Though his films have received intermittent exposure in the West since the 1970s, recent appreciation of the work of Hiroshi Shimizu has been hampered by two misfortunes. The first was a coincidence of birth: born, like his friend and fellow director Yasujiro Ozu, in 1903, he slipped into Ozu’s shadow at the time of their joint centenary. While Ozu was honoured with the fullest possible retrospectives in Tokyo, Berlin, and later internationally, plus the release of his complete surviving output on DVD, Shimizu was the recipient only of a partial tribute (ten films) in his native country, and of a belated, “101st birthday” celebration at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival. The second misfortune may well be the cause of this relative neglect: those few critics who have written about Shimizu’s work tend to make him sound less interesting than he is. Like Renoir, whom he somewhat resembles, Shimizu has been praised too often for his charm. John Gillett, introducing a 1988 season of his films (the fullest so far mounted) at London’s National Film Theatre, described his “loveable personality” and “sly, dry humour” (1); while Alan Stanbrook asserts that “Shimizu’s world is a sunny one, where the sadness of things rarely intrudes.” (2) His most popular film in Japan, Children in the Wind (1937), is an engaging work, but one of his most lightweight; though not atypical in theme, it is not really representative of an oeuvre remarkable for its variety and complexity. Only recently have critics begun to recognise the bleaker aspects of Shimizu’s work: thus, Wong Ain-Ling notes the director’s “affinity [with] fallen souls”, his interest in vagrants and fallen women (3). Sadao Yamane, introducing last year’s season in Tokyo, rightly stresses Shimizu’s versatility, but ultimately quotes, as if it were the director’s message, the line “Children do enough for their parents simply by being delightful”, and states that “the films of Shimizu Hiroshi present all the splendour of life, embodied in the spectacle of children simply being themselves.” (4) This is at least as inadequate a formulation to sum up Shimizu’s work as “Everyone has their reasons” is for Renoir’s.
Shimizu’s children are neither always delightful, nor always happy. They include war orphans (Children of the Beehive ), delinquents (The Inspection Tower ), children who do not love their parents (The Tale of Jiro ) or who are not loved by them (A Mother’s Love ) and children who are rejected by their fellows (Forget Love for Now ). Some suffer from illness and disability (The Shiinomi School ), and some die (Forget Love for Now, Children of the Beehive). Nor was Shimizu only a director of kids. The subtle tragicomedy of Mr Thankyou (1936) and Ornamental Hairpin (1941) is distinguished for its delicate exploration of grown-up feelings. Both films are mainly personal in focus, but the background of both is the worsening political situation in an increasingly belligerent nation. Meanwhile, such films as A Hero of Tokyo (1935), Forget Love for Now and Notes of a Female Singer (1941) focus on the oppression of women in Japanese society.
Shimizu’s films are, in fact, less charming than moving, and he was very much the social critic. His characters are almost always those who are alienated from the mainstream of society, whether by personal situation (poverty, family breakdown), profession (his men are often artists; his women, hostesses or prostitutes), or geography (most of his films are set in outlying areas of Japan, particularly the mountainous and inaccessible Izu Peninsula). Shimizu’s sympathy for the outsider grants him the perspective from which to look sceptically at the society into which his characters fit only uneasily, if it all. This was never more urgent a task than in the troubled Japan of the 1930s.
Since Shimizu’s reputation still rests largely on his children’s films, it is worth making them our starting point. Their most recurrent narrative trope is that they focus on individuals who are excluded from the group – this is the pattern in Forget Love For Now, Children in the Wind, The Shiinomi School and (briefly) in Four Seasons of Childhood (1939). The motive for this exclusion varies, but the prejudices of the group tend to reflect, in microcosm, those of society as a whole, either towards the children themselves, or to their parents: thus, in Children in the Wind, two brothers are ostracised by their fellows because their father is suspected (unjustly) of embezzlement; while in Forget Love for Now, the hero, Haru, is rejected by his schoolmates because his mother supports him by working as a nightclub hostess (5). In The Shiionomi School, the focus is on childhood disability, a topic which evidently interested Shimizu: it is the subject of one of his earliest surviving (albeit fragmentary) films, The Village Blacksmith (1928), and a child breaks his arm and leg in a fall in Four Seasons of Childhood. In The Shiinomi School one boy, a polio victim, is rejected by his schoolmates, who refuse to allow him to join their baseball game, and later fabricate a baseless accusation of theft. In one of Shimizu’s more dramatic visual touches, the camera follows the boy as he flees from the accusing children, his crutch tracing a line in the earth of the playground, which functions as a visual metaphor for his stigmatisation. The film is pessimistic to the degree that it assumes that the problems of the disabled cannot be accommodated within society: the solution it proposes is their separation from the mainstream in a special school.
