May 14, 2008
Japanese Girls at the Harbor, 1933
My first impressions of Hiroshi Shimizu's films during the Shochiku At 100 New York Film Festival sidebar were the agility of his camera movements that favorably compared to Kenji Mizoguchi's tensile dolly shots, and a lightness of touch in the development of the narrative that, like Yasujiro Ozu's cinema, converges towards gravitas without being abrupt or contrived. In hindsight, these early observations would also hold true for Shimizu's Japanese Girls at the Harbor, a film that, like his early masterpiece, Ornamental Hairpin, is propelled by a moment of carelessness that would have far reaching consequences for its characters. Set in Yokohama, Shimizu illustrates the ebb and flow of life in the port town through the opening montage - an establishing shot of an international passenger ship docked on the harbor that cuts to a pair of high school students, Sunako (Michiko Oikawa) and Dora (Yukiko Inoue), who stop by an overlook every afternoon on their way home from school to watch ships go by, daydreaming of exotic destinations as they wait for their life to begin, even as they resign to the mundanity of their own probable futures. "Watching ships make me feel sad. Maybe I belong here", remarks Sunako. But Sunako's destiny would lie elsewhere, away from her devoted childhood friend, as she vies for the affection of a fickle-hearted neighborhood boy, Henry (Ureo Egawa), who has fallen under the spell of a worldly temptress, Yoko Sheridan (Ranko Sawa). Driven to despair after losing Henry to her rival, Sunako's metaphoric fall from grace begins, not coincidentally, at a church - an impulsive act that would lead to her self-imposed exile. Drifting from Nagasaki to Kobe in the company of a penniless artist, Miura (Tatsuo Saito), Sunako seems destined to lead a disreputable life away from home until a fellow prostitute, Masumi (Yumeko Aizome) convinces her to make a new start in her hometown, and soon faces the ghosts of her unreconciled past. Shimizu visually reinforces the idea of resurrected ghosts by using dissolves to indicate ellipses (of exiting characters) during the latter half of the film, first in the image of the brothel patron, Harada (Yasuo Nanjo) who leaves when Sunako gives her undivided attention to Henry, then subsequently, Henry, who is chased away by Miura when he accompanies Sunako to the door of her apartment. The convergence between past and present is also reflected in the recurring, stationary shot progression - both as close-up and zoom out - that punctuates Sunako and Yoko's fateful encounters, reinforcing both the tension in their confrontation as well as their parallel destinies (a connection that is also suggested in a linear tracking shot of the two women looking out the windows of their apartments). Concluding with Ozu-like, pillow shots of mooring and discarded portraits in the harbor, the tranquil images reflect Sunako's newfound liberation and transformation, a moral redemption enabled by sacrifice, compassion, humility, and self-forgiveness.