi that she may never return is a particularly strong indication of how much she has idealized an escape to the West as a solution for her problems.
Shimizu "quotes" from a Hollywood production by including an excerpt from the ending of Rouben Mamoulian's 1933 film, The Song of Songs, starring Marlene Dietrich and Brian Aherne, which Tomomi, Shuichi, and Shinji watch in a Tokyo movie palace. Not only does this interject a direct reference to the West's talkie era into a Japanese silent (although no dialogue from the Paramount film is included), it also appears to represent a kind of "in" reference or parallel to the drama that will unfold in Shimizu's film. For, much like Kinue's fate in Eclipse, Dietrich in The Song of Songs is a village girl who falls into prostitution in an urban milieu, although, unlike Kinue, she is saved by romantic love in the conclusion of Mamoulian's film. Shimizu underscores the parallel when, among the throng of moviegoers in the lobby of the theatre after the showing of the film, Kinue is seen in Tokyo for the first time, accompanied by the paramour who will attempt to have sexual relations with her near the end of the film.
However, despite these fleeting reminders of the West, Eclipse is, like The Boss's Son Goes to College, primarily an internalized depiction of Japan. Even though the West is an influence and a longed-for escape, the social problems continue to be those resulting, not from the external pressures of an alien civilization, but from the urbanized complexity of the native culture itself. It is the internal decay of traditional Japanese values, generated by alternating cycles of great wealth and economic stress, that threatens to destroy the calm beauty of the age-old agrarian way of life seen in the beginning of the film.
The male protagonist, Shuichi Osaki, is not depicted as an especially heroic or decisive individual. Although he tries to take the initiative at finding a prestigious job in Tokyo, it is only when fate takes a hand that he obtains employment with the Iwasaki family. By bringing him into the middle of a powerful family, this is a step up. But when the family fortunes decline, he decides to strike out on his own in partnership with the chauffeur. His new job, however, is merely to assist passengers who charter the chauffeur's car, a far cry from his earlier aspirations and a sharp contrast to the experiences of his friend, Shinji Kanda, who has continued to prosper. At times, Shuichi thus seems to be a somewhat passive figure who does not so much cause events as he is affected by the actions of others. While, as he says at the beginning, he is undeniably attracted to the lures of modern Tokyo, he is principally motivated by the traditional, exemplary desire to restore his family's fortunes. In so doing, however, he leaves behind the distraught Kinue, and is unable to help her when they are reunited in Tokyo. Despite Kaiyo's taking an interest in him, he never reciprocates her affections. And as for his relations with Tomomi, as attracted to her as he apparently is, he balks at the prospect of marrying the boss's daughter when she proposes to him. During their final meeting, he sits impassively beside her as she pours out her heart to him and says goodbye, this following the scene in which he has struck both Kinue and her paramour. Ultimately, however, this belated attempt to take action by resorting to physical violence reveals the futility of his situation. The final image of the film with Shuichi and Kinue leaving in defeat underscores the fact that his quest for worldly distinction has ended in abject failure.
In contrast to Shuichi's restrained manner, both Kinue and Tomomi are expressive and passionate. The contradistinction between the appearance of masculine toughness and feminine vulnerability is suggested by the lyrics of the two theme songs heard in the credits: the male vocalist sings: "If you go into the shade, your heart will be shady, too. . .It's hard to be a man when you fall in love. I cry but show no tears;" while the female vocalist's lyrics are: "Ask your own woman's heart who is the man you've decided to be with. This is love redder than a flower crying outside the window."
Kinue demonstrates emotional fragility throughout the film. When she strongly refuses Shinji's marriage proposal conveyed through Shuichi, she asks Osaki, "You're telling me that I have to betray my heart and become Kanda's wife?" After learning that Shuichi has departed for Tokyo, she dashes out in the night to the railroad tracks, shouting that he is a betrayer. Ultimately, Kinue is too consumed with self-pity and too inclined to blame Osaki for her difficulties to perceive her situation with any degree of real understanding. With this mindset, Kinue almost completely breaks down. When Shuichi comes to her apartment and finds her in a drunken state, she laments, "If someone has to cry alone, I'll gladly cry." Later, she confides to her paramour, "I would have remained happy if I had kept looking for him (Shuichi) and never found him for the rest of my life." As long as the object of her desire, a man she simultaneously loves and reviles as "a hateful man who left me behind like a wood carving," had remained a distant memory and someone for whom she was searching, she was able to retain a modicum of self-control. But once she again encounters him face to face in Kaiyo's apartment, it triggers in her a frustration and depression that she attempts to alleviate with alcohol. Thus caught in the toils of unrequited, incessant passion, Kinue is the kind of individual forever fated to be unhappy in the world. One wonders if she could have really remained content in the modest role of a farmer's wife, as she claimed at the beginning. Perhaps, like Flaubert's Emma Bovary, her romantic dreams would always have been at odds with reality.
