The mood of Hiroshi Shimizu’s Uta onna oboegaki (Notes of an Itinerant Performer, 1941) is marked by an image that is unremarkable in its brevity early in the film: a noose silhouettes against the shoji of an inn. As the shot transitions, a near optical unconscious moment: the noose’s shadow hangs in the position of Uta (Yaeko Mizutani), the itinerant dancer protagonist,1 fading into her – a seething subtle violence just behind the veil. This violence may be read as misplaced or a hyperbolic reading, for there is a subtlety and ambiguity to Notes of an Itinerant Performer that defies singular readings. However, even the “romantic” closing sequence culminating in an unseen marriage is bookmarked between Shotaro (Ken Uehara) slapping Uta to the ground (the only physical violence shown in the film), and Uta wiping away an ambiguous tear as she prepares to perform – fade to closing intertext announcing marriage, the end. Given the political backdrop of the film’s release, Hiroshi Shimizu’s Notes of an Itinerant Performer is masterful in the political weight of its subtly and ambiguity, while still containing all of his well-known film stylistics: the objective point of view lateral tracking shot allowing for intimate fragmented glimpses, the crowded foregrounding shots, and the power-dynamics of his mise-en-scene. Each of which functions to explore socio-economic status, the question of performativity and women’s agency – questions that, in 1941, carried a prophetic weight.
The allegorical positionality of characters in each frame and their socio-economic status is overtly represented in the mid-film sequence of Uta attempting to re-establish the Hiramatsu tea firm. Though set in 1901, the film is released in 1941 amongst the backdrop of increasingly tense trade and political relations with America. Within such a tense historical moment, Shimizu’s inclusion of an American company in the film, and the various characters’ positionality gains allegorical weight. For instance, Shimizu frames the initial meeting between the American firm’s white male representative, his Japanese translator and Uta, with the translator and “American” man in the foreground on opposing sides, and Uta with an abundance of children (friends of Jiro the youngest son, visiting the household) between them and upstage – the figural implications are blatant. As Uta brokerages a deal with the American company, in order to reestablish the Hiramatsu firm, for “the late master and his children,” a sequence of maternal-self-sacrifice unfolds, one carrying the survival of the Japanese household and country. Maybe the least subtle political statement of the film is a sequence of Uta begging for cooperation with private-companies to help re-establish the family firm; yet, she is met with competitive refusal in a silent scene – where an intricate dynamic of the gaze plays out an equally intricate power relation – with the possible implication of sexual exploitation from the family “friend” Kajikawa (Reikichi Kawamura).
What ultimately re-establishes the firm, saves the household and family – restores honor to the late master and saves the children, and allegorically Japan – is Uta’s development of a non-profit cooperation with the tea union. An idea Shotaro could not imagine, as he earlier asks them to work for free. Yet Uta, with her background “caste” position of itinerant performer, can imagine an inversion where it is the Hiramatsu firm that is working for no-profit. The allegorical commentary on labor relations and cooperation between Japan and America is blatant in these sequences. Substantial too in this sequence is Uta’s positionality in the midst of these various firms of men – to the profit-driven firms she performs a subservience, she is positioned low and begging, but to the union she sits as an equal and stands above them in the end.
But the more blatant political allegory aside, Shimizu’s ambiguity and subtlety is at its finest in the question of Uta’s motivation and agency as it plays out in the framing of shots; a hierarchical socio-economic system is implied and subverted via Uta’s location in the frames of the film.
In the opening sequence of three itinerants traversing the forest, Uta trails behind two male figures as they discuss the value of women: “Do you think we’ve got a burden?” i.e. Uta, Monroku responds, “…Men are useless, but women sometimes help.” What this “help” implies will be unfolded throughout the film. For Monroku the “help” comes as a monetary value — represented in a shot shortly thereafter where Uta’s value is negotiated on an abacus positioned between Monroku and the proprietor of an inn, while Uta is absent from the frame. Yet, just as a deal is struck, Uta’s voice rings out from off screen and disrupts their negotiation with an outright “No.” Such a reading can be continued frame by frame from the start to the end of the film — Uta’s expected subservience, as an itinerant actress, subverted and marked by Shimizu’s framing of characters and Uta’s voice.
