A prolific filmmaker who reportedly directed over 150 films between 1924 and 1959, Hiroshi Shimizu has arguably received only a fraction of the critical and popular attention lavished upon his contemporaries.1 Shimizu’s vast oeuvre is distinguished by its stylistic adherence to the long shot and a predilection for location shooting at a time when studio scenography was the norm. From a thematic perspective, his films are notable for their sustained interest in giving voice to characters existing on the margins of society, particularly women of ill repute and children. Anma to onna (The Masseurs and a Woman, 1938) follows two blind masseurs named Toku (Shin Tokudaiji) and Fuku (Shinichi Himori) who travel to the northern mountains for work during the spring. Employed at a collection of inns, their paths become intertwined with an unnamed woman (Mieko Takamine) from Tokyo with a mysterious past and a single man (Shin Saburi) who returns to pay his respects to his parents’ grave, with his cheeky nephew (Bakudan Kozo) in tow. However, this seemingly straightforward plot synopsis does little to indicate the emotional textures of Shimizu’s film. Although Senji Itô’s jaunty score that accompanies the opening credits aurally indicates that the viewer can potentially look forward to a light-hearted affair, it can be interpreted, rather, as the first indication of a recurring motif in Shimizu’s film that you cannot rely on only one sense to comprehend a situation.
Released during the second Sino-Japanese War, The Masseurs and a Woman intriguingly makes no reference to the War nor contains any allegorical allusions to the current social context other than a passing comment on the increase in women working in Tokyo. This is striking in light of the Japanese Government’s demands at the time for “more patriotic and nationalistic films to counter the individualistic and liberal influence of American and European movies.”2 Although Shimizu’s film can hardly be viewed through a lens of subversion, his focus on an intimate narrative of connection is consistent with films that were evaluated as “escapist and irresponsible by the authorities” and later contributed to Shōchiku, the film studio producing his films, to be threatened with dissolution in 1941 after its contribution to the war effort was assessed as significantly lacking.3
Although the preference for narratives of everyday life – commonly referred to as shomin-geki – shared by Shimizu and other filmmakers under the Shōchiku umbrella supposedly did little to propel the nationalistic ideology stipulated during wartime, film theorist Noël Burch crucially identifies Shimizu as “the most ‘spontaneously Japanese’ director of his generation.”4 While the notion of “Japaneseness” is often uncritically applied to the work of Japanese filmmakers, Burch aligns this specifically with Shimizu’s “insistence on camera distance.”5 His eschewal of close-up compositions, particularly in scenes of extreme emotion that would conventionally be filmed in proximity, provides the viewer, according to Alexander Jacoby, with “an unusual amount of freedom to form his or her own judgement of the characters.”6 Jacoby’s reasoning that camera distance prevents the cinematic manipulation so often bound up with the close-up has additional resonance in The Masseurs and a Woman, in which the two central protagonists are blind. In this sense, the lengthy perspective afforded to the viewer does not exactly replicate, but goes some way towards mimicking how Toku and Fuku ‘see’ in the film by sensing the atmosphere rather than reading the emotions on the other characters’ faces. This is particularly emphasised in a scene in which Toku tells the Tokyo woman, “Though blind, I’ve been watching you”, to which she replies, “You see too well.”
In fact, the power of the senses is foregrounded in the film’s opening scene. Despite being visually impaired, Toku and Fuku have a heightened awareness of their environment, being able to sense how many people they pass on the trail as they make their way up the mountain. Specifically, Shimizu playfully undermines the authority of sight and sound in the cinematic medium by emphasising smell. When a carriage passes Toku and Fuku, causing them to flee to either side of the path, a smile passes over Toku’s face as he tells Fuku, “A nice woman aboard…A Tokyo woman…She smelled of Tokyo.” When the camera cuts to the passengers in the carriage, the woman casts a curious gaze at the masseurs, which remains visually unreturned, but is reciprocated with Toku’s inhalation of her scent. This sensory connection between Toku and the woman is again highlighted in a scene in which Toku intuits, presumably through her scent, the presence of the woman in the streets outside the inn. As the woman secretly watches Toku while she attempts to evade detection, cinematographer Masao Saito trains the camera to go in and out of focus on the woman to convey the wavering strength of Taku’s ability to sense her.
The conflation of the cinematography with the characters’ perceptions gestures towards Keiko I. McDonald’s assertion that “[t]he Japanese are notoriously sensitive to the way the outside world evokes, or corresponds to, inner states of being.”7 Shimizu’s film creates an affective geography whereby the emotional action is not merely conveyed through the performance of the actors, but imbued in every detail of the cinematic frame. This is beautifully realised in a somewhat uncharacteristically tightly framed landscape shot of raindrops kissing the surface of a running stream that conveys the woman’s unspoken sadness at the sudden departure of the visiting man and his nephew. The only other character who has access to the Tokyo woman’s melancholia is Toku, who, when he first massages her shoulders, recognises through his fingers a tendency to overthink and worry. Ultimately, Shimizu’s The Masseurs and a Woman urges the viewer to not only visually absorb what is on the screen, but also sense and feel.
Anma to onna (The Masseurs and a Woman, 1938 Japan 66 minutes)
Prod. Co: Shōchiku Dir: Hiroshi Shimizu Scr: Hiroshi Shimizu Mus: Senji Itô Phot: Masao Saito Prod Des: Minoru Esaka
Cast: Shin Tokudaiji, Shinichi Himori, Mieko Takamine, Shin Saburi, Bakudan Kozo
- Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (London: Scolar Press, 1979), p. 249. ↩
- Tadao Sato, Currents in Japanese Cinema, trans. Gregory Barrett (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1982), p. 254. ↩
- Alexander Jacoby, “Country Retreat: Shimizu Hiroshi’s Ornamental Hairpin (1941)” in Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, Alastair Phillips and Julian Stringer, eds. (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 68. ↩
- Burch, To the Distant Observer, 247. ↩
- Burch, To the Distant Observer, 247. ↩
- Jacoby, “Country Retreat,” 70. ↩
- Keiko I. McDonald, Cinema East: A Critical Study of Major Japanese Films (Rutherford N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983), p. 15. ↩