If Kinue, like Shuichi, demonstrates weakness in her surrender to fate, Tomomi is a much stronger and, in many respects, more admirable individual than either. By her own description and her father's, she is "selfish." But she is also courageous, warm, intelligent, and independent. Utilizing the advantages of her social position, she is able to take charge and act on her own desires in a way that is very much at odds with traditional feminine behavior, East or West. As her father comments, "You never listen to me once you've decided on something." It is through her initiative alone that Shuichi is employed by the Iwasaki family. Later, she tells Shuichi that, at first, she didn't have any feelings for him and was only half joking when she appeared to take an interest in him. "But as time passed by," she continues, "my selfish girl's desire to occupy increased. And then my heart is filled with only you." She boldly asks him to marry her and is devastated when he refuses. During their final meeting, she tells Shuichi that, after he rejected her offer, "I cursed you. I hated you. But despite my own will, I wanted to run after you. I was a selfish woman, wasn't I? Because of my selfishness, I made many people miserable. So I cried. I cried for the first time in my life." Concerning her marriage to Shinji, she says, "I love Kanda now. At least, I'm making efforts to love him." Unlike the self-pitying, destructive Kinue, Tomomi is capable of self-criticism and attempting to positively change her situation. For example, when Mr. Iwasaki discusses with her the reversal in their fortunes, she replies, "I can do anything. I can clean laundry. I can take care of the kitchen." In the end, however, there is no assurance that she will be fundamentally any happier than Kinue. Although she departs with Kanda in an effort to find love and happiness in a new setting, her farewell words to Shuichi indicate there is a part of her that will continue to belong to another. The unmistakable sense that she married Shinji on the rebound is underscored by her statement to Shuichi that she is at least trying to love Kanda.
Counterpointing these full-blooded but flawed protagonists are the characters of Kaiyo and Shinji Kanda who try to uphold the traditional virtues. Kaiyo is a kind-hearted, selfless girl who is attracted to Shuichi and faithfully looks after him in the hospital following his injury in a car accident. When Kinue takes her under her wing at the Ginza Palace, she tells Kaiyo of the faithless man she has been looking for since she arrived in Tokyo. But when she suddenly meets Shuichi in the apartment, Kinue says to Kaiyo that the man for whom she was searching is Shinji Kanda. Learning of Shinji's upcoming marriage to Tomomi, Kaiyo impulsively goes to the pre-wedding party and urges Kanda to marry Kinue instead. Kanda then discloses to her that it was actually Shuichi whom Kinue loved. After asking Kinue to go back to Osaki, Kaiyo returns to her hometown rather than pursue Shuichi or continue working at the Ginza Palace.
Shinji Kanda is also a well-intentioned individual who would never try to force his attentions on a woman. When he finds out that Kinue loves Shuichi, he immediately apologizes to her and withdraws his proposal of marriage. In a subsequent conversation with Shuichi, he blames himself rather than Kinue for her sudden departure from the village. It is not clear from the film if Shinji is aware of Tomomi's feelings for Shuichi. Nevertheless, with characteristic generosity, Kanda asks Shuichi near the end of the film to speak to Tomomi as she wanted to see him. Just before that, Shinji had come to Shuichi's aid after his encounter with Kinue's paramour, informing the people at the hotel that Shuichi is his close friend who should be left to his care.
In this masterwork, Shimizu continues to explore the expressive possibilities of silent cinema. For example, as Shuichi reminisces with his friends about the past in the early part of the film, there are cuts to shots of a river and a waterwheel that underscore the nostalgic mood. When he relays Kanda's marriage proposal, Shuichi meets with Kinue by the waterwheel. As Kinue reminds him of incidents from their youthful romance, her intertitles are superimposed over the rotating wheel. There are some unusual shots of Shuichi and Shinji, showing only their trousered legs as they hang from the branches of a tree, emblematic of the spontaneity and freedom of youth and nature. Conversely, the effects of urban loneliness in a depersonalized metropolis are strikingly conveyed in several scenes with Kinue. From the scene in Kaiyo's apartment in which Kinue again meets Shuichi, Shimizu cuts to a long shot of Kinue walking down a lonely street at night, then to a shot of the empty room in her own apartment, and finally to a medium close-up of a tormented Kinue as she puts her finger to her lips. Later, a long shot of Kinue and Kaiyo walking together down the street at night dissolves to a long shot of Kinue returning home in the opposite direction, all to the accompaniment of the hauntingly beautiful theme song vocalized by the female singer on the sound track.