The most optimistic of Shimizu’s children’s films is perhaps Four Seasons of Childhood, in which solidarity between the children triumphs over the corrupting power of commercial values. The context is the struggle for control of a company between Ono, the grandfather of one pair of brothers, and Rohkai, the father of one of their friends. This professional squabble has a direct impact on the lives of the children, since Rohkai, having gained control of the company, bars access to their playground, putting up a sign to indicate that it is now private property. Ironically this leads to his own son’s injury: the children are now forced to play in the countryside, and it is there that the boy, Kentaro, falls from a tree. The moral ugliness of greed and competition in the adult world is contrasted with the humanity of the kids, who resist their elders’ attempts to break up their friendship. In one of the film’s most moving scenes, the younger of the two Ono brothers carries the crippled Kentaro back to his house; his mother, aware of her husband’s hostility to the Ono family, is as first reluctant to let the brothers enter the house, but eventually relents. Such humane gestures contrast with the bitterness of the men’s feud. It would be going too far to suggest that Shimizu’s film is an attack on the capitalist system; but it does imply that commerce needs to be tempered with compassion. Within the company, too, there is a contrast in outlook: Rohkai, with his purely mercantile priorities, is contrasted with the grandfather Ono, who tries to protect his struggling family, bending the company rules to avoid foreclosing on an overdue loan.
Materialist values are also the target of some of Shimizu’s later children’s films. A Mother’s Love and The Tale of Jiro (two contributions to the haha-mono, or “mother film” genre) are stories about parents who treat their children as property. In the latter, Jiro, the second son of a wealthy family, is farmed out to a foster mother in infancy, and then, just as abruptly, demanded back. In order to ensure that he learns “the ways of the manor”, he is forbidden even to see his foster mother. While the film is remarkably even-handed – it stresses, for instance, the biological mother’s distress when she realises that she now takes second place in her son’s affections – it is clearly critical of the way in which the boy is treated as a possession. Haunting tracking shots follow his lonely wanderings through the expansive interiors of the family home – another piece of valuable property, along with the children who will inherit it, and the heirlooms which, like the house, have been passed down through the generations. It is the disappearance of some of these (they have, in fact, been pawned) that heralds the family’s bankruptcy and the forced sale of their property. Only after this, once deprived of their material wealth, can Jiro and his mother achieve a genuine affection.
In A Mother’s Love, Toshiko (Nijiko Kiyokawa), a mother of three children (each with a different father) attempts to farm out the kids to foster parents. Though she claims at first that her motive is a desire to marry again, we later discover that she is a business partner in a club in Tokyo, and seeks freedom from familial responsibilities so that she can make the club a commercial success. While the onscreen action is set entirely in Izu, the film still constructs a symbolic polarisation between the rural peninsula and the capital, the former standing for the positive aspects of Japanese tradition, the latter for the negative aspects of the country’s modernisation and its increasingly commercial values. Mitsuko, Toshiko’s partner in the club, who appears only briefly in the film when she visits the heroine in her inn, is the representative of those values, reducing every relationship to mercenary terms. She tries to persuade the heroine to borrow money from her brother, and dismisses her ex-boyfriend as “no use” because he won’t lend her any more. The heroine too at first tends towards such mercenary thinking, trying to overcome her relatives’ reluctance to take in her children by promising to send money for their support. Her gradual rediscovery of humane values and maternal feelings takes place through a series of encounters as she travels with her older son, whom no one will take, towards the home of her old foster mother. Most significant is her encounter with a group of travelling actors, living in relative poverty: despite their circumstances, one member of the troupe is struggling to bring up her child, and has rejected her own mother’s suggestion that she give the baby up to a foster parent. The contrast between two forms of entertainment – the traditional theatre, and the modern nightclub – is also the contrast between two outlooks on life. Finally, when the heroine reaches her foster home, she learns that the older woman’s own son, long a prisoner of war, has recently been repatriated. The return of a child given up for lost again contrasts with Toshiko’s intention of giving up her own children, finally impelling her towards a state of mind where she will accept her son’s pleas to keep him.
