Another bus trip

Criterion released Hiroshi Shimizu’s prewar works, including “Mr. Thank You (有がとうさん)”. This is very exciting, since Hiroshi Shimizu, contemporary of Yasujiro Ozu, is not well-known even in Japan and this release will inspire many people to watch his films and enjoy his humor and relaxed atmosphere. “Mr. Thank You” is probably the most accessible to modern viewers, being a road movie in the countryside of prewar Japan. There is another movie on the bus by Shimizu in 1941, called “Akatsuki no gassho (暁の合唱)”. It is not a road movie like “Mr. Thank You” made five years earlier, but it tried to capture its moments.
Tomoko (Michiyo Kogure) pursues to become a female bus driver in a rural area of Akita prefecture instead of going to the college. She experiences many aspects of the job, such as a bus guide, and the life, including an accident while learning driving a car, flirtation with a man next door, confrontation with “another” woman and so on. The film was released in the wake of the war in Pacific, but there is absolutely no reference to it.

David Bordwell noted Shimizu’s fascination with perpendicular depth. His use of depth of space is very striking in this film. He likes to move his characters and objects ( i. e. a bus) toward/away from the camera, which evokes the sense of vastness. There is a scene in the film I thought quite interesting. A pregnant woman starts a labor, and the bus has to stop in the middle of nowhere. All the male passengers are chased out of the bus, while the female passengers help her delivery. They ask one of the male passengers to call a midwife living in the next village. He starts off on the side road, not the bus route. Then he comes back with a midwife on the carriage. The village the midwife was called from must have been one of those very isolated, rural communities. Not actually showing the villages or communities beyond that road, Shimizu compels us to image vast space beyond the camera.
Another interesting episode is a bride and her family going to the wedding. On the bus, the family open their lunchboxes, saying there will be a long time before they can eat another meal once the wedding starts. They offer a bride (in traditional wedding kimono) a rice ball. As Tomoko watches her in fascination, the bride takes a rice ball. And another one. And another. Then suddenly, the carriage on the road blocks the bus and bus gets stack in the gutter. All the passengers, including the bride, pushes the bus out of the gutter. The bus reaches the end of the road, and the bride and her family, greeted by bridegroom’s family, cross the bridge, going on to the village further into the countryside.
The bus routes represent the blood stream of modernization. And Shimizu repeatedly indicates that there are lives, villages and communities beyond the bus routes. Today, these villages and communities still exist. They are not well-serviced by commercial parcel carriers, local hospitals, telephone companies and even local government. Lack of modern blessings compels younger generation to abandon the rural communities and moving into urban areas. Rural depopulation, Kaso, is a grave problem in Japan. But this film, the portrait of rural Japan 70 years ago reminds me those rural areas are always there. It is the over-population and over-modernization in urban areas create the striking contrasts to the rural areas. Shimizu, clearly aware that the modernization creeping into the society, but not into the rural areas completely, created the ensemble of episodes around that idea. He loved the rural scenery, people and communities, but stayed in this side of modernization.
In the last scene, the bus passes two people pushing the carriage on the road. It is the bride and her husband. It is kind of shocking, with clear contrast to Tomoko’s life. She says, “Oh, she is still pushing !” . And the camera never leaves the bus.
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An Error of objective fact

Over at Roger Ebert’s blog, he contemplates about the film criticism and Rotten Tomatoes. It is very interesting reading and makes you think about how you appreciate films, as always.
Especially, I find two passages very interesting. Mr. Ebert writes: “I’ve taught both (“Citizen Kane” and “The Rules of the Game”) shot-by-shot and had many students who confessed they didn’t feel the greatness. ” Even though I admire both films, I can understand many people, even those who are conscious about visual aspect of the film art, find them boring. Is it because passing of time made their “greatness” mundane ? Or is it just so distant, many people find few things in common with the stories told, characters involved ? Or is it simply because they are in B&W ?
Another quote: “When you said ‘The Valachi Papers’ was better than ‘The Godfather,’ that was an error of objective fact.” Ummm, this one is hard. I don’t find anything wrong with the statement, but somehow I feel uneasy. Maybe because I am a scientist by training, the very word “objective fact” clicks. How objective ? Can you describe quantitatively ? What is the metric ? and so on.
Then again, what is the metric of “greatness” in film art ?
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There was a war…

“There was a Father (1942)” (父ありき, Chichi Ariki)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
One of the recent releases from Criterion Collection is “The Only Son/There Was a Father: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu”, two of the Ozu films rarely seen by western audiences. “There was a Father” was released during the Pacific War, and whenever this film is discussed, its aspect as a war time propaganda is always a topic. There is a very good essay on the film by Tony Ryans, which discusses the ambiguity of the message in the film.
It may seem strange by today’s standards, but this film was a propaganda. Office of Intelligence awarded this film as “People’s Cinema”, the highest award given to cinema in Japan at the time. Another film awarded the same year was “General, Staff and Soldier (1942)” (将軍と参謀と兵, Shogun to Sambo to Hei). Tsumasaburo Bando starred in this film as the General commanding the fierce battle in China (Strangely, this film is not listed in imdb).
Judging from the reviews about this DVD (here and many others), the print Criterion used is the 16mm reduction print (National Film Center print) made after the war. Audio quality of this notorious print is horrible, and it is said that there was a spec of dust stuck on the machine during the reduction process. For a long time, NFC print was the only available print of this film, but another print surfaced after collapse of Soviet Union. After the war, Soviet Army confiscated many cultural artifacts in Manchuria, and brought them back to Moscow. As a result, Gosfilmofond (I don’t read Russian, but this seems to be its web site) had a large collection of Japanese pre-war and war-time films, which were rediscovered during 90s. One of the films discovered was “There was a Father”. It is a 35mm print, 15 minutes shorter than the NFC print, with the better audio track. It also contains the footage not available on NFC print, since Occupation Army in Japan made the cuts. (In his book, Ryu mentions his singing scene being cut.)
There will be a screening of this Gosfilmofond print at MOMAT National Film Center (Tokyo) in August.
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