Yet, I do not mean to imply that Shimizu is radical in Uta’s agency. Ultimately the film seems to present a conservative rendering of social-values. Maternal self-sacrifice seems to be Uta’s saving grace, that which defines her as a “decent” woman; just as her power to negotiate in business is based on her status as the “wife” of Shotaro. Given the time, such a representation is powerful: Uta’s performance as a “decent” woman becomes a statement about the chance nature of one’s position in a hierarchical socio-economic system still reflecting attitudes and perceptions of innate caste. Given the chance – represented in the chance entwining of the lives of Mr. Hiramatsu (Hideo Fujino) and Uta at the start of the film – the “itinerant” peoples, and unions, could thrive where those born into an upper-class position have failed, in business and maybe even diplomacy. With such a reading in mind, maybe the greatest ambiguity of the film is in the difference between an idea of identity as inherent (and inherited) and the performance of “decency” that “indecency” opens. For instance, does Uta ask Jiro (Haruhiko Tsuda) about Shotaro in friendly conversation or in seeking the possibility of a husband? Uta’s long pause and slow turn of the head between Jiro’s response and her subsequent questions about Shotaro are filled with ambiguous possibility; is this an “indecent” question? Does Uta perform the part of “decency” for the possibility of social mobility? Does that make it “indecent?” Notes of an Itinerant Performer continually places such questions and distinctions in a tension, revealing authenticity as performativity.
The ending might be the most tense sequence in the film. At least as read from the 21st century, Shimizu’s representation of “decency” for women as maternal self-sacrifice and the film’s ending is problematic. In the final sequence a cliché “romantic” plot attempts to unfold: Shotaro comes for Uta to save her from the itinerant life, because her “decency” saved the family and firm, because she is his “wife” – queue sweeping romantic strings arrangement and a fade to intertext stating that the marriage between Uta and Shotaro took place on a “lucky day.” And yet, Uta’s own voice states differently, as her gestures and silence stand ambiguous. Throughout the film Uta questions and interrupts male-dominated narratives – Uta’s first line in the film is a questioning of and demanding for what the men around her have promised, a better life. So should one believe her at the end of the film when she says, “I hated that decent life?” Shimizu seems to be implying an internalization of the socio-economic status of “itinerant.” And yet, Uta explicitly states why she left: “Here I can sleep as long as I like. I can drink and smoke” i.e. she is free from the formality of the households and the expectations of “decency” as maternal self-sacrifice. As Uta turns towards Shotaro, while stating her freedom, he hits her hard across the face, causing her to collapse to the ground. This is the only represented physical violence of the film, coming at the end, from the romantic lead! The probable reading of Shotaro striking Uta across the face, seemingly for talking about his “decent” wife (i.e. her) is obviously problematic. The camera cuts to a close-up of Uta as she sits on the ground gazing up at Shotaro, he states “You’re my wife. Let’s go home.” After a vocalization of her internalized notions of propriety – “I am only a vagabond actress. I can not marry a decent man. You should marry a decent woman…like Ayako” – and on hearing that Ayako has already married and Kajikawa defined Uta as “decent” (i.e. with all socio-economic barriers to the marriage “resolved”), Uta looking at Shotaro…falls silent. Uta walks away to her dressing room and the final images are of her preparing for the performance and the wiping away of a tear. The marriage stated in intertitle: is this a romantic ending? Is that a tear of joy or distress? What is left is an ambiguous tension; Uta’s “freedom” and “agency” stand in a tense interrelation with her “cooperation” with the men around her and a framing narrative that possibly marks violence as romantic. Does Uta prefer the performance of “itinerance” with its “indecent” freedom (and its own form of male violence and exploitation) or the performativity of “decency,” with its “steadiness” and its own violent expectations of self-sacrifice?
Such thoughts and questions of political allegory, of performativity, and women’s agency stand central in Hiroshi Shimizu’s Notes of an Itinerant Performer. Shimizu’s heavy-meaning framing is balanced with his ambiguity and the subtlety of his character’s motive and non-communication. The film deserves a new generation of readers. Hopefully, its inclusion along with his better-known “travel” films in the Melbourne Cinémathèque program will spark new critical interest.
Uta onna oboegaki (Notes of an Itinerant Performer, 1941 Japan 98 minutes)
Prod Co: Shochiku Prod: Gorô Ôtsuji Dir: Hiroshi Shimizu Scr: Kihan Nagase, Taketaka Yagisawa Phot: Suketarô Inokai Ed: Yoshiyasu Hamamura Art Dir: Minoru Esaka Mus: Senji Itô
Cast: Yaeko Mizutani, Ken Uehara, Haruhiko Tsuda
- Gerald Groemer’s Street Performers and Society in Urban Japan: 1600-1900. (UK: Routledge, 2016) offers a comprehensive reading of the social position of itinerant dancers like Uta. By the Meiji era, but developing out of the “seven types of beggars” marked in the mid-15th century, such women performers are considered vagrant beggars and near subaltern in a hierarchical sense of socio-economic status. ↩