The limitation of the film, in spite of its careful construction, is its sentimentality: the heroine’s final vow to look after her own children, “even if it means living in rags”, is largely rhetorical, since there is no clear indication of what, precisely, she may have to do to fulfill it. Consequently, the film may be seen as somewhat conservative, since it celebrates a woman’s acceptance of her traditional duties. It is, perhaps, the slightest of Shimizu’s haha-mono. His pre-war contributions to the genre had been rather more trenchant.
The theme of maternal self-sacrifice is widespread in Japanese cinema, and may be seen as a sub-category of a more general plot structure involving women who sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of a male friend or relative. The theme is potentially reactionary to the degree that the sacrifice is endorsed: Mikio Naruse’s Mother (1952) is a conventionally sentimental example. In the ’30s, however, Ozu, in A Woman of Tokyo (1934) and The Only Son (1936), Mizoguchi, in Cascading White Threads (1933) and The Downfall of Osen (1934), and Shigeyoshi Suzuki, in Tears Behind Victory (1931), all went some way towards subverting the conventions. The earliest extant Shimizu film to employ the structure is The Boss’ Son Goes to College (1933), in which his treatment is fascinatingly equivocal: one may deduce that, relatively early in his career, he was working with material not entirely of his own choosing. The film concerns a college rugby star, Fuji, ostracised by his teammates (again, the group incarnates the prejudices of society at large) because of his “shameful” affection, first for a geisha, later, for a girl working on stage in a Western-style revue. In fact, the second woman is the sister of a teammate, and is working in the revue to fund her brother’s education. Matters come to a head when the star is expelled from the team, leading to a climax at once disturbingly intense and morally dubious. The teammate, despite his evident debt to his sister, blames her for Fuji’s situation, physically attacks her, and demands that Fuji give her up and rejoin the team. The hero’s capitulation – after which, predictably, he scores the winning try – might be read as an endorsement of his teammate’s attitudes, and of the triumph of group loyalties over private desires. Nevertheless, Shimizu’s ending subverts the apparent moral: the sister, having watched Fuji’s victory on the rugby field, decides to leave Tokyo; her brother presents him with her farewell letter in the locker room; he breaks down; and the last shot depicts him in close up in the shower, fully clothed, weeping over the note. The ending focuses, not on the hero’s victory, but on its emotional cost. Still, the film’s political limitations are clear. It is essentially a story about a man’s moral dilemma, and although the teammate’s sister is, by any standard, the character who suffers most, Shimizu focuses on the emotions of the men to the exclusion of hers. By contrast, Shimizu’s haha-mono of the late ’30s are concerned centrally with the position, and unhappiness, of women in Japanese society.
Where the motif of female sacrifice is used to subversive effect, the sacrifice usually does not achieve its aims: a fact which has the effect of calling the gesture itself into question. In The Only Son, for instance, a mother labours in a spinning mill to ensure her son can go to university, only to see him slip into a mediocre job. Where the sacrifice takes a more socially dubious form, its consequences can be more melodramatic. In Cascading White Threads, the heroine does succeed in raising the funds necessary to support her lover’s legal studies, but ends up on trial for murder, with the lover as her judge. He is forced to sentence her to death, and then takes his own life. In A Woman of Tokyo, the sacrificing heroine works as a bar hostess to support her brother’s education; on discovering how she earns the money, he too commits suicide. The implications of these films are often complex, but they usually allow the interpretation that the tragedy follows inevitably from the heroine’s transgression.
