August 18, 2017
Ornamental Hairpin – Japan, 1941
There is a noticeable difference between World War II-era love stories made in Japan and their counterparts in the United States. While American films such as Pearl Harbor and From Here to Eternity often present patriotism and love as going hand in hand, with patriotism receiving just a slightly greater prominence, many Japanese films present war as an obstacle even to the first date. It is almost as if thoughts of love are selfish when the country’s honor is at stake, and even when it is clear that two characters are in love, the fact that there is a war going on can prevent characters from even acknowledging their feelings aloud. Instead, they’re more prone to long loving looks that are often tinged with regret and stoic resolution. To me, such moments resonate more than those in which a couple says good-bye before shipping off to fight. They at least had joy; their Japanese counterparts often did not, and it is truly moving to see a character realize that what she wanted is something she will never have.
I reflected on these things after watching Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1941 wartime film Ornamental Hairpin. The war is only fleetingly referenced, yet every character seems acutely aware and affected by it. Young boys shout bonsai as they raise their arms, older people cling to tradition and established hierarchy in a way that people only do when they feel threatened or uneasy, and a steady stream of travelers leave the city in search of temporary respite from the chaos of the big cities and its constant war drums. And of course there’s the budding on a love that has no chance of a happy ending. War sees to that.
Ornamental Hairpin takes place at a popular mountain resort that, oddly enough, seems both popular and unprepared for the wave of visitors that descend on it. In its opening scene, we see a party of young geisha walking briskly along a dusty road reflecting upon just how wonderful it is to be away from the big city and the problems that come with it. One even remarks with wonder about how much she is sweating, for which her companion doesn’t share her enthusiasm.
We then meet a number of other residents. There’s the cranky professor (Tatsuo Saito), who has some pretty lofty notions of what his vacation is supposed to be like; his children, Taro and Jiro; two men sharing adjacent rooms, Nanmura and Hiroyasu; and Hiroyasu’s wife, who is unfortunately forced to endure the professor’s dismissive comments whenever her husband asks for her opinion. Shimuzu devotes much of the film’s first act to establishing these characters, and while nothing much happens narratively, we get a great sense of who they are and why they came together. I grew to care for them, even for the professor, whose mannerisms are likely the product of a lifetime spent adhering to tradition as if there were no other alternatives.
One day, as the men are enjoying time in the resort’s outdoor bath, Nanmura (played by a very young Chishu Ryu) steps on a hairpin inadvertently dropped by one of the young ladies staying there and is injured so severely that he requires crutches and physical therapy (playfully administered by Taro and Jiro, of course). He takes it all in stride and even speculates that the woman who lost it must be an extraordinary beauty. The professor chalks that up to the poet in him. As luck would have it, the woman, Emi Ota (Kinuyo Tanaka), contacts the hotel about her lost item and upon being told that it injured someone decides to return and apologize.
What follows is a beautiful and moving courtship that is something akin to a dance, with each person taking turns leading the other into the next phase of their relationship. At times, he leads, demonstrating to her his proud character and noble attributes; at other times, she carries him, sometimes literally, over the awkward hurdles that love can put in the way of two so smitten as they are. It is a beautiful thing to behold. We hear little of the war or of Nanmura’s role in it; we learn more about Emi’s backstory and realize just how much she has invested in Nanmura.
As I watched this unfold, I was reminded of the ways in which we measure time and of how we know that it has passed, by life’s small, but noticeable milestones – the end of the baseball season, the first day of a new school year, the first sight of Christmas lights – milestones that themselves begin things that are also transitory. All things indeed eventually end. Here, though, fate is especially cruel. There is no promise that someone will wait, no sudden elopement, no night of passionate embraces and tears. War, as it does so many things, prevents it. And by showing it, Shimizu may have made one of the subtlest and most heartbreaking anti-war statements of all time. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu)
3 and a half stars
*Ornamental Hairpin is in Japanese with English subtitles.