Shimizu's eye for composition and pictorial effect is unmistakable throughout - for example, the symmetry in the lines of the members of the village women's organization forming a procession, or the shots in the open Osaki barn with light pouring in from a white wall in the background as Shuichi and his mother in shadow discuss his marital prospects. Shimizu frequently uses the dissolve as a transitional device. When Shuichi is engaged as a tutor, through a dissolve his personal effects suddenly appear in a traditionally spare Japanese room in the Iwasaki house. His later departure from the family's service is represented by a reversal of the same effect. There is one shot that stands out as ambiguous, a shot which may be either a subjective statement by the director or a development of the narrative. As Tomomi's attraction to Shuichi increases, her cousin, who had taken an interest in her, becomes jealous. During an outing in the country, Osaki and the cousin, the latter somewhat antagonistic, walk away from the camera. There is then a quick dissolve to the two returning towards the camera, only the cousin is now brushing Shuichi's clothes as though he had become the valet. One wonders if this is an actual transformation in their relationship. Given the startling imagery without a follow-up in the plot, is the director perhaps implying a turn-around existing only in Osaki's imagination? Or is he making a symbolic comment on social status?
Shimizu's vision became increasingly darker in his silent films of the 1930s. Seven Seas ends happily with the virtuous protagonists triumphing over the heavies, while Japanese Girls at the Harbor concludes with personal redemption and the promise of future happiness. In The Boss's Son Goes to College, however, the hero's triumph comes at a steep price since, in order to achieve success, he has to sacrifice personal pleasures and relationships. But in Eclipse, the male protagonist, despite attempting to observe faithfully societal mores, fails utterly in his attempt to achieve both success and individual happiness. The ravaged personal lives in the film testify to the degree to which the traditional Japanese values of a stable family life and inner harmony were being eviscerated by the expansion of an acquisitive, materialistic society.
Shimizu's final silent, A Hero of Tokyo (1935), runs only 63 minutes. But in many ways, it is his most emotionally overwhelming film, unsparing in its depiction of human tragedy, with its vision probably the bleakest of all his works. The titular character, Kanichi Nemoto, is the son of a man who he is led to believe is a successful businessman. A neglected child most often tended to by a maid, Kanichi sees comparatively little of his widowed father who habitually returns home late at night due to what the boy is told are the demanding responsibilities of his exalted position. In reality, the elder Nemoto is running a fraudulent get-rich-quick enterprise known as the Ryugen Gold Mining Development Fund. Describing himself as "a company executive with a comfortable income," Nemoto places an ad in the paper requesting a wife. He succeeds in marrying a widow with two children of her own, a young son, Hideo, and a daughter, Kayoko. Within a very short time, however, the fortunes of the family take a nosedive when Nemoto's scam is exposed in the press. He suddenly vanishes, leaving behind his wife and children in a home besieged by the police and distraught investors in the shady enterprise. The family is forced to move to an apartment in a poorer neighborhood. To make ends meet, Mrs. Nemoto begins looking for a job and eventually opens up a bar. Because such an establishment, involving prostitution, is totally unacceptable to polite society, she conceals the true nature of her business from the children, only telling them she is employed by a club where executives come to work and relax.
Ten years later, the Nemoto children have grown up and the family is now living in a comfortable suburban home. Still unfamiliar with their mother's real line of work, the younger Nemotos are making plans for their future. Kanichi and Hideo are attending college, while Kayoko is engaged to be married. But disaster suddenly strikes soon after Kayoko's wedding. When her new in-laws find out about the business managed by Kayoko's mother, they annul the marriage and send the girl back home to her family. Although Kayoko now knows the truth, her mother urges her not to reveal the nature of her profession to her brothers. Without disclosing this fact to her brothers in her brief farewell note, Kayoko leaves home. The disruption in the family's life soon affects Hideo as well when his girlfriend tells him she is ending their relationship because of the rumors about the reasons for Kayoko's annulment. Hideo presses his mother for an explanation, imploring her to tell the truth about what she is hiding and the nature of her business. But Mrs. Nemoto merely replies that he should trust her. Finally, Hideo learns the truth when he sees his mother in her bar and, after reproaching her, he also leaves home.