Shimizu’s Forget Love for Now is based on the same premise – a mother, Yuki (Michiko Kumano), supports her son, Haru, by working as a bar hostess – and again the sacrifice is a failure, since the male protagonist finally dies. By contrast with the films by Ozu and Mizoguchi, however, his death is not by suicide, and is certainly not caused by shame as regards the woman’s conduct. Rather, he dies defending his mother’s honour against the children who despise her. The roots of the tragedy are, manifestly, social ones, and the film is sharply critical of the double standard which expects women to sacrifice everything for the sake of their male dependents, while indulging in moralistic condemnation of the methods they are required to adopt to do so. It also avoids offering any trite solution to the social trap. Halfway through the film, Yuki is befriended by a sympathetic man, initially assigned to her as a minder by her suspicious boss. We assume that he will save her and her son from their situation, providing (however implausibly) a happy ending. In fact, not only does he fail to do so, but he is indirectly responsible for Haru’s death; it is he, after the boy has been hurt in one fight, and despite the fact that he is also weak from illness, who encourages him to fight again.
Though the film is clearly a feminist one, its politics extend to a wider sphere than the sexual. It is, in fact, a brilliantly terse study of socio-economic conditions in 1930s Japan. Censorship trimmed sequences of the mother and her fellow hostesses asking for better pay and conditions, but enough remains to make a biting comment on the exploitation of their profession. Shooting, atypically, on studio sets, Shimizu makes telling symbolic use of the interior geography: thus, when the women approach their madam to demand a share of the profits from the beer, the bar seems a visual barrier between the workers and their boss, with all the alcohol piled up on her side on the dividing line. The hostesses’ status as virtual possessions is made brutally clear when one of the women tries to leave Yokohama, only to be beaten up by hired thugs employed by the club. Also daringly, the film touches on the precarious situation of foreigners in Japan during an era of nationalist policy. In response to rejection by his schoolfellows, Haru befriends a group of Chinese kids, the social outcast and the foreigner finding kinship in their shared oppression.
Shimizu’s last silent film, A Hero of Tokyo, is another haha-mono with a wide-ranging social context. Again, it concerns a mother who works as a hostess for the sake of her children, and again, the handling is subversive. The woman is, in fact, mother to two children and stepmother to a third; she has married again to guarantee the security of her own offspring but, when her businessman husband turns out to be involved in a criminal speculation, is forced to work herself to support the family. Ironically, only her stepson proves loyal to her, her son and daughter by blood rejecting her and leaving home when they discover her profession. Ultimately, they slide respectively into crime and prostitution. Here Shimizu employs, while transforming, the tragic structure of such films as Cascading White Threads and A Woman of Tokyo. While the children’s downfall could be read, conservatively, as a consequence of their mother’s transgression, Shimizu makes clear that ultimate responsibility lies with the criminal father. The implications of this are not only on a personal level: the film’s most provocative aspect is its indictment of the role of big business in exploiting and furthering the imperialist project. The investment scam which the hero’s father runs is named the “Manchuria-Mongolia gold mining venture”, a name evoking regions that had either been conquered or claimed by Japan: as critic William F. Drew argues, in his outstanding essay on Shimizu’s silent films, the father’s “paltry get-rich-quick schemes can be viewed as a microcosm of a far greater predatory enterprise […], whose promise of rewards amidst the Depression would soon lead the Japanese nation to the greatest catastrophe in its history.” (6) Just as the gold mine turns out to be non-existent and the investors are defrauded, so too, Shimizu implies, the imperialist project is one of illusory promise. I should say that I take issue with Drew’s reading of the film’s ending, in which the hero writes and publishes an article indicting his father for his crimes. For Drew, this is mere muckraking, and proof that the hero, too, is corrupted by capitalist values, sacrificing, like his father, “the most basic of human relationships on the altar of worldly success.” (7) It is true that the material benefit of the hero’s action is stressed when he returns home to announce proudly that he has won his first bonus on the back of his father’s disgrace. Certainly, the audience should share to an extent the disquiet voiced by his stepmother, who