August 10, 2017
Japanese Girls at the Harbor – Japan, 1933
By the time Hiroshi Shimizu made Japanese Girls at the Harbor, he had been making films for nine years, having begun his career in 1924 at the age of 21. I learned this after watching the aforementioned film, and it made me rethink some of my previous notions, for while watching the film, I had remarked how many of the things he was doing with the camera came across as experimental, as the work of a young filmmaker toying with the camera and testing its potential. I had intended to say that his work reminded me of some of the early films of other Japanese directors like Naruse and Ozu, auteurs whose early films include some camera techniques that they abandoned later on and many that they kept.
Some of the things that caused me to have this impression came early on in the film. In the film’s opening scene, Shimizu pans across Yokohama’s harbor at such breakneck speed that it is impossible to get much of an impression of the area. During a crucial scene later on, Shimizu positions his camera far away from a young woman to give a view of her from another character’s point of view. Then the camera leaps forward in spurts in a highly unnatural way, one that is almost certainly for the audience’s benefit, and not the characters’. It was odd and seemingly resembles the movements of a camera in a horror movie, which Japanese Girls at the Harbor is anything but. However, there are also moments of sheer genius. I have never seen anyone who can make a small space look as immense as Shimuza. He also makes intriguing choices with the camera. For example, he isn’t above using a long shot during a moment that almost every other director I can think of would use a close-up, and I absolutely loved the way characters did not just exit shots; instead, they gradually dissolved, as if they were merely ghosts in someone’s nightmarish vision. I’m not sure what it meant, but it intrigued me none the less.
I wish, therefore, that I could say that I watched Shimuza’s film in awe, overwhelmed by the realization that I was in the presence of a master. After all, this is a director that Kenji Mizoguchi praised as being a genius. However, for me, Japanese Girls at the Harbor has a narrative that undercuts it. The simple story of two young girls, Dora and Sunako, in love with the same rebellious boy, Henry, the film simply doesn’t establish any of its characters, leaving much of this to the film’s intertitles, many of which are an unfortunate example of telling and not showing. Regrettably for Dora and Sunako, Henri is a playboy who can’t seem to stay interested in any one person for very long. He is drawn toward “good” women, yet lured back into sin by “bad” women, and he inevitably elicits feelings of rage and jealousy that culminate in one of them committing an act that causes her to be ostracized from society.
I admit this sounds appealing, yet it all happens so quickly that little of it resonates. Then the film take an obscure turn and introduces a love-struck painter who is obsessed with Sunako and takes every opportunity to paint her. In fact, he seems to paint nothing but her, and his days are spent trying to hawk these supposed masterpieces to passing pedestrians. He also appears to live with her, which makes little sense since the film implies that Sunako turns to the oldest profession in the world to make a living. In the meantime, Henri marries Dora, only to be feel himself drawn back to Sunako, perhaps out of an unextinguished passion or the dopamine-like sensation that some men get when given the chance to save someone.
As I said, the potential for a great movie is there, yet screenwriter Mitsu Suyama never finds a compelling narrative rhythm. Characters move with little established motivation, and so little time is spent building connections between these characters that when relationships are threatened, the risk doesn’t resonate. After all, how can we care if a marriage falls apart if we have not seen what brought it together in the first place? And why should we rejoice at a couple staying together if we’ve seen no evidence that they are actually in love? It’s safe to say then that I watched the film at a distance, never so far away that I fully entertained the notion of leaving, but never so close that I could invest myself emotionally in the plights of the characters on the screen. The film just sort of lies there, not fully comatose, yet pretty darn close at times. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Travels with Hiroshi Shimuza box set)
2 and a half stars
*Japanese Girls at the Harbor is silent with English intertitles.