Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu
Directed by Hiroshi Shimizu
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 71/76/66/71 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Japanese, 2.0 stereo music
MSRP: $ 59.95
Release Date: March 17, 2009
Review Date: March 1, 2009
One of Japan’s premiere directors during the transition period from silent to sound cinema, Hiroshi Shimizu’s reputation over the years was eclipsed by other, more noteworthy technicians. Only recently has his talent been celebrated as his long forgotten works have slowly begun to be seen. This Eclipse release entitled Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu contains four brief feature films representing the very transition era from silents to sound pictures where Shimizu made his mark. Though these are not masterworks, they’re all finely crafted films of their kind. It’s easy to understand why they were so popular in their day though not all of them retain their simple charms for modern audiences.
Dora (Yukiko Inoue) and Sunako (Michiko Oikawa) are two school friends who both have crushes on local bad boy Henry (Ureo Egawa). Though Henry initially chooses Sunako, circumstances force her to leave Yokohama venturing to Nagasaki and later Kote where she becomes a geisha. The lure of home brings her back to Yokohama after some time where she finds that Dora and Henry have married. Henry, of course, is tempted by Sunako’s new allure and a dissatisfaction with his too sedate married life. Dora is afraid of losing her husband to her former friend, the loss being more painful now that she admits that she’s pregnant.
Shimizu’s silent film is the tritest kind of melodrama: a weak husband torn between two women: one sweet and the other vampish, and even a beautifully composed new background score by Donald Sosin isn’t enough to freshen this stale, unappetizing tale. Shimizu’s eye for interesting visuals, though, is certainly at work with some waterfront scenes quite evocative and some symbolic close-ups of rain washing away the gaudy trappings of the geisha in Henry’s life neatly placed and pictured.
An affable bus driver (Ken Uehara) is given the moniker “Mr. Thank You” due to his courteous pleasantries with those on the road he frequently passes. On this twenty-mile trip from the mountain village of Izu to the train station going to Tokyo, we get to meet a cross section of his passengers: a teenager (Mayumi Tsukiji) being sold to a geisha house by her mother (Kaoru Futaba), a flirt (Michiko Kuwano) with eyes for the bus driver, and a man ( Ryuji Ishiyama) mysteriously traveling incognito, among others.
Shimizu’s slight, charming little road picture contains gentle humor and some easy dramatic moments that all work out fine in the end. The mountain vistas that the director focuses quite a bit of attention on are glorious to behold, in many ways more interesting than the gathering of character types in the bus. Ken Uehara’s very appealing performance as the driver, knowing many of the road inhabitants by name and inquiring with genuine interest about their problems, stands out from the pack, and Keizo Horiuchi’s jaunty music gives the entire enterprise an entertaining, lilting bounce that’s quite wonderful.
Two blind masseurs (Shin Tokudaiji, Shinichi Himori) finds themselves at a couple of mountain inns dealing with an alluring woman (Mieko Takamine), a series of mystery burglaries, and a man (Bakudan Kozo) and his mischievous nephew (Shin Saburi), all rather curiously tied together.
Shimizu’s comedy-drama is a rather schizophrenic enterprise being part mystery, part comedy, part romance, and part dramatic romantic triangle, but not really establishing itself well in any of those genres. The quirky characters of the masseurs are initially fun for awhile, but some of the pranks played on them are mean-spirited and leave a bitter aftertaste as they’re milked for later laughs, and the romance never really goes anywhere leaving the viewer fairly unsatisfied. Again, Shimizu’s camera eye is flawless as he captures some arresting visuals, especially a trio of mountain waterfalls cascading into a pool while the amorous masseur tries to decide what his next course of action should be.
A young man (Chishu Ryu) accidentally injures his foot on an expensive ornamental hairpin that’s lying on the bottom of a spa’s bathing pool, and its owner, a Tokyo geisha named Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka), travels to the mountain resort to apologize in person and make amends. While there, she becomes charmed with a different way of life from her status as a kept woman in the city and longs to break free from that life with the new friends she has made.
The best of the four films in this collection, Shimizu’s bittersweet tale of “what if” is characterized by appealing characters and some irresistible set pieces: a snoring contest, a series of increasingly difficult tasks the injured man sets out to achieve for his foot rehabilitation, and the hysterical outrages of an ornery professor (Tatsuo Saito) whose every discomfort seems to him an end of civilization as we know it. Shimizu films those foot recovery quests amid some gorgeous natural splendors engaging the audience's rooting interest as much as the characters in the patient’s progress. And the final shot of stoic resignation is definitely the most haunting image in the collection.
All of the films are presented in 1.33:1, their original theatrical aspect ratios, and all have been slightly windowboxed in Criterion‘s usual way. As is typical with Criterion’s Eclipse line of releases, no major clean-up has been done with the films, so the scratches, dirt, wear, and tear are all plainly evident. Long and medium shots are only average in sharpness with closer shots a bit better. The grayscale in all the movies isn’t first rate with less than optimum blacks and contrast that’s on the weak side. Still, for films of this age, they’re all watchable despite their flaws. The white subtitles are always easy to read. The films have been divided into 13, 11, 13, and 10 chapters respectively. The Masseurs and a Woman is a step above the others in picture quality with a much clearer, sharper image and would thus rank a 3.5/5 in video quality.
With the exception of the stereo music track on the silent movie Japanese Girls at the Harbor (which would rate 4/5), these Dolby Digital 1.0 audio tracks are plagued by hiss and occasional flutter and ancient recording techniques that give the sound a tinny and sometimes distorted, muffled, wavering timbre.
The Eclipse line of releases doesn’t include special features, but there are very interesting liner notes with each release by Michael Koresky that are well worth reading, giving superb background on where these films rate among the Japanese films of the era and their place in world cinema today.
These four films are not among the most seen or known Japanese feature films. Yet Hiroshi Shimizu’s talent is such that they deserve to be better known. Thankfully, with Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu, they now should be. Recommended!