The Masseurs and a Woman (1938, Shimizu Hiroshi)

Its running time barely exceeds an hour. Its plot is light, meandering, almost trivial. The director’s approach to his material might, at first glance, seem leisurely and off-hand. Yet I would not hesitate to call The Masseurs and a Woman one of the finest films I’ve seen, reaching as close to perfection in its 66 minutes as any I know; watching it for the first time was a revelatory experience. The director, Shimizu Hiroshi, had an enormously prolific career, but much of his output has been lost, and only a handful of titles have been made available in the West. A few years ago, the Criterion Collection released a DVD set of four films (including this one) as part of its Eclipse series, but his work has yet to attain the international profile that the work of his contemporary Naruse Mikio has established in recent years, after a long period of obscurity. The enduring problem with classic Japanese cinema is that, in spite of all the lost films, the surviving ones are still considerable in number, but many of them remain difficult, in some cases almost impossible, to see, especially in decent copies with subtitles. What other treasures lie in Shimizu’s body of work that might interest Criterion for another DVD set?

Here are the basics of the story in The Masseurs and a Woman: two blind masseurs, Toku and Fuku, make their way to a mountain spring resort village.* Also staying there are two groups of hiking students, one male and one female; a young man named Shintaro and his nephew Kenichi; and a mysterious young woman from Tokyo called Michiho. The boy grows attached to Michiho, while both his uncle and Toku develop romantic feelings for her. There is a series of thefts, but the mystery is not handled with any great tension. Shimizu takes a relaxed, low-key approach to narrative, his modest mixture of comedy and drama proceeding with little sense of urgency. Instead, a spirit of open-ended freedom presides; nothing much appears to be at stake; we are simply presented with a few situations and characters, and invited to observe them. It’s all very easy-going, humorous and congenial to begin with, but a melancholy tone starts to creep in, and the film ends on a note of quiet devastation. What elevates it to the level of a masterpiece is the director’s wonderful sensitivity and intelligence in constructing his scenes and joining them together: his elegant tracking shots, use of natural sound, and mastery of editing and rhythm.

That rhythm is partly created through patterned repetition and variation, in which a situation or vignette will be replayed with small differences. I’ll trace a few of these repetitions and variations here. One beautifully controlled scene shows Kenichi silently teasing Fuku while his uncle is receiving a massage. It opens with Shintaro lying on his side, with Fuku seated behind him; both are facing towards the camera. While they engage in small talk, the boy, who is seated with his back to the camera in the foreground at the left of the frame, fiddles with a blade of grass. Viewers, if they notice Kenichi at all, might be mildly curious about what he’s up to, but they will at first probably focus on the conversation between the two men. When Shintaro closes his eyes to sleep, his nephew, seeing his chance, creeps forward and delicately tickles the masseur under the nose with the blade of grass. Fuku, thinking that it’s an insect, waves his arms about; after he resumes his work, Kenichi then uses the grass to tickle Fuku’s ear. When the boy does this for a third time, there’s a cut to a close-up of his face, which is curiously devoid of malice or even amusement, displaying only intense concentration. While his actions are cruel in effect, they are not consciously cruel in motivation; the blind man, for Kenichi, is primarily an object of fascination. The next cut is to a shot of Fuku’s reaction; we can see that this time, the boy has been a bit rougher, poking the grass right into the masseur’s nostril and leaving him with an urge to sneeze. Fuku’s facial gestures are slightly exaggerated, almost to the point of being funny, so that we might understand why a child might want to torment him. At the same time, we are encouraged to sympathize with Fuku’s vulnerability, his being at the mercy of the kindness and compassion of others. At the fourth provocation, Fuku sneezes loudly, awakening the uncle. He tries to continue with the massage, but his arms are soon flailing about again, more frantically than before―only this time there is nothing there at all, for Kenichi is doing nothing more than sitting down and watching. The scene has mostly been shot from a fixed position behind the boy, with a low camera that matches Fuku’s eye-level, which creates a sense of intimacy, as if we were present in the room to observe the action. Fuku, of course, can’t see a thing, and neither can Shintaro with his eyes closed. The only seeing character has his back to us, and in quietly observing his harassment of the masseur, Shimizu’s camera invites us to feel a certain complicity, as if we were there watching the harassment without intervening, hoping that Kenichi isn’t caught out. Later on, the boy tries a similar trick with Toku using a fan, but Toku immediately senses that something’s up, and punches the fan, causing Kenichi to burst into tears. This time, Shimizu shoots his characters side-on, with Toku to the left and Kenichi to the right of the screen. There isn’t any tension as to whether Kenichi will be caught, as his trick comes to an abrupt end. It’s a less intimate and ambiguous, more purely comic moment―a punchline that serves as an effective counterpoint and highlights the differences between the two masseurs: Fuku gentler and more liable to being mocked and goaded, Toku more quick-tempered, impulsive and better able to fight back against his tormentors.

