The Cinema of Sômai Shinji
“Upon receiving the news of Sômai Shinji ‘s death at 53 last year, I found my thoughts turning to Ernst Lubitsch, who passed away at 55 in 1946. How did those around Lubitsch react when they heard the news of his death? Some probably mourned the fact that he didn’t get to complete That Lady in Ermine. But I doubt many considered his death from a heart attack in California, far form his native Berlin, as an all-too-early demise. With over 30 brilliant films from the Hollywood phase of his career alone, he died a glorious master. Such triumph can hardly be attributed to Sômai Shinji , born in the northern provinces of Japan the year after Lubitsch died and leaving Kaza-hana, not exactly his greatest achievement, as his final work. Instead of consigning Sômai’s death to his own private misfortune, I cannot help but see it as an evidence of the striking changes in the relationship between filmmakers and their films in Japan over the past 50 years.
Sômai’s far-too-early death, the same year that 81-year-old Eric Rohmer completed his astonishing The Lady and the Duke, is conspicuously sad because he had already begun distancing himself from cinema before making even half of the films he should have. Not even living to see the opening night of his stage direction debut, Lee Kalcheim’s The Convenience of a Short Haired Dog, Sômai left behind only 13 films. This paucity of output may be indicative of the sorry state of Japanese filmmaking in the Eighties, when he began directing. After all, Yanagimachi Mitsuo, whose 1985 film Fire Festival (Himatsuri) brought him wide acclaim, has only managed to make two films since, and the less-talented Itami Juzo (whose work gained some recognition in the West) incomprehensibly committed suicide in 1997. All three directors endured the stiflingly difficult transitional period between the collapse of the studio system, which sustained Japanese filmmaking for 70 years, and the eventual emergence of a new generation of young producers who now support independent directors.
Even so, Sômai’s debut at 32, with The Hip Couple (1980), can hardly be termed late—his contemporary Kitano Takeshi was 41 when he directed his first film. However, despite Cahiers du cinéma critic Frédéric Strauss’s rave review when Moving was shown at Cannes in 1993, Sômai never enjoyed Kitano’s international nenown. Perhaps the commercial success of Sômai’s second film, School Uniforms and Machine Guns (1981)—a nonsensical story about a junior high school girl who succeeds a yakuza boss, commissioned by a production company intent on grooming an unexceptional young girl into a star—stereotyped Sômai as a skilled craftsman devoid of genuine creative ambition. Even his first masterpiece, P.P. Rider (1983), inspired by Leonard Schrader’s story, was generally regarded as a trivial children’s entertainment, with only handful of Japanese critics showing any enthusiasm for it.
During the years he was making The Hip Couple and P.P. Rider, Sômai was in fact setting a time bomb that would one day explode. In both films, teenagers wander aimlessly through a world in which parents and families have seemingly vanished and the few discernible adults are unable to guide the young in any clear direction. Moving‘s tension grows out of the clumsy rage of children who have no conception of rebellion. It’s a portrait of a girl torn between her divorced parents during her transformation into a young woman. After running away from home, she immerses herself in a dark lake that appears before her as she wanders through a forest at night; the restraint of Sômai’s direction creates real suspense. For all its apparent tranquility Moving is suffused with more inherent violence than the average blood-splattered “violent” film. Perhaps Strauss is correct in pointing out that Sômai’s film contains “an attachment to a certain classicism” in Japanese cinema.
In fact, of the directors who began making films in the Eighties, Sômai is one of the few to have worked as an assistant director under the old studio system. That said, the Nikkatsu that he joined in the early Seventies, though nominally the distinguished company where Mizoguchi made his silent-era pictures, was by then no more than a small business teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, churning out B-grade softcore porn destined for extremely limited release. While Sômai was capable of shooting Love Hotel (1985) in only ten days, he hadn’t just picked up tips for shooting porn at Nikkatsu. What fascinated him were the craftsmen-like methods of the technicians who had survived from an earlier era and who were still working during the twilight of the studio system. Though Sômai never used the same cameramen twice after he began directing, Kumagai Hideo, whom he had met at Nikkatsu and was many years his senior, was the lighting technician on almost every film he made.
Why was Sômai so attached to his gaffer rather than the director of photography? Because, unlike, for example, Kitano Takeshi, who condenses his aesthetic tastes into a single shot and edits to a nimble rhythm, Sômai chose to harmonize his young protagonists’ presence with that of their surroundings and observe their transformation over time within that context. As a result he avoided brief closeup and cutaways, grounding his style instead in long takes and tracking shots. And while it never had the fluid movement of Mizoguchi or Ophuls, Sômai’s camera persevered, risking the appearance of clumsiness, nestling against his characters’ unpredictable behavior, now hesitant, now abruptly decisive.
One of the most spectacular examples of his approach is the long fight sequence in P.P. Rider, in which a group of boys and girls take on the yakuza to rescue a kidnapped friend; they dodge bullets and hop across logs floating in the canal, tumbling into the water and pulling themselves out. The experience clearly transforms them—made explicit when one of the girls has her first period. It’s as if being the subject of this long sequence was in itself a rite of passage. In that sense, in Sômai’s films action signifies moral ethic. In Snow Flakes (1985), a portrait of a prodigal girl going through puberty, he stages the action on a series of interconnected sets built on a soundstage, without cutting. Although one cannot help but feel set adrift by his approach, it demonstrates just how much faith he places in his lighting technician.
All of Sômai’s themes are crystallized in Typhoon Club (1985), a portrait of a group of youngsters cloistered overnight in their junior high school during a typhoon. With the same heightened emotion of the young girl’s midnight forest wanderings in Moving, a darkened, flooded provincial middle school is the perfect setting for a rite of passage. Once again families are absent as Sômai follows the movements of another runaway girl, this time through Tokyo’s entertainment district amid raging winds. The following morning, under clear skies, unaware that her friend has taken his own life, she discovers a profoundly beautiful sight: her school, submerged.
Sômai Shinji nurtured several young actors, who emerged to become recognizable stars. In this sense, despite his gruff appearance, he was a sensitive educator. In fact, in the late Eighties, Jim Jarmusch cast two Sômai alumni in Mystery Train. We can only imagine how Sômai felt as he watched P.P. Rider‘s Nagase Masatoshi and Typhoon Club’s Kudo Yuki, all grown up, embrace in the American film’s “Far from Yokohama” episode. Strangely enough, Sômai passed from this world in a small city on the outskirts of Tokyo, neighboring Yokohama." — Hasumi Shigehiko, ’01
(Please forgive any major typos. Or better yet, let me know so I could fix them. This piece isn’t available online. Thanks.)
MOVING (OHIKKOSHI, 1993)
TYPHOON CLUB (TAIFU KURABU, 1985)
THE CATCH (GYOEI NO MURE, 1983)
LOVE HOTEL (RABU HOTERU, 1985)
WAIT AND SEE (AH HARU, 1998)
(Note: I have seen 9 of Sômai’s 13 films.)
in chronological order