In Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1941 film, the titular object of the ornamental hairpin firmly holds the story in place; the lynchpin of it, so to speak. On a fateful day at an isolated yet serene rural inn,1 Mr Nanmura (Chishû Ryû, a favourite of Yasujirô Ozu), a Japanese soldier on leave from his duties on the bloody battlefield of World War II, stumbles on an abandoned hairpin, cutting his foot. The injury sidelines Nanmura, and his stay at the inn is extended indefinitely while he heals. Oddly enough, such a seemingly trivial gash, at least temporarily, shields Nanmura from the uncertainty of the War. At any time, he could be captured, maimed, killed. Shimizu makes no direct or contrived references to the War – already raging – for which Nanmura is supposed to laying his life on the line.2 It barely even lingers in the backdrop of the film. Instead, its field of vision is firmly confined to the grounds of the inn, flanked by foliage and mountains that surround it. The film’s scale projects a particular image of quaintness; suggesting that Shimizu – who, judging by his body of work, was a kind, thoughtful, and gentle person – like many of his Japanese compatriots, wanted to get as far away from the idea and reality of the War as he could. Art, it seems, was an effective means of egress.

The owner of the hairpin, Emi – played by Kinuyo Tanaka,3 a regular in Kenji Mizoguchi’s films – eventually writes a letter, asking for her hairpin to be returned. “I seem to have lost a hairpin with a red coral gem,” it reads. The men present at the inn insist on replying to Emi, informing her of the harm done to Nanmura’s foot. After that, the film quickly cuts to another letter, which states, succinctly: “sorry about injury. Coming to apologise. Emi”. Her imminent arrival sparks anticipation, excitement, and apprehension among the male inhabitants of the inn. Speculation on her appearance, age, and disposition is rife. “Professor, I think the owner of that hairpin may in fact be an older woman, but my wife thinks it’s a young woman,” says Hiroyasu (Shin’ichi Himori). Later in the conversation, the Professor (Tatsuo Saitō) remarks that he hopes for “Mr Namura’s sake that she’s beautiful”. They prove themselves nothing short of obsessive on the subject, one indication of many that there is very little with which one can occupy herself at the inn.

After some time, Emi appears, and the men are not disappointed. “Professor, I’m so relieved. Thank goodness she’s beautiful,” Hiroyasu boasts, grinning obscenely. Neither is Nanmura. During their first encounter – mediated ham-fistedly by Hiroyasu and the Professor – Nanmura almost quivers in nervousness, barely able to utter a few coherent sentences consecutively. Soon enough, Emi and Nanmura form some kind of a bond, forged in part during Nanmura’s recovery activities. The long, wide shots of Nanmura bumbling around with his crutches, refamiliarising himself with the act of walking, while Emi watches on, smiling, and two children – Jiro (Masayoshi Ôtsuka) and Tiro (Jun Yokoyama) – point at him and laugh, demonstrate the comedy and light-heartedness that Shimizu summons in this film, 4 in a time of profound darkness in wartime Japan.

Yet, Ornamental Hairpin is not invariably carefree and cheerful. It is a more complex film than that. Shimizu constantly returns to the fact that the characters’ time at the inn will end, that their stay is temporary, transient. “Listen, everyone. After we all return to Tokyo, we should keep meeting. Shouldn’t we, dear?”, Hiroyasu’s wife (Hideko Mimura) asks him, at a round-table dinner of the inn’s occupants. Everybody freezes for a moment, inspecting the reactions of their companions, before expressing their interest in it. Though an unmistakable uncertainty looms over their words of assurance. The reality – thinly concealed – is that, following their departure from the inn, the vicissitudes of life will take them in different directions, so that the time never comes when they can reunite. Amidst the scenes of fun and frivolity, feelings of anxiety and melancholy emerge, providing the film a more well-rounded emotional complexion. These textures are most palpably manifested in its final scene: with Emi, in her kimono, holding a wagasa over her head, wandering around the luscious landscape of the inn, reminiscing on her time at the inn, and pondering the future ahead.

“I wish I could live like this forever,” says Emi, fully knowing that the end of her time is nigh. The Professor responds, by commenting: “if Mr Nanmura leaves, I suppose you’ll—”,  before he is cut off by Hiroyasu’s wife. His query goes unanswered; it’s left hanging. Uncertainties, of Emi and Nanmura’s relationship, the fate of the other characters, and the state of Japan in a time of war and upheaval, reign, even once the film poignantly ends. Through its arguable inconclusiveness, Shimizu’s Ornamental Hairpin demonstrates to its audience conclusive truths.

• • •

Ornamental Hairpin (Kanzashi 1941 Japan 70 minutes)

Prod Co: Shochiku Prod: Yasuyuki Arai Dir: Hiroshi Shimizu Scr: Masuji Ibuse, Yoshitomo Nagase Phot: Suketarô Inokai Ed: Yoshiyasu Hamamura Snd: Kôichi Nakamura Mus: Takaaki Asai

Cast: Chishû Ryû, Kinuyo Tanaka, Tatsuo Saitô, Hideko Mimura, Shin’ichi Himori, Jun Yokoyama, Masayoshi Ôtsuka

Endnotes:

  1. Alexander Jacoby, “Country Retreat: Shimizu Hiroshi’s Ornamental Hairpin (1941) in Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, Alastair Phillips and Julian Stringer eds. (London and New York: Routledge, 2007) p. 65
  2. Ryan Cook, “Rules of the Road: The Travelling Films of Hiroshi Shimizu” Film Quarterly 64.2 (Spring 2011) p. 21
  3. Alejandra Armendáriz-Hernández, “Kinuyo Tanaka,” Women Film Pioneers Project, https://wfpp.columbia.edu/pioneer/kinuyo-tanaka/
  4. Alan Stanbrook, “On the Track of Hiroshi Shimizu,” Sight and Sound 57.2 (Spring 1988): p. 122

About The Author

Nicholas Bugeja is a writer and editor. He has written for the ACMI blog, Film Matters and Overland. Nicholas is particularly interested in 1970s American cinema, post-war Japanese cinema, Indigenous Australian cinema, and the links between film and philosophy.