The most famous of the Japanese masters who began to emerge in the 1920s are only now starting to see the light on home video in the United States, with most of resurrection being done by The Criterion Collection. With Ozu and Mizoguchi now having quite a few films available to Region 1 DVD audiences—split handsomely between larger-scale Criterion DVDs and the more ascetic, reasonably priced, but generously portioned Eclipse series box sets—and poor Mikio Naruse left stranded with but a single DVD, attention has turned elsewhere.
This time the light shines on Hiroshi Shimizu—a Shochiku studio director like Ozu, and born in the same year—who sees four of his films spanning a year of silence through years of talk released in a new Eclipse set: Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), Mr. Thank You (1936), The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) and Ornamental Hairpin (1941). The intervention intended by the set is a bit unexpected—as with Naruse, Shimizu's style is a subtle one not greatly apparent when one is used to the stylish genre-work of a Kurosawa, the scrolling cinematics of Mizoguchi, or the cubic ellipses of Ozu. Yet subtlety can be just as striking as directness; Shimizu is not lacking in masterpieces and neither is this set, which contains four truly beautiful works of cinema.
What is especially welcoming in discovering the director through this set is in its curation—the films share a great deal with one another, perhaps above all a sense not of relaxation but of a relaxed style and a focus on relaxation. If anything can be told from but four films in a sprawling and unavailable filmography, it is that Shimizu favors the transient settings of travelers, vacationeers, pilgrims, and runaways: both The Masseurs and the Woman and Ornamental Hairpin sojourn in mountain inns, the characters escaping the liveliness of cities, their real lives, and perhaps even the 15 Year War; Mr. Thank You is set almost entirely on a country bus, whose friendly driver, the eponymous Arigatou-san, gathers around him and then disperses a cast of characters. And Japanese Girls, far and away the most melodramatic film in the set, has such an unconcerned attitude toward the way life flows that one is forever uncertain how much time has passed between each scene.
In this scheme of things, where life proper belong to another movie and another story, plot is happenstance—even the exceedingly beautiful, starkly melodramatic Japanese Girls proceeds along an almost unconnected series of startled emotions and wistful, sad scenes. Desires are mostly implied off-screen, as both the screenplays of the films and Shimizu as a director favor nonchalant social meetings between different types in such scenarios, with conversations filmed at long-shot distance and close-ups are of a Preminger-like rarity. As with Ozu, the transience of setting and the casual nature of character interactions implies a melancholy: no inn visit or bus ride will last forever; conversations are nimble and dispensable. Ornamental Hairpin especially conveys a sense that the ideal life is one away from the regular world—an ideal that no one can keep up for long. But these are comedies (except for Japanese Girl's forlorn tragedy), and the passing of things is usually only as sad as it is also alight and amusing. Maybe all sad movies are comedies, and visa-versa.
The Masseurs and the Woman and Ornamental Hairpin begin in practically identical ways, the camera tracking backwards to follow our protagonists as they make their way along mountainous paths to leave the world behind. Mr. Thank You is likewise, set along a singular road around which passes daily life, and Japanese Girls starts and finishes with boats arrives and leaving Yokohama harbor. When both Hairpin and The Masseurs return poetically at their ends to pathways that must be trod again, it is with the acknowledgement, almost mysterious in the loosely written lack of direct cause-and-effect storytelling, that the sweetness of a simple life, a simple social life, a romantic life, and the humorous hijinks they entail, must always, for some reason, come to an end—move on.
Luckily, the hope in these films is in Shimizu's minute focus: small happinesses must end, but it is only the end of a vacation or this stage in life—not of an entire existence. Every departure hints at an arrival. The coming and going are only the beginning and ending of Shimizu's stories; what is important comes in between the important events.