protests at his betrayal of his father. Yet the film’s most obvious theme is that lying, or withholding the truth, has disastrous consequences: the father’s business projects are based on fraud, with ultimately devastating effect on his family; the mother fails to tell her children how she earns her living until they uncover the truth for themselves, at which point they reject her; the younger brother’s belated discovery that his stepfather is in charge of a company employing criminals leads to his death. The hero breaks the cycle by deciding to publicise his father’s crimes as soon as he learns the truth. His action is the more heroic because, subversively, it allows moral considerations to take precedence over filial loyalty. This is in contrast to the doctrines of Shinto, then the established faith, and heavily promoted by the military government, which, in Robert Harvey’s words, “laid no stress on the individual conscience, but rather on conforming to a collective view within a hierarchy.” (8) Moreover, since the father is, metaphorically, a representative of the militarists and of the business interests that colluded with them, his son’s action cannot be interpreted simply as part of a domestic conflict: it is, rather, an act of political defiance. The last shots, as the hero watches with satisfaction while a newspaper boy distributes his article, carry a liberating charge: at a time of growing censorship, both of the arts and of the press, they seem also an eloquent plea for freedom of expression (9).
As the war situation became graver, Shimizu was admittedly forced increasingly into compliance with the requirements of the military regime. The Bell of Sayon (1943) was conceived as propaganda for the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, while even The Inspection Tower, an ostensibly liberal piece about a home for delinquent children, ends on an uncomfortable note as the kids accept a regime of hard physical labour to build a canal. While not explicitly pro-militarist, the film, with its affirmation of physical hardship and endurance in a greater cause, is certainly compatible with the ideals of the regime. In Shimizu’s defence, it is worth stressing that, by the ’40s, and certainly after Pearl Harbour, every Japanese director had no option but to conform, at least passively, with those ideals, or stop working (of the major figures, only Yasujiro Ozu followed the latter course). Shimizu, like Mizoguchi, capitulated in the end, but he resisted as long as he could.
A key film in this context is The Star Athlete (1937), since its subject is a student military training exercise. Noel Burch has praised the film’s “radical” formal qualities, while suggesting that it aims to offer a “patriotic” moral: “no matter how good you are individually, it is the group that comes first.” (10) Superficially, indeed, the film’s project is the incorporation of dissident elements into the group. The rebellious star athlete, Seki, is punished and admits that he was in the wrong, while two lazy students, who at first maintain that sleep is more important than winning a race, finally join the athletics club. Yet Shimizu’s treatment subtly subverts the apparent moral. The student’s march is filmed in a playful series of dolly shots which alternately follow and move ahead of the squad. At strategic intervals, groups of passers-by – some children, and several young ladies – fall in behind the marching soldiers. The effect is to turn the whole exercise into a game of sorts, an effect intensified in the film’s climax, where the students, sent off to round up fictitious “enemies” in a mock battle, end up accidentally terrifying various travellers who had quarrelled with them the night before, and who now believe they are being hunted by them. The climactic chase is close to slapstick, and virtually reduces the whole training exercise to farce.
Also subversive is the intervening sequence at the inn, which contains the film’s emotional crisis. Seki is caught apparently flirting with a geisha and is threatened by the sergeant with expulsion from the group; to forestall this, his buddy, Tani, decides to punish the star athlete himself, and knocks him down. Though Seki accepts that he was at fault, the viewer may be less sure; his behaviour really suggests little more than humane sympathy (the woman’s child is sick) and is in part motivated by guilt (the illness is a stomach upset brought on by a persimmon which Seki himself gave to the child). Through much of the students’ confrontation, Shimizu keeps the geisha in shot, a shadowy presence, with her back to the camera, in the foreground yet at the side of the frame, marginalised in the image as she is in society. Our last sight of her, looking gloomily out into the rain after the students depart, is very touching. Here, any affirmation of the solidarity of the group is partially undermined by Shimizu’s stress on the misery of those who cannot conform.
