Fue no shiratama (1929)

10 06 2008

Shimizu’s oldest surviving film is, oddly enough, also one of his longest and for my money, probably his least accessible too. It does have plenty of examples to prove just how much of an experimenter Shimizu was, at least in the technical aspects of filmmaking. On the other hand, such an archaic aesthetic is a bit hard to take seriously at times. He is a great filmmaker, and there is no doubt in my mind about that, but I’m not sure it necessarily translates in this project. It should go without saying then that this film is, at least in my mind, only for hardcore Shimizu fans. It’s an interesting entry in his catalog, no doubt, but this interest never rises above being a minor curiosity.

The passive and hard-working Toshie has fallen in love with the handsome Narita. Due to her reserved and old-fashioned sensibility, she is only seen by him as a friend. He instead has eye for romance centered on Toshie’s sister, Reiko, who simply put, is a party animal. Toshie hides her true feelings and in the process, approves the marriage of Reiko and Narita. Toshie is understandably heart-broken but her pain gets worse when Reiko returns to her old habits. In the meantime, Mr. Katayama, a widower with three children, begins displaying a romantic interest in Toshie. Their relationship goes from bad to worse when, in one of the film’s most fantastic sequence, Katayama’s children welcome Toshie in a rather rude manner. She is driven back home, where she is greeted by a emotionally battered Narita.

Shimizu, as he did in Japanese Girls at the Harbor, showcases many liberties taken within the whole “silent era” aesthetic. He is not quite as creative and playful here, but for my money, he was miles above his peers from across the sea. It’s difficult to judge him with his Japanese colleagues of the 1920s considering the fact that so very few films remain from this period but he still seems a bit more confident than Ozu did in his (somewhat indistinct) films from the 20s. If this film does anything, it reinforces just how impressive Shimizu is at handling the technical aspects of filmmaking.

In the last few weeks, I feel like I’ve repeated the above sentence at a nauseating rate. These “minor” films are interesting no doubt, but still quite disappointing when compared to Shimizu’s later and much more groundbreaking pieces. Not to mention that his later films have an emotional maturity that is very much lacking here. Then again, this is a silent film so one just has to anticipate some intrusive behavior. Considering the conditions under which this was made, it is pretty much a fantastic piece of filmmaking but it stands as nothing more than a minor footnote in Shimizu’s vast and unfortunately unexplored career. While I cannot see myself specifically recommending Fue no shiratama, I also can’t see myself specifically recommending someone to not see it.

Hideko the Bus Conductress (1941)

10 06 2008

Naruse’s first on-screen collaboration with the great Hideko Takamine comes during his so called “slump” period of the 1940s. In general, Japanese filmmakers seemed to struggle during this decade. Ozu managed to produce only five films. Mizoguchi’s output is greater but critically, is seen as less than stellar. It is surprising then that this Naruse film that came at the very start of the decade not only represents one of Japan’s best films from the 1940s, but also a stylistic transition for Naruse. It is here that we begin to see signs of the very accomplished technique that would define his most successful cinematic period – the 1950s.

A young female bus conductor by the name of Hideko, attempts to solve the bus company’s problems by providing on-going commentary to the patrons. She teams up with a co-worker, Mr. Sonoda, to help pitch the idea to the boss. He shows mild interest, but nothing noteworthy. Meanwhile, Hideko and Sonoda enlist the aid of a professional writer, Mr. Igawa. During a first-time “run-through” of the commentary, Sonoda comes dangerously close to hitting a little boy. As the gang surveys the scene, the bus begins to slip, which results in a minor injury for Hideko. It seems that the idea to help the company’s finances is doing the exact opposite, which will eventually lead to a not-so-happy resolution.

While this does show many signs of Naruse’s much more famous post-war aesthetic, it is also a bit more idiosyncratic than any of those films. Perhaps the presence of the bus is to blame, but this does evoke the same type of mood as Shimizu’s Arigato-san. Unfortunately, this does lack the hint of poetic tragedy that makes that film so fascinating but such depth might be a little too much to expect from a light comedy with a fifty minute running time. Besides, it is not as though this film ends on a particularly positive note, quite the opposite in fact. Still, there is very much an inconsequential feeling one gets while watching this film which may or may not play to Naruse’s advantage. This obviously can’t live up to the standards of later Naruse films, but I actually like it just as much as the much more critically approved 1930s period. It should go without saying that this, along with dozens of other Naruse films, should be given a proper DVD treatment. Outlook is not so good, though.