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January 6, 2012

"Ornamental Hairpin" (1941) and other films by Shimizu Hiroshi

Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-1966) was a contemporary, colleague and friend of Ozu Yasujiro, but history has dealt undeservedly harshly with him. He made realistic films about daily life that share Ozu's "Ofuna flavor" and also resemble Ozu technically in the preference for a static camera, long shots, distance shots and low angles. Despite my interest in things Japanese, I didn't know his name until last year when I happened to came across the Criterion edition with four of his films. I have already written about one of these, Mr. Thank You - here follows Ornamental Hairpin (1941; Kanzashi) plus a short note on the other two films.

Shimizu's films are really about nothing, they are probably the most wonderfully plot-less films that exist. Ornamental Hairpin shows the daily life of a group of people staying at a hot spring resort in the scenic Izu Peninsula: a grumpy professor (Saito Tatsuo, the father from Ozu's  I Was Born But...); a married couple, of whom the husband has the annoying habit of always putting words in his wife's mouth; a grandpa who likes to play go and two boys. There is also a soldier who is recuperating from a leg wound, Nanmura (a very young Ryu Chishu) - in 1941 the war in Asia was in full swing.

When the soldier incurs an additional wound by stepping on a sharp hairpin that has fallen into the communal spa bath, the woman who lost that ornamental pin during a brief stay at the inn (Emi, played by Tanaka Kinuyo), returns all the way from Tokyo to apologize in person. She stays on to help Nanmura recuperate and learn to walk without crutches.

Emi is a geisha who by returning to the spa resort is escaping from her life in Tokyo, where she presumably was supported by a man she is fed up with. Her occupation is only slightly indicated at the beginning of the film, when she is shown walking in a sunny landscape with her friend Okiku, remarking how nice it is not to have to wear oshiroi. This is the powder used to whiten the faces of geisha. And a kanzashi, ornamental hairpin, was worn with a traditional hairdo, and was therefore around this time also in the first place an ornament of a geisha.

As Emi is beautiful, it is a foregone conclusion among the other guests that love will blossom between her and the unmarried soldier. Nanmura even doesn't mind the additional wound and calls it "poetic." They are everyday together, while Emi and the boys help him exercise his leg (with many shouts of "Gambatte!", "Do your best!"). But by the time he is recovered, the other long-staying guests are leaving for Tokyo and Nanmura joins them, presumably to go back to the battlefield. Emi stays behind alone...

Shimizu's films are seemingly very light, but you have to watch attentively. Important facts are often only suggested slightly, and they are very non-verbal, so you have to be on the look-out for the slightest gesture and facial expression. As Mr. Thank You, Ornamental Hairpin has been filmed on location in the Izu Peninsula.

Some commentators remark on the absence of the war in this film, and interpret the escape of the protagonists to the spa hotel as an escape and therefore criticism of the war Japan was waging. I think this is not the case. In the first place, we are still in 1941, before the attack at Pearl Harbor, when in general films about the war were nor very strident yet - showing more the sufferings of ordinary Japanese than the victories of the army. And in the second place, Ornamental Hairpin does have one clear patriotic episode, which must have been enough to convince the censors to let the rest of the film pass as well: the effort of Emi and the boys to help the wounded soldier exercise and as soon as possible learn to walk without crutches. In the film, Emi may have had another motivation - to be close to Nanmura as she was in love with him - but these scenes can also be interpreted as support for the army and its fighting men - think of all the "Gambattes!"

That nod to the censors, by the way, does not diminish the humanitarian values of this beautiful film.

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933) is a silent film, a minor melodrama made in the then popular "modernist style." The modernism appears in the experimental shots and strange camera angles, the Western names of the protagonists and the appearance of a church - not as a symbol of religion, but of the modern West! But this film has a plot, and a rather melodramatic and traditional one at that, so this is the least film in the set.

The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) is very much akin to Ornamental Hairpin, as it is also situated at a hot spring resort. Masseurs were usually blind and here they travel from inn to inn to offer their services. One of them develops a bit of a crush on a mysterious woman from Tokyo staying alone at a resort (Takamine Mieko). Like Hairpin, this film is almost plotless, just showing small daily events.