The growth of Japanese militarism, and its roots in the social traumas of the era, is an important context in several other films of the period. Mr Thankyou, despite its breezy tone, keeps the troubles of the time very much to the fore: the Depression, with its attendant woes of unemployment and poverty, is a repeated subject of conversation among the passengers of a bus travelling through the mountainous hinterland of Izu. One passenger is a girl on her way to be sold into prostitution in Tokyo, and, while the ending implies that she will be saved from this fate, the dialogue makes it clear that hers is no isolated case – other girls have suffered the same. The film also touches on the consequences of Japanese nationalism. While shooting, Shimizu took advantage of a chance encounter with a group of Korean labourers to incorporate an unscripted scene into the film. The bus driver hero (Ken Uehara) is approached by a Korean girl, who had been working on the construction of roads in the area. She explains that she and her colleagues are about to be sent north to Shinshu (well over a hundred kilometres northwards – it is the old name of Nagano Prefecture), and asks ‘Mr Thankyou’ to take flowers to her father’s grave. She admits that she has always wanted to ride in his bus, but, when he offers to take her to the station, decides to walk with her friends. The scene makes no overt political comment, and the superficial content – nice Japanese man is kind to poor Korean woman – may seem rather conservative in implication. Yet the encounter does makes clear the powerlessness of these labourers, whose movements, unlike those of most (if not all) of the bus driver’s passengers, are not self-determined; and it also hints at the hardship of their lives – whence, we are to assume, the death of the girl’s father. Moreover, the fact that this team of Korean labourers have been working on the very roads along which Mr Thankyou’s bus has been driving makes the scene doubly subversive. The bus journey is made possible only by the exploitation of immigrant workers, and, by implication, every Japanese character, including the nice hero, is complicit in their oppression (11).
Five years later, in 1941, with the national situation increasingly grim, Shimizu was condemned by his namesake, Akira Shimizu, for the frothiness of his latest film, Ornamental Hairpin. “Film stock is so precious in these times”, the critic complained, “yet Hiroshi Shimizu still comes up with such la-di-da stuff.” (12) In fact, Ornamental Hairpin is less an escapist film than a film about the need to escape. Being another of Shimizu’s remarkable group portraits, its characters – all guests at a hot spring resort – form a virtual microcosm of Japanese society: they run the spectrum of ages, professions and personalities, but what unites them all is their unwillingness to go home. In the case of the presumptive heroine, Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka), this unwillingness is particularly strong: she is, it appears, a woman with a past, but the precise nature of that past is kept purposefully ambiguous. Occasional phone calls and telegrams urge her to return to Tokyo, but give no more information, although the fact that she urges her friend, Okiku, to marry, may hint at an unhappy romance, a suggestion subtly furthered by the casting of Tanaka, who was Shimizu’s ex-wife. The result of this ambiguity is that any motive on Emi’s part for staying away from Tokyo becomes less important than the simple fact of her desire to do so. This in turn invites a metaphorical reading: that Emi, and indeed the other guests, are seeking an escape from Japan’s contemporary situation, the rejection of the capital representing at least a passive opposition to the country’s current political trajectory. Militarism is directly acknowledged in the presence at the resort of a wounded soldier, played by Chishu Ryu, whose recuperation is a major plot strand. It has been argued that it was this aspect of the film which induced the censors to give approval to an apparently innocuous romance, but Ryu’s characters is far from a personification of the military ethos (13). In fact, his wound makes him seem a victim of war, a status which admittedly has its evasive aspect – Japan was hardly a victim in its wars during the ’30s – but which Shimizu develops intriguingly. Once the soldier is rehabilitated (his goal is to regain enough strength to climb a flight of stairs), he will go back to Tokyo and the war effort, if not to active service. Only while at the inn can he escape such obligations. This actually has a wider implication, since the spa resort represents an escape not only from political pressures, but from social ones as well. The guests at the inn come to act as a kind of unorthodox extended family, where the usual hierarchies don’t apply; likewise, the quasi-romance which develops between Emi and the soldier does not present the man as a dominant partner, despite his ultra-masculine profession. In this light, we can read the soldier’s leg wound as a symbolic emasculation, repeated early in the film when he again injures his foot by treading on a lady’s hairpin – the crisis which brings Emi, owner of the hairpin, back to the inn. Within the resort’s confines, the warrior can become a civilian, and the macho professional a new man – thus, the spa functions as a refuge from both political and social conservatism.
