|SEVEN SEAS, the opening shot|
Until recently, Hiroshi Shimizu was not a familiar name even among Japanese cinema aficionados. Though he had been well-regarded in Japanese movie industry during 1930’s and 40’s, and his works had been extremely popular among domestic movie-going public, Hiroshi Shimizu was eclipsed by his contemporaries after the war: Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi. How many movies did he direct in his lifetime? Ever-exhaustive IMDb lists 57 titles as of today. More complete database for Japanese movies, jmdb, lists 166 tiles as his directorial works, large part of which are from 20’s and 30’s. As typical of Japanese films of the era, the body of his works were largely forgotten, neglected and lost. Even in Japan, his movies were mainly history book curiosities or nostalgic memorabilia until recently. In his memoir, Chishu Ryu lamented about the fact that little attention was paid to Shimizu’s works. In recent years, his surviving movies are receiving the appraisal they should have. In 2009, Criterion released his pivotal works from 30’s to early 40’s on DVD. These four titles, JAPANESE GIRLS AT HARBOR (1933), MR. THANK YOU (1936), THE MASSEURS AND A WOMAN (1938) and ORNAMENTAL HAIRPIN (1941) are not only his masterpieces, but also the very example of the quality of 30’s Japanese cinema.
Shimizu was a top director at Shochiku during 30’s. He exhibited versatility as an entertainer and integrity as an artist. Many of his films from this era were programmers out of run-of-the-mill scripts, with stock actors in the studio. And, this film reminds us how much we must be missing with scarce availability of prewar Japanese cinema.
SEVEN SEAS (Part I, Virginity Chapter, 1931, and Part II, Frigidity Chapter, 1932) is a silent melodrama of considerable scale, in which characters from wide breadth of society are entangled in its complicated plot. It is not uncommon for a program picture of this era to have two or three subplots in addition to its already confusing main story. The script was done by Kogo Noda, the pivotal writer in Shochiku, who collaborated with Yasujiro Ozu in later years.
The story concerns a young woman, Yumie, and her fiancee, Yuzuru. Yuzuru’s family, The Yagibashis, has a considerable fortune, while Yumie’s family is struggling to support her bed-ridden father. When two were ready to announce the engagement, the Yuzuru’s elder brother, Takehiko, seduced and raped Yumie. Now, she was too ashamed to marry Yuzuru, while the incident drove her frail father to death and her elder sister to insanity. As a vengeance, she married Takehiko, demanding separate bedrooms and extravagant monthly allowance. She never told the true intention of this revenge-marriage to Yuzuru, instead, she told him she didn’t love him anymore. Naturally, Yuzuru feels betrayed and he bows he will never talk to her again. While she felt empty inside, her revenge started working, and the arrogant Yagibashis’ reputation began crumbling…
The atmosphere of the film is distinctively modern and minimalistic, especially in Part 1. The very first scene is visually striking, which sets the overall tone of the film. It bursts into a silhouette of a young girl in a suave flapper outfit leaning on the door frame of the observation car, as this express train speeds away from the horizon. The contrast between her posture and rice field, – sex and cultivation – suggests the focal point of the narrative. This shot alone makes the film worth seeing.
Throughout the film, Shimizu uses lateral tracking shots and lateral camera movements not only to encompass the larger view of the space, but to drive tension, anticipation or suspense. One of the most ingenious use of the tracking shot occurs early in the film. Ayako, another girl who is in love with Yuzuru, breaks up with a desperate English man and leaves him in the room. The drama occurs at the corridor with two large window openings, which are exactly the same in size and shape. The lateral tracking camera follows her movement through a series of this window openings while she walks away through the corridor. Then she hears a gunshot (suggested by her astonishment), and she turns back to the room. The camera captures the first window, where she enters from the left and stops with total bewilderment. Then she walks toward the room, exits the frame to the right. The camera captures the second window, which looks exactly the same as the first one, and repeats the same action. This repetition creates the uneasy tension mounting toward the discovery of English man’s dead body. Shimizu achieved this dramatic progression purely by visual means.
Another scene in Part 2 is a prime example how efficient and creative Shimizu’s direction is. In a honeymoon hotel suite, Yumie chases her husband out of the room, then sits alone to write down her journal. She starts sobbing on the bureau, then the camera gently pans toward right to show us the interior of the suite. The large window frames the panoramic view of the outside scenery, filling tranquil daylight into the room. The breeze gives the movement in the background, tree and leaves dancing. The camera stops at the phone, as Yumie, entering into the frame from the left, picks it up. Another episode of her revenge begins at that point. The flow is so natural and gentle that we feel the soothing wind and glow of afternoon sunshine intimately.
The success of this two-part film and subsequent “WAKA DAN-NA” comedy series apparently lead the studio executives at Shochiku to allow Shimizu to pursue his interests in his own style, culminating into a series of naturalistic visual poems of late 30’s and 40’s. MR. THANK YOU was one of the earliest attempt for him to explore the naturalistic atmosphere in his films. This style became his trademark after he started his own production company after the war.
SEVEN SEAS shows his versatile craftsmanship beautifully and reminds us many of his lost films must have been the treasure trove of Japanese cinema. I only hope his earlier efforts to be discovered and appreciated more.
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