In his book In Praise of Shadows Junichiro Tanizaki identified in 1933 the attraction to shadows as one principle of Japanese aesthetics: “We delight in the mere sight of the delicate glow of fading rays clinging to the surface of a dusky wall, there to live out what little life remains to them. We never tire of the sight, for to us this pale glow and these dim shadows far surpass any ornament. “1 Four years later, Koi mo wasurete (Forget Love for Now) – the story of Yuki, a single mother working as a hostess in a hotel, her sun Haru, rejected by his school comrades because of his mother’s occupation and the man who attempts to offer them a better life with disastrous consequences – appears to be a perfect illustration of this principle. Not only do different nuances of shadow commingle with degrees of dying light on the walls, the characters themselves and their surroundings seem to be inhabited by shadows (and fog). In one crucial moment, when Yuki believes the man who lost his job for her may offer an escape from her dismal life, a glimmering rectangle of light shines onto the wall above her from an unseen source but then fades slowly at the same time as her hopes.
It is a world of visual subtlety, of shade coexisting with lighter or darker shade, not of high contrast and of battle between darkness and light. Constantly staging in depth, director Hiroshi Shimizu reveals a world in which the background (and what lurks within it) may become as important as the foreground. Silhouettes, ships, walls are revealed through windows, doors, screens. They are often wrapped in mystery: are the figures in the background menacing, friendly or benign? The answer can only be guessed at. As his former employer, Kido Shirō, legendary head of Shochiku Kamata studios put it: “In his melodrama, Shimizu composed his effects, not in terms of the facial expressions of actors, but in terms of the story itself. His compositions became themselves the expressive medium. This was his new method. Even in long shots, the overall atmosphere says a lot about the given character. Even when the actor’s back is shown, the scene itself expresses the mood of the piece. “2
Shimizu made over 160 films, of which less than half survive. From the remaining output, critics had deduced that the director was more at ease and more accomplished when he worked on location. Forget Love for Now is filmed almost entirely on studio sets with an assured elegance and visual panache that are no less evocative than a real place. The visual style is consistent with the studio-set sequences in some of other Shimizu films such as Eternal Heart (1929) or A Woman Crying in Spring (1933). The camera often stays at the distance, there are very few instances of close-ups. Even if we accept Noel Burch’s proposal that this is a constant of an elusive Classical Japanese film style 3, Shimizu’s elegant framing is also a constant. The composition is neither symmetrical nor completely off-kilter, reflecting in visual terms the internal life of the characters.
Hubert Niogret praises as masterly and original the way Shimizu switches from immobility to movement: “The transition from a static camera to a moving one is almost never a narrative device – as is the case with the majority of film directors – but the gradual transition from one emotion to another that is more intense.” 4 In one instance, Yuki tries to escape from the arms of an abusive client. The camera remains distant, immobile. When her cries attract the attention of one of the bouncers, who comes to the rescue, the camera does not come closer to observe the incident. Instead it follows the woman who runs away, obviously perturbed. In another instance – when the heroine returns home after her son refuses to let her accompany him to school, for fear that his classmates will be ashamed of him – the camera moves around her empty room before she comes inside it. Once she enters, it follows her as she sits down and looks at her reflection in the mirror. To her colleague, who drops in and asks what is wrong with her, she answers: “I saw my reflection and just felt sad.”
In visual terms the compositions are austere, often quasi-abstract, with a minimum of decor. The narrative is equally stripped of non-essential elements. We never find out who Haru’s father is or how Yuki has become a hostess in Yokohama. Nothing is revealed about the past (or, indeed, the present) of the man who befriends the mother and child. It is remarkable how with minimalist means, however, the film conveys a lot of information and comments on the socio-economic reality of its milieu. The status of the women working as hostesses is made clear: they are exploited not only by their male clients, but also by their female boss, who refuses to offer better working conditions and hires thugs to beat and humiliate them if they try to escape. The prejudices and inequalities of society are made clear when parents forbid their children to play with the son of a hostess. The low status of poor Chinese immigrants – the only children who will play with Haru when he is rejected by his classmates – is in stark contrast with the privileges of moneyed foreigners from the cruise ships who seem to believe everything is permitted.
About a third of the way into Forget Love for Now a sequence encapsulates the essence of the whole film. It is a slow night in the hotel; no clients are showing up, some of the hostesses are dancing with each other, while Yuki looks out melancholically and remarks on how thick the fog is. Then she turns to the orchestra, asks for a “lovely” tune and starts dancing alone in the almost deserted hall. Engrossed in her own thoughts, she seems to glide gracefully, while the camera observes from a distance her elegant, but somehow nonchalant moves. It is a world in which the characters – engulfed by fog, inhabited by shadows – drift uncertainly towards the last gleaming of light.
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Forget Love for Now (Japan, 1937, 73 min)
Production: Shochiku Ofuna; Dir: Hiroshi Shimizu . Scr: Ryôsuke Saitô. Phot: Isamu Aoki. Art Dir: Kotaro Inoue. Music: Senji Itô, Akiyasu Ozawa.
Cast: Michiko Kuwano, Jun Yokoyama, Tomio Aoki, Shûji Sano, Fumiko Okamura, Setsuko Shinobu, Kôichi Itô.
- Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (Stony Creek, CT.: Leete’s Island Books, 1977), p.18 ↩
- Kido Shirō, quoted in Keiko I. McDonald, “Saving the Children: Films by the Most ‘Casual’ of Directors, Shimizu Hiroshi” in Word and Image in Japanese Cinema, Dennis Washburn, Carole Cavanaugh eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 177 ↩
- Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in Japanese Cinema (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979) ↩
- Hubert Niogret, “Hiroshi Shimizu: Regards d’enfants,” Positif 369 (Nov. 1991), p.102 ↩