It is crucial to the effect that the retreat is not idealised: the inn’s guests sometimes quarrel, and complain about their diet, but these problems notwithstanding it is clearly preferable to Tokyo. Despite this, most of the characters eventually do return, with the significant exception of Emi, whose role in the narrative becomes increasingly central. Although she is introduced in its first scene, she then disappears for several sequences while the other characters are sketched in, returning from Tokyo only when the innkeeper alerts her by telegram that her hairpin has been recovered. As the film progresses, however, we are increasingly encouraged to share her feelings and perspectives – she is, I think, the only character who openly discusses her emotions – and even before the group disperses she has become our primary identification figure. In the last scene, alone at the resort, she is our only one. Shimizu expresses his own identification with her in the final tracking shots, which keep pace with her lonely ascent of the same stairs that Ryu’s soldier had triumphantly climbed, marking his return to health and heralding his return to Tokyo. Emi, by contrast, is determined to stay at the resort, opting permanently out of Japanese society. Shimizu himself did not imitate his heroine’s actions, but he clearly attempted some kind of withdrawal: having directed five films in 1941 alone, he was to make only two features and a fragment for the duration of the Pacific War.
The films of the late ’30s and early ’40s could not realistically have offered a more overt critique of the contemporary situation, which by then was too repressive to permit one. They are, nevertheless, as socially and morally responsible as was possible at the time. Shimizu was not by nature a polemicist. His films are simply too complex and too subtle to be taken as propaganda, in however noble a cause. It seems abundantly clear, however, that he understood art to have a moral and political vocation, and, although he was capable of crafting images of exceptional beauty, was opposed to any “art for art’s sake” ethos. The presentation of artists within his work confirms this. In Japanese Girls at the Harbour (1933), the heroine Sunako, working as a bar hostess, lives with a Bohemian, bearded Western-style painter, who is unable to sell his paintings; the implication is that he lives off her income while painting (and she is his model, too). In this sense, he doubly exploits her, while failing to contribute to the couple’s economic survival. The ending, in which he throws his paintings overboard as he departs with Sunako to a new life, is the repudiation of this self-indulgent lifestyle, the artist acknowledging his own failure. Lest we assume this implies that art is valuable only if commercially successful, Shimizu’s other films stress that the value of art lies in its social function. In The Shiinomi School, the polio-afflicted children use drawings and songs as a form of therapy, while in Shosuke Ohara (1949), a film about the modernisation of a rural township, the villagers complain about a mayoral candidate’s proposal to open an arts centre in the village, because it does not answer the concrete needs of the community. Even in Children of the Great Buddha (1952), a film about war orphans who support themselves by showing tourists around the great temples of Nara, Shimizu appears to reject a merely aesthetic appreciation of the ancient treasures, allowing an apprentice monk to voice his regret that people now regard the temple statues only as objets d’art, overlooking their original religious function.
A concern for the relevance of his art informs all of Shimizu’s mature work. Just as, in the pre-war period, he had criticised the direction of Japanese society, so, in the post-war period, he made films focusing on its weakest, most vulnerable members. Like Children of the Great Buddha, Children of the Beehive is an account of the experiences of war orphans, chronicling their journey through Western Japan to an orphanage near Osaka, escorted by a demobilised soldier. Certainly the masterpiece of Shimizu’s post-war career, it is also one of the outstanding neo-realist films. The opening scene sketches in the dog-eat-dog economics of this desperately poor society: the orphans beg for bread, but they are expected to turn this over to an old man who sells it for a profit on the black market, leaving only the leftovers for the children. Later, in Kobe, the same old man is acting as a pimp to a group of prostitutes, including one woman known to the children. This provokes a fight with the soldier, who wins, and the woman joins them as they head off on the final leg of their journey. Yet the film does not merely demonise the exploitative old man. The apparent sentimentality of the ending, where he, too, joins the group as they make their way to the orphanage, is rather, a recognition that the problems of society are simply too complex to solve by the extirpation of a few villains. Very much a liberal, Shimizu sees that, amidst the poverty of immediate post-war Japan, prostitutes and profiteers alike lack any opportunity for decent living.