Mrs. Nemoto then sells her business. With her natural children having deserted her, she finds her most loyal support coming from her stepson, Kanichi, who continues to live with her. She is especially proud when Kanichi graduates from college and begins work as a newspaper reporter. Looking around Tokyo for a story to write, he is attracted by the sight of a long line of people on the street seeking to invest in a new enterprise called Manchuria-Mongolia Gold Mining. A fellow reporter, however, advises him to first pursue the "sweet love story" he had been assigned to write for the Sunday edition. After a failed attempt to interview the star of a musical revue about her love life, Kanichi investigates the case of a woman who walks through the Ginza district five or six times a day. When he visits the young woman's apartment, he finds out that the streetwalker is his sister, Kayoko. From her, he learns that their brother, Hideo, has joined an underworld gang. Kanichi locates Hideo but is unable to persuade him to give up his life in the gang and return home. Although they yearn to see their mother, Hideo and Kayoko cannot bring themselves to see their mother, believing their current outcast status would be too upsetting to her. Later, Kanichi, on night duty at the paper for the first time, receives a call to report on a street fight. He discovers that the victim is Hideo who has been critically injured when he was stabbed by other gang members. At the hospital, the dying Hideo tells him the others in the gang had attacked him because he refused to work for a company which he discovered was headed by his stepfather, Mr. Nemoto. The company is, in fact, the Manchuria-Mongolia Gold Mining Venture, yet another of the schemes Nemoto devised to defraud many gullible people. In his role as a reporter, Kanichi sets up a meeting with Nemoto. After querying him about his enterprise, Kanichi denounces him. He assails him, not only for fleecing the public but for abandoning his family, driving them to ruin, hiring the thugs who killed Hideo, and then shouts to his father that, for all the harm he did his family, he deserves to die. Kanichi receives his first bonus from the paper for revealing his father's misdeeds in the sensational story headlined: "Exposed: the True Nature of the Manchuria-Mongolia Gold Mining Venture." But when he returns home to his grieving mother and sister, Mrs. Nemoto reproaches him for "publishing his father's crimes for all the world to see." She asks, "Was this the reason I sent you to college? How can I ever apologize to your father?" Replying it is his father who needs to apologize and his relations to him were proper, Kanichi retreats to his room. There, he attaches a sketch of Hideo he had drawn as a child to the wall, while outside in the tree-shaded suburban street, a newspaper boy is hawking the paper that carries the story about Nemoto's crimes.
In many respects a summation of all of Shimizu's work in the silent era, this powerful film also anticipates the films about children for which the director would become best known. In the opening scene, Shimizu uses his signature dissolves to poignant effect. Kanichi is seen near the railroad tracks with a group of other boys who are waiting for their fathers to return home by train. With each successive appearance of a train, different boys disappear from the shot until there is only Kanichi. The theme of aloneness continues as Kanichi returns to a home that is deserted save for the maid. He tries to find consolation in the thought that, as he explains to the other boys, the later his father comes home, the more important he is, and that, unlike the other fathers, his always returns in his car (in actuality, a taxi). His first encounter with adult reality is his father disappearing in disgrace, while he faces teasing from the other children. Like their father, Mrs. Nemoto also works late; the section depicting the protagonist's childhood concludes with Kanichi, Hideo and Kayako crying because their mother has not yet returned, leaving them alone in the apartment. The children's passage to adulthood is marked by continual heartbreaks and disillusionments as, at every turn, they confront society's hypocrisy and cruelty. All of this is accompanied by the realization that things in their own family are not as they appear to be - for example, when they discover their mother's real profession, and the fact that their father has further compounded his lawlessness by employing underworld gangs to promote his fraudulent enterprises.
A Hero of Tokyo is Shimizu's most damning indictment of contemporary Japanese society and its capitalist system. Unlike earlier films, the West is entirely absent from the narrative apart from many of the characters' dress. Only the musical sound track, mingling North American jazz and Latin American pop with Asian melodies, shows any direct foreign influence. Japan's problems in the film are thus entirely internal, with both traditional prejudices and modern decadence and corruption devastating the lives of the characters. The age-old attitudes of caste and hypocritical notions of what is proper cause Mrs. Nemoto and the children to be ostracized by their community. But the ever-present lure of the new uncontrolled capitalism, with its false promise of easy money, also entraps the characters, beginning with the father.
