Passing Through: Discovering Hiroshi Shimizu
By Imogen Sara Smith

Museum of the Moving Image presents Hiroshi Shimizu Part I: The Shochiku Years May 4–19, 2024.

The traveling shot is at the heart of Hiroshi Shimizu’s cinema. His camera glides alongside people as they walk, or tracks backward as they advance down a road. Scenes unspool at the pace of strollers and pilgrims, chatting pairs of women, itinerant workers on their way to the next job. These are films about transients and transience, punctuated by soft dissolves and ellipses; sometimes people fade out of the frame like smoke, or vanish and reappear further away. Shimizu’s formalism and his humanism go hand in hand.

Descriptors such as “overlooked,” “forgotten,” and “unsung” have been attached to Shimizu so often by western writers that he can almost be said to be famous for being less famous than he should be. His low profile is sometimes attributed to his being overshadowed by his exact contemporary Yasujiro Ozu (both were born in 1903), though Ozu was an avowed admirer of his colleague at Shochiku, the studio where Shimizu worked throughout the 1930s and the war years before striking out on his own. Kenji Mizoguchi declared, “People like me and Ozu get films made by hard work, but Shimizu is a genius.” The real problem has been the difficulty of seeing more than a handful of his films outside Japan, so the arrival of the largest North American retrospective to date is cause for rejoicing. Museum of the Moving Image presents Part I: The Shochiku Years (May 4–19), followed by Part II: The Postwar and Independent Years at the Japan Society (May 16–June 1).

My introduction to Shimizu was a screening of the silent Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), and I was stunned by its casual inventiveness, as if the director were making up a fresh cinematic grammar on the fly. During a dramatic confrontation that ends with a gunshot, Shimizu replaces his usual fluid dolly with a series of staccato jump cuts going from long shot to close-up, a device reversed in a later re-encounter between the characters, as the camera pulls back in the same stuttering sequence of frozen frames. Such flourishes are exciting, but they never distract from the story: a clear-eyed, compassionate, bracingly feminist tale of two female friends from the port city of Yokohama. One settles into marriage and domesticity, the other becomes a drifting bar hostess with shady connections. “Fallen women” are a staple of Japanese drama, but compared with his peers Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse, Shimizu treated these often-tragic figures in varied and refreshing ways. Some are self-sacrificing mothers enduring shame for the sake of their children (as in the punchy 1935 melodrama A Hero of Tokyo), but others, like Japanese Girls at the Harbor’s anti-heroine (Michiko Oikawa), are independent and disillusioned, still sensitive under their hard-boiled poise.

Another member of this sisterhood appears in Mr. Thank You (1936), a deceptively simple, enchanting film set almost entirely aboard a bus traversing the mountainous Izu peninsula. I discovered this film during the first months of the coronavirus lockdown in 2020 (thank you, Criterion Channel!), and it was like a gust of pure oxygen in those sedentary, claustrophobic days. I could feel the breeze in my hair as the landscapes whipped past: shining surf fanning over beaches, craggy mountains rising and falling like waves, all glistening in smoky sunlight. In a recurring motif, the camera takes the POV of the bus as it comes up behind carts, rickshaws, and pedestrians, then dissolves to a shot looking back at them as they recede, as though the bus passed right through them. The driver, played by matinee idol Ken Uehara, earns his nickname by calling out a hearty “Arigato-o-o!” (“Thanks!”) to everyone who makes way for his lumbering vehicle. On board, the passengers form an ephemeral community, bickering and singing, sharing snacks and tales of Depression-era hardship. One by one, they disembark and disappear.

Shimizu’s plein-air method of working was unique. He often traveled to remote areas, bringing a few leading actors and casting local non-professionals in other roles. Starting with a loose script, he built films from improvisation and chance, using a musical sense of repetition and variation around a wisp of plot. For instance, an encounter with a group of Korean migrant laborers led to one of Mr. Thank You’s most moving scenes, in which a female road worker moving on to another job asks the driver to leave offerings at her father’s grave. Shimizu’s road movies are, as the cliché goes, about the journey not the destination; they are about people passing through. “Always on the road between mountains and seaside, I’ve lost track of where home is,” says a migratory worker in The Masseurs and a Woman (1938).

Star Athlete (1937) takes his cinema-on-foot to its apotheosis, joining a platoon of college students on a military training exercise. As they march along a dirt road, singing, they attract a gang of boys who mimic them and a group of young women who ogle them. (“Will they follow us?” one trainee says to another. “Dietrich in Morocco would follow us.”) Made during Japan’s era of imperial expansion and militant nationalism, this seemingly lightweight film walks a fine line, upholding the need for group unity and maximum effort, while defusing this message with comedy and unmistakable sympathy for lazy misfits.

