A contemporary of golden age directors such as Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu has been intermittently neglected in international circles. Where Ozu became most closely associated with his post-war family dramas and Mizoguchi with tales of female suffering, Shimizu has chiefly, if at all, been remembered for geniality. “Shimizu’s world is a sunny one, where the sadness of things rarely intrudes”1 writes Alan Stanbrook in a Sight & Sound piece, published on occasion of the 1988 National Film Theatre retrospective. Stanbrook’s remark is not without merit but coloured, perhaps, by the director’s existing close association with films told from the perspective of children in which sadness exists only on the horizon. His films from the 1930s, however, could be exceptionally bleak such as in the near-nihilistic conclusion of Koi mo Wasurete (Forget Love For Now, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937) reflecting the continuing anxiety of depression-era Japan coupled with a subversive questioning of the Militarist project and rising Japanese imperialism.
Shimizu’s final silent feature, A Hero of Tokyo (Tôkyô no eiyû, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1935), somewhat ironically titled as audiences come to learn, drags all of these issues to the fore in the tale of a neglected son who grows up to challenge paternal corruption in the form of his fraudulent, imperialist father. Employing his trademark dissolves, Shimizu opens the film with little Kanichi waiting with his friends as they watch for the evening trains bringing their fathers home from the office. Soon enough, only Kanichi is left, sadly trekking home alone in the realisation that his father will again be working late. His mother having passed away, Kanichi finds himself lonely with only the maid for company yet fiercely proud of his father, engaging in frequent battles of “my dad’s better than your dad” with the local kids in the belief that he only works so late because he is so very important. Taking the advice of the maid, Kanichi’s father Nemoto eventually decides to remarry, placing a wanted ad for a wife to “an important company official with a good salary”, bringing widowed single mother Haruko and her two children, Kayoko and Hideo, into the household. Before long, however, Nemoto’s mining concern fails amid cries of fraud and impropriety leading him to abandon his family leaving his son with his step-mother who must then muster all her resources to protect her new family.
Though Kanichi is eventually described as the “Hero of Tokyo” for unmasking his father’s corruption, it is Haruko to whom the title most clearly applies. Jumping on ten years, the family has regained its status living in a comfortable, middle-class suburban home. Kayoko is soon to be married to someone of a similar social class and both the boys are in university. Yet the life that Haruko has built for them lies on shaky foundations. Like many of Shimizu’s heroines, Haruko was left with no choice but to work on the fringes of the sex trade, telling her children only that she works in a club where executives come to relax. Having achieved a degree of success she has her own bar but remains conflicted in the knowledge that her business depends to an extent on the exploitation of women like herself, eventually urging her employees to quit this life as soon as possible and “become good wives”. It’s this sense of shame that informs her decision to keep her line of work a secret, yet it’s less the social stigma of being involved with sex work that eventually undermines the familial unit than the destructive power of secrecy and lies.
Ironically enough, and in a familiar enough trope of the family drama, it’s the adoptive son who stands firmly by “the best mother in Japan” while her birth children disown her after discovering the sordid details their mother has kept from them. A journalist by trade, Kanichi’s calling is to drag the truth into the light as he eventually does after discovering that his father has returned with another Manchurian mining concern offering false hope to the desperate souls of the depression-era capital. Indeed, the duplicitous promises of wealth to be mined abroad are in themselves a minor condemnation of the Manchurian project and of increasing Japanese imperialism in general causing nothing but misery and poverty to ordinary people. Kanichi’s act of exposing his father as a fraudster earns him the title of “Hero of Tokyo”, yet it is in its own way ugly and self-serving, a conclusion difficult to miss as he nervously hands Haruko a copy of the paper bearing his front-page story along with an envelope containing his first bonus.
Haruko is not as pleased as he’d expected her to be, disappointed in him in his act of intense unfiliality, his desire to tell the truth perhaps corrupted by the desire for vengeance against the man who had abandoned him, failed in his paternal responsibility, and caused his mother so much suffering. It’s this sense of disquiet that lies across the closing scenes as a newspaper boy’s cries rupture the sense of suburban tranquility, presenting a truth many might not wish to hear while raising additional anxiety in an already unstable society. Kanichi’s transgressive act further destabilises the family unit, just as it hints at a subversive rebellion against the corrupt patriarchy of the Militarist state, while suggesting that the truth on its own might not be enough and comes at a significant cost. Nevertheless, in the increasingly chaotic world of 1935, it perhaps argues in favour of a more liberal modernity in which filial piety is less important than truth and justice while true heroism lies in compassionate self-sacrifice rather than adherence to rigid and outdated social codes.
A Hero of Tokyo (Tôkyô no eiyû, 1935 Japan 63 minutes)
Prod. Co: Sochiku Kinema Dir: Hiroshi Shimizu Scr: Masao Arata Phot: Hiroshi Nomura Art Dir: Yonekazu Wakita.
Cast: Mitsugu Fujii, Mitsuko Yoshikawa, Yûkichi Iwata, Michiko Kuwano, Kôji Mitsui.
- Alan Stanbrook, “On the Track of Hiroshi Shimizu,” Sight & Sound vol. 57 no.2 (Spring 1988): p. 122. ↩