In portraying the rush of incidents that sweep individuals to their doom, Shimizu, in a comparatively short feature film, skillfully compresses much of the action. Consequently, the viewer does not see but learns from dialogue intertitles that Kanichi as a child has been taunted by the other children after his father's disgrace, and that Kayoko's marriage has been annulled by her in-laws. The personal devastation that these actions cause is eloquently conveyed by the emotions of the characters. Similarly, Shimizu felt no need to actually show Kayoko soliciting male customers - it was sufficient to indicate in the dialogue titles that she had become a prostitute. By utilizing so expertly suggestion and compression while carefully avoiding any inclusion of conventional villains, Shimizu creates a social indictment all the more chilling in its portrayal of impersonal forces ravaging the lives of the Nemoto family. Thus, without actually seeing Kayoko's in-laws rejecting her, their repudiation becomes all the more emblematic of the weight of traditional oppression systematically excluding her from society's ranks.
In eliminating the duality of good vs. evil in the presentation of character, Shimizu's resolution of the narrative in A Hero of Tokyo is in striking contrast to the situation in Seven Seas to which it bears a surface resemblance. In the earlier film, while the public revelations of the Yagibashis' misdeeds by both of their sons (albeit with very different motives) foreshadow Kanichi's exposure of his father's criminality in the press, both the mood of the film and the nature of the antagonist are quite different in the later work. The Yagibashis are classic villains projecting tremendous power and arrogance, mistreating people of lower social rank with such deliberate cruelty that their fall in the film is eagerly awaited by the spectator as an act of cosmic justice. But Nemoto, for all his crimes, is not a heavy but ultimately as much a victim of the acquisitive, materialistic economic order as the unfortunates whom he defrauds. Far from being the kind of malefactor who grandly perpetrates evil on those who cross his path, he is basically a weak man whose petty dreams of making a fortune with his pyramid schemes end up bringing misery to all around him, including at last himself. One cannot help but feel pity for the pathetic elderly man who, after learning of the terrible consequences of his illicit projects, is denounced by his son as a man who deserves only death. In the context of a traditional society that placed the highest value on filial piety and the role of the father as leader of the family, this scene is especially shocking in its implications. The sense of unease it arouses is further underscored by Mrs. Nemoto condemning her son for his unfilial actions towards his father. The era of predatory, urban capitalism engulfing modern Japan has finally corrupted and destroyed the institution of the family, the very basis of the culture. Instead of being an authority figure commanding respect, the father in A Hero of Tokyo is simultaneously ineffectual and destructive.
His son, Kanichi, is the "hero" in the title of the film, although the climactic action that finally brings him his first measure of success - the writing of the headline newspaper exposé - can scarcely be considered truly heroic. From the perspective of the East Asian tradition of filial piety, he demonstrates heroism in his devotion to his stepmother, defying the stigmas of a narrow-minded society. Indeed, while her own flesh-and-blood children desert her, it is the son she adopted who continues to stand by the woman he proudly calls "the best mom in all Japan." Yet the narrative's final denouement adds a measure of irony to the film's title. Authoring a muckraking article that implicates his own father will doubtless earn Kanichi a reputation as a fearless journalistic star championing the public in its struggle with those who prey on them. But it ultimately has come at much too high a price since, despite his genuine outrage, he has not only publicly humiliated his father but also devastated relations with the person most dear to him, his mother. Instead of a simple victory of right over wrong, the film's conclusion appears more as part of a cyclical pattern in which the greater forces perpetrating injustice remain untouched. In a sense, the father who practiced fraud on the public and the son who unmasked it for a bonus have both sacrificed the most basic of human relationships on the altar of worldly success, the ultimate nightmare of a runaway capitalist society overwhelming everything in its path.
It is the mother who is the most heroic character in the film, asking little and sacrificing everything, even her reputation, for the sake of her children's happiness. The classic heroine of the Japanese haha-mono or "mother film" genre, Mrs. Nemoto, with her strength of will and tender love for her children, holds the family together after they are abandoned by their father. Yet, for all her nobility of character, she has a flaw since she is also guilty of a deception. So determined is she to shield her children from the realities of her activities, even into their adulthood, that she encases them in a kind of protective bubble. When the truth suddenly bursts upon them, two of them are so badly wounded that, unable to withstand the pain, they flee their home only to fall into utter ruin. One cannot help but wonder that if Mrs. Nemoto had been more forthcoming, perhaps this tragedy could have been averted.
