Among the many differences the widely acknowledged dean of Japanese film scholars in the Anglophone world, Donald Richie, likes to point out between Western and Japanese filmmakers is their response to the introduction of sound in the 1920s. In America, the response was immediate and cataclysmic. Nearly overnight, the industry rejected the supremacy of faces on movie screens (pace, Norma Desmond!) in favor of talking heads. Out went actors with accents, decorative intertitles, and theatres that couldn’t accommodate the new sound system demands. In came voices, musicals, and the non-stop imports of actors, writers, and directors from the Broadway and London stages. Within two years of the first talkie – Warner Brothers’ surprise blockbuster, The Jazz Singer (1927) – the major Hollywood studios’ transformation to talking pictures was all but complete. By and large, the world followed.
There were exceptions. Chaplin was one; Japanese cinema was another. Slow to reject traditional practices, and in thrall to the banshi, the live explainers of silent films whom Japanese movie audiences often loved as much as the movies themselves (one banshi scored a hit with his solo theatrical commentary on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari without the film!),1 Japan did not join the stampede to sound, continuing to make silent films well through the 1930s.
So it was that the prolific Japanese director Hiroshi Shimizu, known for his sensitive observations of ordinary life in modern times, made an astonishing 60 films following the availability of sound in Japan before taking on his first talking picture, Nakinureta haru no onna yo, frequently translated as A Woman Crying in Spring, in 1933. Nor was this a pivot point for the director: Shimizu continued making non-talking pictures, including his silent masterpiece Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), released later the same year.
Shimizu was 30 when he made both films. Born to a well-to-do family in 1903, he had attended college in Hokkaido – the setting for Nakinureta – before leaving early to start his career at Shochiko, the great Japanese film studio. He worked there for years making those dozens of silent films before venturing into sound.
It is no exaggeration to say that the transition was seamless, for A Woman Crying in Spring has the look, the pace, and – somehow, despite the inclusion of speaking and, notably, singing – the feel of a silent film. Shimizu made his first picture in 1924, just a few years after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu had electrified not just audiences but filmmakers worldwide. Bliss must it have been in that dawn to be alive, but, if young and starting a creative career in film – as were Shimizu, Ozu, and Hitchcock – very heaven! We don’t know if the examples and lessons of German Expressionism – perhaps the single most influential phenomenon in the history of world cinema – were evident in all of Shimizu’s early productions in the 1920s, since many of them have not survived, but they are certainly to be seen in A Woman Crying in Spring.
For the film is dominated by the look of German Expressionism wedded to the need to communicate stories without words. We have, among other features, the characteristic attention to the make-up of the frame, marked by diagonal linear compositions, lighting that suggests nothing so much as an interruption of darkness, and the visual exploitation of windowpanes and doorways, all overlying a series of vignettes that drive a thin plot more circular than forward-moving (in other words, more Japanese than Western).
The film begins with location shots of a large ship being packed with trainloads of heavy equipment we later learn is for mining. This is followed by a parade of workers boarding the ship under the commanding gaze of their boss. At the top of the gangway they turn right; the men are followed by a parade of women who board and turn left at the top. Like the men, they will have a job to do: to provide drinks and comfort once they all arrive at their cold, snowy destination in the mining camps of northern Japan. There is no dialogue. But a world of information has been suggested by the silent trudging of both groups, the placement of the women who, seemingly as a matter of course, follow the men, and the general plight of the unlucky – those forced by life to journey into cold discomfort. It is a neat introduction, a successful piece of silent cinema.
There are many other instances of visual messaging with a minimum of dialogue to please the viewer. In one passage, the neglected child (a frequent motif in Shimizu’s works) of Ohama, the madam of the brothel, turns her mother’s frown into a soft smile at the mention of Kenji, a miner for whom Ohama has fallen. Seconds later, at the mention of a potential rival, the frown returns. Ohama shoos the child out of the room, slamming the door on the girl’s doll. For the viewer, the girl’s face in the doorway is violently replaced by the closed wooden door composed of wooden slats with the disturbingly slanted lines of expressionism. A cut to the child outside: She tugs at the doll to free her, but pulls off the doll’s arm instead (another broken child, we might think), then reluctantly moves into the background of the shot. Few words have been spoken, but even they were not necessary for the audience to receive what the director wished to convey: not just the statement but the feeling of rejection. The sequence ends with a coda: the door opens, the doll is thrown out, the door is slammed shut. The rejection is complete. The girl eagerly picks up the doll and begins her defeated retreat once more, framed this time by a slow, aching fade to black.
These moments that glow with feeling recall Renoir. They are perhaps among the things Mizoguchi had in mind when he famously said “People like me and Ozu get films made by hard work, but Shimizu is a genius.”2 Ozu and Mizoguchi were contemporaries of Shimizu, along with the slightly older Naruse. Unlike those three giants of Japanese cinema, however, Shimizu was largely forgotten after his death in 1966. In Dixon and Foster’s A Short History of Film, a widely adopted textbook for students of cinema, he has no mention.3 The 21st century, to its credit, is demonstrating a renewed interest in his career. The circle of admirers is still narrow, but a lucky few are discovering that Shimizu’s works provide not only rich, memorable portraits of the human condition, but an invaluable bonus: master classes in filmmaking.
A Woman Crying in Spring (Nakinureta haru no onna yo, 1933) (Japan 96 min)
Prod. Co: Shochiku Dir: Hiroshi Shimizu Scr: Shun Honma, Mitsuru Suyama Ed: Eikyu Akino, Sai Hoshino, Monjiro Mizutani Phot: Taro Sasaki Sound: Kaname Hashimoto, Masanori Imasawa Mus: Hartaka Shimada
Cast: Den Obinata, Yoshiko Okada, Shigeru Oguira, Ryuji Ishiyama
- Donald Richie, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (New York: Kodansha USA, 2012), p. 21. ↩
- William H. Drew, “Hiroshi Shimizu – Silent Master of the Japanese Ethos,” Midnight Eye (15 April 2004) ↩
- Wheeler Winston Dixon & Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, A Short History of Film (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2013). ↩