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Couch Trip

Shimizu's genius, and memory-implant shenanigans

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Published 4/22/2009

Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu
Criterion Eclipse

Like its previous Eclipse box sets of Raymond Bernard and Larisa Shepitko, Criterion deserves countless kudos, thanks and hosannas for bringing to yet another virtually unknown director the notoriety he has long deserved.

Hiroshi Shimizu rose to prominence in prewar Japanese cinema alongside his much-better-known contemporary Yasujiro Ozu. Shimizu shared with Ozu a humanistic outlook, but hardly the master's static austerity — in fact, what's most striking about these four Shimizu classics today is their technical audacity, employing roving camera shots well ahead of their time.

The series begins with the matter-of-factly titled Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), the only silent entry in the bunch. It's an aching study of a friendship torn apart by the men and social structures of a port town. Two best friends swear to remain so at the movie's opening, but soon one settles for geishadom and the other domestic servitude with her friend's former lover. The movie's completely silent — there's not even a musical score — but there's not a frame in the movie that isn't filled with energy and excitement. Japanese Girls packs an emotional wallop in a story full of formal surprises: A series of flash cuts in a murder scene have the urgency of a horror film, and Shimizu uses a protracted close-up of a ball of yarn to connect two lovers' happiness with another's loneliness.

This lyrical poeticism remains intact for Shimizu's sound pictures, beginning here with Mr. Thank You (1936). Its hero is a bus driver called "Mr. Thank You" because of his expressions of gratitude toward every pedestrian who lets his bus pass. Its recurring visual motif of the driver exclaiming "Arigato!" with a wave, followed by a shot from the point of the view of the bus's rear as the pedestrian fades into the distance, is comforting in its inevitability. Because there's nothing comforting or inevitable in the crumbling economy the bus riders face in Depression-era Japan. Anticipating John Ford's Stagecoach by a few years, the film follows the many personalities on the vehicle as it moves toward its destination. Some handle the economic woes better than others, but it's clear that the quiet, central character at the back of the bus is being sent to the city to become a prostitute. Still, Mr. Thank You soldiers on, providing a legacy that far outweighs the small favors he does for the townspeople. The film is proof of Shimizu's profound empathy and positivism in the face of monumental bleakness.

If Mr. Thank You echoes John Ford, 1938's shambolic The Masseurs and a Woman is more akin to Howard Hawks: A forward-thinking female entering an all-male enclave and shaking things up. In this setting, it's a remote mountain resort, and a mysterious woman casts her spell on a blind masseur while also catching the eye of a vacationing man and his adorable nephew. She's an enigma to most of the men, disappearing and reappearing with such frequency that she becomes the key suspect when a string of robberies impact the resort. With its handicapped lead, isolated setting and fascination with characters on life's fringes, the film also recalls the work of Nicholas Ray, as this seeming mystery becomes the tender story of a woman escaping domestic imprisonment.

The box set concludes with its sister film, Ornamental Hairpin (1941), which uses the same setting and scenario to spin a yarn about a soldier on leave who injures his foot on a hairpin while soaking in a spring. He eventually meets the hairpin's owner, who, along with the two grandsons of a resort guest, helps him back to recovery through a series of increasingly difficult walking exercises. This may sound saccharine, but the result is anything but, and while the film is the funniest of the four, it's hardly a lighthearted romp. Where most guests see the spa as a temporary retreat, the hairpin's owner sees it as a permanent home, an escape from servitude in Tokyo. Once again, the real-life tragedies of wartime Japan are addressed but are never allowed to overtake Shimizu's inherent necessity to show human kindness.

The transfers are as good as can be expected from the surviving source materials. Sometimes the frame jitters, the images are faded and there are visible lines and cracks throughout. But given that many of Shimizu's films are lost forever, we should be thankful for what we have. —John Thomason


Chrysalis


Starz/Anchor Bay

A by-the-numbers cop flick with sci-fi elements, this French policier is tired, hardly the slick thriller it so wanted to be. Car crashes, cracking gunfire and fistfights attempt to break up the monotony that the four script writers (yes, it took four people to write this thing) cobbled together.

Albert Dupontel is David Hoffman, the take-no-prisoners cop who rarely follows procedure — in the gun-battle opener, he loses both his partner and wife. Now it's all personal. He's then partnered with well-meaning newbie Marie Becker (Marie Guillard) and the two seek the truth behind a series of deaths. Of course, these murders are ultimately tied back to the opening gunfight and to a subplot involving a doctor and her daughter's amnesia.

There's a large neon sign that points out the insidious plot device of a terrible weapon that's fallen into the wrong hands. Think "Project Janus" of Judge Dredd or any other number of government-funded weapons that have gone awry. This time it's headgear that's able to download, erase and implant memories. As one government stooge explains, the Chrysalis machine could implant the memory of a fervent jihadist into innocent minds to create an army of terror-killers. Likewise, a rich businessman could live forever by placing his mind into a younger body. (If you just thought of Freejack, you ain't alone.)

What's missing here is the rewriting of Hoffman's memories and his struggle to maintain his identity. Instead, Hoffman's mind is wiped. This may be good, 'cause his demons disappear and his female partner's the weak protagonist for a while. And then things shake out as you knew they would.

Chrysalis isn't so bad, just misleading, a bag of popcorn masquerading as a three-course meal. —Mike White

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