In its depiction of Japan in the 1930s, A Hero of Tokyo has wider historical connotations. Although there is no direct mention of the Great Depression in the intertitles, its presence is clearly felt in the crowd scenes. The swarm of anxious people besieging the Nemotos' home after being defrauded and the long line of prospective investors in the street enticed by Nemoto's scam vividly reflect the desperation of the urban Japanese middle class hard hit by the world economic crisis and eager to find any way out of their sudden poverty. And despite government censorship of films at that time, it is even possible that Shimizu and screenwriter Takehiko Minamoto may have been suggesting another contemporary issue fraught with significance when they named Nemoto's last enterprise the Manchuria-Mongolia Gold Mining Venture. Inevitably, the name suggests the imperialist project of the Japanese militarists who had established a puppet state in Manchuria and were also laying claim to Mongolia as part of their hegemonic drive to control the Asian mainland. In this sense, Nemoto's paltry get-rich-quick schemes can be viewed as a microcosm of a far greater predatory enterprise, ultimately named the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, whose promises of rewards amidst the Depression would soon lead the Japanese nation to the greatest catastrophe in its history. Perhaps, then, there is something eerily prophetic in the image of a traditional authority figure, the elder Nemoto, like those other authority figures governing Japan in the 1930s, deceiving the public with false nostrums promising great prosperity. To what extent Shimizu was conscious of these possible wider implications of his film will likely remain a mystery. But clearly with A Hero of Tokyo, he had created his darkest portrait of contemporary Japanese society, a vision for which he provided no Utopian solution, no promise of escape, whether to the West or the rural Japan of the agrarian tradition. At the end of the film, even Mrs. Nemoto's charming home in an attractive suburb is no longer a refuge from the world but rather a house of sorrow, with a newspaper boy in the street outside interrupting the quiet by selling the paper relating the family's disgrace and tragedy. When in a final gesture, Kanichi pins on the wall the sketch he had drawn in childhood of his dead brother, he is symbolically commemorating youthful innocence and its permanent loss.
Having so fully explored the world of adult reality - its hopes, its dreams, its triumphs, its betrayals - in his silent films, perhaps Shimizu sensed it was time to redirect his focus. With his adoption of the new medium of sound, he increasingly returned to that lost world of childhood so poignantly left behind by Kanichi, the hero of Tokyo, in his battle with life. Films like Children in the Wind (1937), Four Seasons of Childhood (1938), Children of the Beehive (1948), and Children and the Great Buddha (1952), have long been recognized as being among the most sensitive depictions of childhood in the Japanese cinema. The secret of their success was that, as Donald Richie observed, Shimizu "was interested only in the child's world, as seen by the child." And in the many later films not centered around children, Shimizu, as Alan Stanbrook indicated, was clearly in search of the heart of Japan, the old rural way of life threatened by encroaching industrialism and urbanism he had observed in his silent films as well as by the impending war and its later Occupation aftermath. Unfamiliar with most of his silent films, the otherwise appreciative Stanbrook had found largely missing in the director's work "a sense of the wider currents of Japanese history." The one exception he noted was Shimizu's 1936 classic comedy, Mr. Thank You, the seemingly cheerful depiction of a bus ride in rural Japan that was filmed entirely on location. Stanbrook remarked on the film's "underlying melancholy very far from the simple joie de vivre its humor implies," as the passengers discuss the terrible problems they have had to face in the Depression years. In the words of a young mother, "These days, when babies are born, we should give condolences, not congratulations." Stanbrook concluded his article: "Mr. Thank You is not a film that smiles through the tears but one that speaks out in anger behind the superficial good humor... There was clearly more to Hiroshi Shimizu than met the eye. Shall we ever know how much?"
Because of the rediscovery of Shimizu's great silent films of the 1930s, we now do know how much more there was to this singular filmmaker who emerges as an artist of far greater stature than previously acknowledged. What had survived as an undercurrent in Mr. Thank You - the anger at societal injustice, the compassion for human suffering, accompanied by "a sense of the wider currents of Japanese history" - is precisely what had fired Shimizu's genius to artistic heights in his masterpieces of the silent era. The aesthetic peer of his contemporaries, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Gosho, and Naruse, Hiroshi Shimizu in his silent films was a courageous witness to the experiences of his generation, creating works which are surely destined to take their place among the cinema's finest achievements.
[A special thank you to Sarah Frederick, Stephanie de Boer, and David Hopkins and K. Kato for their dedicated work in translating the intertitles of the films discussed in this analysis. Without their assistance, this article would not have been possible.]
For more on Shimizu, see our special edition of the Round-up.