Japanese Girls at the Harbor

Directed by Hiroshi Shimizu, Japan, 1933
Michiko Oikawa, Yukiko Inoue, Ureo Egawa, Tatsuo Saito, Ranko Sawa, Yumeko Aizome, and Yasuo Nanjo Production Shochiku Print Source National Film Archive of Japan

Presented at SFSFF 2019
Musical Accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald and Sascha Jacobsen

Essay by Sean Axmaker

When Hiroshi Shimizu released Japanese Girls at the Harbor in 1933, the veteran filmmaker had already made more than eighty-five films. When he died in 1966, he had at least 160 films to his credit in a thirty-five-year career, most of them made at Shochiku, also the home of his friend and colleague Yasujiro Ozu. In his time Shimizu was both a popular director and a respected filmmaker, but after his death he was practically forgotten, even in his home country. He was born in 1903, the same year as Ozu, yet after the glorious celebration of Ozu’s centenary with a near-complete touring retrospective in Japan, Shimizu received a belated “101st Anniversary” celebration at the 2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival, an afterthought, showcasing a mere thirteen films.

Why? Access is certainly a factor. Only a fraction of his films survive, even fewer are available on home video, and his work is rarely revived outside of Japan. Another reason may be a reputation that stuck as a director of light entertainment after his series of children’s films that he began making in the late 1930s. “Shimizu’s world is a sunny one, where the sadness of things only rarely intrudes,” wrote Alan Stanbrook after a 1988 retrospective at London’s National Film Theatre, the first to showcase the director in the West. And then there was the reductive public persona that remained long after the films receded from the public.

Born the son of an international businessman with American ties, Shimizu grew up wealthy and drifted into filmmaking after dropping out of college. He apprenticed at Shochiku, making his directorial debut in 1924 at twenty-one years of age. In Stanbrook’s pioneering essay on Shimizu, he found biographical information on Shimizu not merely sketchy but contradictory. He had a reputation for indolence, yet was remarkably prolific, releasing as many as a dozen films a year in the 1920s. Off screen, the independently wealthy filmmaker earned a reputation as a playboy and a womanizer while making movies empathetic to the outcast, the marginalized, and the powerless. His often melancholy films about the plight of children failed by the adult world were among his biggest hits and earned him a reputation as a director of children’s films; he funded a home for children orphaned by the war after World War II with his own money, which only underlined the public assumptions. Yet they are only one dimension of a career filled with romantic dramas, social comedies, character pieces, and stories of outsiders traveling the back roads and visiting the small towns and vacation spots of rural Japan.

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Minato no Nihon Musume), one of only a handful of Shimizu’s surviving silent films, further belies the clichés. It shows a mature, sophisticated artist and showcases both his social conscience and his stylistic innovation. The filmmaker takes a melodramatic story involving jealousy, violence, and a spiral from schoolgirl to dance hall girl, and creates a lovely character piece about two friends in the port city of Yokohama who reconnect as adults after their lives take radically different paths. There are resonances with both Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan’s cinematic patron saint of fallen women, and the socially conscious silent films of Ozu, at least in the subject matter. But while Shimizu shares his compatriots’ compassion for these characters, he has his own way of telling stories.

Like many of Shimizu’s films, Japanese Girls at the Harbor is built on a journey, a transition through the world as the two girls of the title grow up. As Stanbrook notes, he often took the cameras out of the studios to shoot his productions on location, preferred to work from outlines rather than finished scripts, and drew inspiration from his shooting locations. Next to the formal compositions of Ozu or the complex mise-en-scène of Mizoguchi, Shimizu’s images are airy and uncluttered and, in many cases, framed to encompass the natural beauty of rural locations or the energy of urban settings. He stages key shots in depth and uses a fluid camera to follow his characters as they move through their environments. In contrast to the tragedies of Mizoguchi’s tales of fallen women, Shimizu offers optimism in the personal journeys of his two Japanese girls. Perhaps this accounts for Stanbrook’s comment on the “sunny” worldview.

The opening scenes convey innocence and yearning. Sunako (Michiko Oikawa, a compelling young actress who died of tuberculosis at the tragically young age of twenty-six) and best friend Dora (Yukiko Inoue) walk home from their Catholic school, leaving the urban landscape of Yokohama for the natural beauty of the port city’s surrounding hills and forests. The girls are dwarfed by the enormity of the world around them as they look down on the harbor from their perch on cliffs above the city, wistfully watching the ships carry others off to adventures elsewhere. This idyll between best friends, who pledge eternal loyalty while protected in their own little Eden, is broken when motorcycle-riding bad boy Henry (Ureo Egawa) roars through a nearby meadow and a smitten Sunako runs off to join him. As the girls drift apart, the gentle traveling shots and lovely images framed through trees give way to an urban drama of recklessness and jealousy with starker images and more rapid editing, culminating in a startling use of jump cuts to punctuate a moment of violence and shattered innocence.

That stylistic rupture stands out from a film built on recurring patterns and mirrored shots and sequences, but Japanese Girls at the Harbor is filled with poetic touches and imaginative storytelling choices. For instance, a ball of yarn unwinds and wraps around the legs of an oblivious couple dancing through the living room of Dora’s middle-class home—a charming metaphor for an intrusion into a well-ordered life. Shimizu’s evocative use of dissolves not only signify the passing of time but also transform character exits into literal disappearing acts, fading out from the image as if evaporating on screen. The effect is subtle but affecting, suggesting an absence beyond a mere exit as Sunako and Henry meet again years later and are suddenly left alone in a scene of discomforting intimacy.

Like Ozu, Shimizu seems to be well versed in Hollywood movies and international cinema of the day, but his affection for America and the rest of Western culture appears to end there. Yokohama is a gateway to the outside world and hosts its own foreign settlement. Shimizu emphasizes the gulf between the city, where the girls attend a Catholic school, and their homes in the wooded hills above. Tensions between Japanese and Western values run through the film, from dress codes (sailor-cut schoolgirl uniforms and Western-style dresses versus traditional robes and kimonos) to Dora and Henry’s neat little household. Furnished with overstuffed chairs and standing lamps and artwork hanging on sturdy walls, it looks far more like the middle-class homes in American movies than the traditional homes of tatami mats and rooms divided by shoji (sliding doors of latticework wood frames covered in white paper) familiar to us from Ozu’s films. It is telling that the film’s startling act of violence occurs within a Catholic church in the international district.

A recognizable face from Ozu silent comedies Tokyo Chorus and I Was Born, But…, Tatsuo Saito plays the fourth strand of this romantic tangle, a desolate bohemian painter who attaches himself to Sunako. To him she’s part muse and part patron as he lives off her wages and follows her from city to city, lazily devoting his art to unending portraits of her. Another of Shimizu’s outsiders, he’s largely an observer in other ways, passive and domestic (Shimizu shows him doing laundry dutifully and perhaps even contentedly), but even so he makes his own journey in the margins of her story.

In the last two decades Hiroshi Shimizu’s films have been getting a critical assessment in English, courtesy of William Drew, Alexander Jacoby, David Bordwell, and a few others. However, there is very little available on his life and career published in the English language, and what survives of his work is still little seen. There’s so much more to learn and, on the strength of Japanese Girls at the Harbor alone, plenty of reason to do so. Shimizu carries us through a packed plot with such grace that it never feels overstuffed. It demonstrates his eye for lyrical images and a fluency for expressing the desires and regrets of his characters through evocative compositions. And through all the anxiety and tragedy and hardship, he still embraces an optimistic vision. His Japanese girls confront the sadness and disappointments of their lives and emerge stronger, perhaps a little wiser, and ready to chart a new course forward.