Criterion does it again, rescuing a major filmmaker from the quicksand of neglect, happenstance and/or canonical prejudice, and shoving them into the spotlight with state-of-the-art DVD releases that virtually demand a reevaluative reckoning. As with Larisa Shepitko, Jacques Becker, Raymond Bernard, William Klein and Jean Painlevé, you won’t find mention of Hiroshi Shimizu in any major English-language film history text, and in each case the elisions are criminal. An almost exact contemporary of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse, from the beginnings of their careers in the mid-to-late ’20s to their last films, Shimizu echoes a good deal of their field of concerns — the plight of women in a patriarchy, the delicacy of the unsaid, the tragic spiral of romantic melodrama — but comes at them with a subtly distinctive way of observing his characters, similar to Ozu’s rigorous restraint but freer, more organic, less “perfect” and more spontaneous.
The movies are also, at more or less half the length, far brisker. Of the four titles featured in this Eclipse set — which include one silent, “Japanese Women at the Harbor” (1931), which has a disarming way of listening to dialogue from great distances, and dissolving characters from scenes like ghosts — “Ornamental Hairpin” (1941) is probably the most fully realized, and Shimizu’s most renowned. Made during the war but defiantly obviating any mention of the world outside (except for a very veiled reference to a married couple being bashfully Communist), the film is entirely set in a vacation spa, where the masseur staff are all blind and Buddhist monks arrive in noisy holiday throngs. There Mr. Nanmura, a young man (Japanese axiom Chishu Ryu), wades in a natural spring and steps on a hairpin dropped there earlier by a geisha named Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka); the injury is enough, apparently, to hobble him on crutches for weeks.
For reasons unknown to us but accepted by the other characters, Nanmura doesn’t think to go home, and instead the other vacationers (an old codger with two grandsons, a persnickety bachelor professor, etc.) gather around him in an ersatz family unit. They’re soon joined by the privately desperate Emi, who returns to the resort to apologize, but also to run away from her profession and an unseen, unnamed lover-pimp-employer. The summer plays out in tiny swatches, as the community poignantly awaits the moment when they all must return to their ordinary lives, and when Nanmura’s foot is healed sufficiently, despite Emi’s unvoiced hope that he’ll stay with her at the spa and life will be one long summertime idyll.
The story is as fragile as a paper rose, and Shimizu shoots it that way, keeping his camera at a respectful distance but every now and then daring for a heartbreaking semi-close-up that threatens to shatter the peaceful pond surface for good. Given the proximity to Ozu (and our own odd but blessed saturation in Ozu-ness), you’d almost expect the characters to quietly evolve out of their initial stereotypes without the requirement of “arc,” but when they do, it’s still surprising and generous and invigorating. And Shimizu’s visual choices are often breathtakingly adventurous, or, if you like, evocative of the 1927-28 silent film possibilities ruined by talkies: at the outset, during the geisha pilgrimage through the forest, the camera is part of the procession, walking with the women, backwards as it were, through a pack of hikers. And when Emi explains to her fellow geisha friend why she’s not returning to Tokyo, as she’s taking down laundry in the sun, Shimizu frames the shots according to the work, and the result is a choreographed suite of rue and shame and affection that would’ve been crystal clear to a child with the sound turned off.