It is startling to see the actor Chishu Ryu, the gray-haired patriarch of later Ozu films, as a fresh-faced young man: a keenly competitive runner in Star Athlete and a quiet, recuperating soldier in Ornamental Hairpin (1941). The latter is set in a mountain hot-spring resort where a mismatched group of vacationing strangers form a temporary familial group. Their idle routine is pierced by a single incident, when Nanmura (Ryu) cuts his foot on the titular object in the bath. This leads to much teasing by fellow guests, who facetiously worry that his poetic illusions will be crushed if the owner of the hairpin does not turn out to be beautiful. When Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka) returns to apologize for her carelessness, she is suitably lovely, but Shimizu’s films rarely lead to the formation of a permanent couple. She joins two young boys in cheering on Nanmura’s daily “walking practice,” as he tries to regain the use of his injured leg, each painful step counted out as he crosses meadows and bridges and climbs temple stairs. These scenes carry an ambiguous charge, since recovery will mean his departure from the resort which, despite its crowded rooms, loud snorers, and boring food, seems to be a refuge from the outside world.

For all the warmth and charm of Shimizu’s films, and his focus on bonds of solidarity, one of his most consistent themes is social ostracism and its wounding injustice. Women are shunned for working as bar hostesses (Forget Love for Now), entertainers (Notes of an Itinerant Performer), or prostitutes, even though these roles are deeply entrenched in Japanese society. In both Ornamental Hairpin and The Masseurs and a Woman, mountain resorts become hideouts for women seeking to escape their lives as kept mistresses. Shimizu’s interest in the marginalized also extends to foreign migrants and the disabled. The blind masseurs in the latter film are fiercely independent and gifted with uncanny sensitivity (their vaunted “sixth sense”), but they are not truly seen by the sighted. This is one of Shimizu’s most strangely affecting films, steeped in both yearning and an electric current of anger—the anger of the sensitive and unseen. It is also one of his most beautiful films, with deep-focus compositions framing serene tatami rooms, lateral tracking movements that slide like shoji screens, and an exquisite series of dissolves in which a woman under an umbrella crosses a river in the rain—a woodblock print come to fleeting life.

Social criticism is especially direct in Shimizu’s films about children, which make up a dominant strand in his work. He loved children because they are natural, not yet restricted by social masks and mannerisms. “You only have freedom when you’re young,” a father says in Children in the Wind (1937), arguing that his son should be allowed to play outside instead of doing homework. “Kids don’t care about appearance, and that’s good.” But in fact, kids care very much about appearances: if they are more liberated physically and emotionally, they are also more brutal in their pack mentality and exclusion of outcasts. The two brothers at the center of Children in the Wind learn this when their father is arrested on a false charge of embezzling from his company. Overnight, they are abandoned by all their friends, whose taunts add to the humiliation of their sudden poverty and the loneliness of their enforced separation when the younger brother is sent to a foster family. Set in a rustic village, the film offers lyrical visions of boys at play: climbing trees, splashing in rivers, running in gangs that swoop like flocks of birds. There is also an aching sense of childhood fears, homesickness, and confusion, crystallized in a delicately wrenching scene where Zenta, the older boy, plays a make-believe game of hide and seek with his absent brother.

Shimizu’s films about childhood generally end on optimistic notes of communal repair, forgiveness, and cooperation. This message was in line with the times: as World War II approached, pressure increased on filmmakers to support Japan’s imperial project and uphold government-approved values of loyalty, selflessness, and group effort. (All filmmakers who continued working during the war produced propaganda, such as Shimizu’s Sayon’s Bell [1943], a defense of colonialism set in occupied Taiwan). But after the war, Shimizu proved that his faith in children was not an artistic pose when he adopted a group of war orphans, eventually founding an orphanage for them called the Beehive.

These tough little boys play themselves in Children of the Beehive (1948), which he wrote and independently produced following his departure from Shochiku. A raw travelogue of postwar Japan, desperately poor and full of displaced people with nowhere to go, it recalls two other neorealist films from 1948, Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero and Fred Zinnemann’s gentler and more hopeful look at the war’s child victims, The Search. It is worth remembering, though, that Japan’s homegrown tradition of location-shot social realism pre-dated Italian neorealism, exemplified by films like Ozu’s An Inn in Tokyo (1935) and Shimizu’s own A Woman Crying in Spring (1933).

Naturally, Children of the Beehive is a road movie. A demobilized soldier, never named, encounters a ragged group of homeless boys scrabbling to survive around a train station. An orphan himself (in a self-referential touch, he reveals that he was raised at the reform school featured in Shimizu’s earlier film Introspection Tower [1941]), he leads these lost boys on a meandering odyssey through rural western Japan. They work at salt ponds and lumber camps, unloading trucks and stacking timber in exchange for potatoes. While the film shows the nation rebuilding, it never shies away from trauma and still-open wounds; one scene is shot in a hilltop cemetery in Hiroshima, which stands in for a whole landscape of ruin and death. (U.S. occupation forces refused permission to film in other parts of the shattered city.) Shimizu turns his beloved walking-pace traveling shot to its most heart-rending effect when one of the boys carries a sickly smaller child up a mountain on his back, so that he can see the ocean where his mother died.

Shimizu’s films often end with new beginnings, and he created sequels to both Children in the Wind and Children of the Beehive, showing—in the words of one subtitle—“what happened next.” Kids grow, seasons change, people move on, and the road unfurls like an endless strip of film: step by step, image by image.