Such humane concern was visible in Shimizu’s life outside the cinema. The actors in Children of the Beehive were non-professionals, and the children all war orphans that Shimizu himself had adopted; later, he personally funded the foundation of an orphanage. The endings of his films often stress the importance of small, individual actions in improving society: thus, ‘Mr Thankyou’ will marry a girl to keep her from being sent into prostitution; two of the Children of the Great Buddha are spontaneously adopted by concerned adults; the children’s homes in Children of the Beehive and The Inspection Tower offer hope to, at least, a few of the hopeless. This kind of stress on the importance of personal charity has its limitations; charitable actions may help a few, but are unlikely to reform society as a whole. Still, it is reassuring to learn that Shimizu followed in life the principles that he advanced in his art. The biographies of so many artists are disappointing; given the humanity of his work, it is heartening to find that Shimizu was not only a major filmmaker, but, which is more, a good man.
For assistance in the preparation of this article, I would like to thank Donald Richie, Rie Takauchi and Yuko Murata of the Japan Foundation, and Masayo Okada and Atsuko Fukuda of the Kawakita Institute.
- John Gillett, National Film Theatre programme booklet, January 1988.
- Alan Stanbrook, “On the track of Hiroshi Shimizu”, Sight and Sound, Spring 1988, vol. 57, no. 2, pp 122–25.
- Wong Ain-ling, “In the Land of Fallen Souls”, Hiroshi Shimizu: 101st Anniversary, 28th Hong Kong International Film Festival Programme, 2004, p. 21.
- Sadao Yamane, “Narrative Spectacle: Rediscovering the Work of Hiroshi Shimizu”, Tokyo FILMeX 2003 Official Catalog, p. 35. The line quoted by Yamane occurs both in Forget Love for Now and The Shiinomi School.
- A variation on this pattern may be observed in Notes of a Female Singer, where the group’s opprobrium is directed towards an adult not towards another child. Again, the ostracism expresses a wider social disapproval: in this case, of a woman determined to run a business in order to support her student lover. The image of the distant heroine, hemmed in by the legs of the jeering children in the foreground of the screen, is one of Shimizu’s most brilliant.
- William M. Drew, “Hiroshi Shimizu – Silent Master of the Japanese Ethos”, MidnightEye website, 2004.
- Drew, ibid.
- Robert Harvey, The Undefeated: The Rise, Fall and Rise of Greater Japan, Macmillan, London, 1994, p. 220.
- For information on the censorship of the press, literature and cinema under the Imperial regime, see Conrad Totman, A History of Japan, Blackwell, Malden & New York, 2000, pp 401–11. This includes useful material on the increasingly strict criteria for the production of “national policy” films in the later ’30s. Also see Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Harper Collins, New York, 2000, pp 187–89.
- Noel Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, Scolar Press, London, 1979, p. 249. Admittedly, Burch accepts that “it is impossible to reduce [the film] to a mere contribution to the coming war effort” (p. 251), but he does not go so far as to argue that the film actually subverts its apparent moral.
- For the situation of Korean labourers in Japan during the pre-war and wartime periods, see Totman, pp 390–91 and p. 397.
- Akira Shimizu, quoted in Hiroshi Shimizu: 101st Anniversary, 2004, p. 80.
- See Hiroshi Shimizu: 101st Anniversary, 2004, p. 80. The notes were mainly translated from Shimizu Hiroshi Eiga Dokuhon, eds Masazumi Tanaka, Kimihiko Kimata, Takeshi Sato and Chihiro Sato, Film ArtSha, Tokyo, 2000.