If we can excuse to some extent Kenichi’s attempts to tease and provoke the masseurs, it is harder to be as forgiving when grown men do the same. When Fuku crosses a low bridge over a stream at night, the four male students, sitting or leaning against the sides of the bridge, mock and confuse him by making animal noises as he passes. Fuku turns around, pokes with his stick, and exits uncertainly; the young men burst into laughter. Shimizu then cuts to a shot filmed from the other side of the bridge―a slightly disorientating change in angle of 180°, which enables us to see Toku approaching from behind the students. He roughly barges his way through them and chides them to watch out―not the most reasonable of demands, given that the students could not have seen him. When one of the men objects that it was Toku who bumped into them, the masseur wheels round and challenges the four to a fight. There’s another 180° shot change at this point, so that we see Toku’s face and the backs of the four students surrounding him menacingly. Toku’s choleric behavior is far from mature, and it is not the first time he has been pointlessly antagonistic towards the students: in the first scene, he hurries to the spa resort in a competitive effort to arrive before them, and later all but cripples them with an overly thorough massage. Nonetheless, the film’s sympathies are clearly with him rather than with the mean-spirited students. As Toku and his opponents square off, Shimizu fades to black; the next scene shows the students walking slowly and stiffly along a road, sticking plasters on their faces, having obviously come off worse in the fight. This echoes an earlier scene in which the students hobble along a road after having received Toku’s massage. Shimizu has also repeated the pattern earlier set by the boy, who first played a successful trick on Fuku, only for Toku to hand him his comeuppance. Furthermore, Toku’s collision with the students points back to and contradicts Fuku’s remark in the opening scene that when blind people bump into sighted people, it is always the latter who are at fault. The concision with which Shimizu (who wrote the script in addition to directing) uses repetition and variation to connect multiple points in the film is masterly.

The same bridge that serves as the scene of Toku’s confrontation with the students is used again by Shimizu in a brief daytime scene that extends some of the same repetitions and variations. With the camera planted at one side of the bridge, we see four masseurs walking towards us. Kenichi runs out, as if from under the camera, and heads straight for first masseur. As the latter steps to one side in order to pass the boy, Kenichi blocks his path, and does so again when the masseur steps to the other side. This time, he is quickly satisfied with his trick, and walks on ahead, looking behind him at the masseur as if in admiration of the blind man’s ability to sense his presence (again, he seems to be acting out of curiosity rather than malice). By turning his head back, however, he is unable to see the second masseur, and there is a collision. When he sets off again, he looks back at the second masseur, and so bumps into the third, and in the same manner bumps into the fourth, who angrily chides him. Again, we have a sighted character pestering a blind character, and coming to grief shortly after. The fourth masseur, who cries out in pain when Kenichi collides with him, also suffers, this time bearing out the truth of Fuku’s remark about the carelessness of sighted people. It’s a reversal of the earlier night-time episode on the bridge in that this time a sighted person, and not a blind one, is responsible for the collision. Visually, the scene presents further repetitions and variations. It is filmed from the same side of the bridge used to film Toku barging into the students (the bridge also features in other scenes), and again we see four men walking towards the camera, though this time they seem to walking separately, rather than as part of a group. Toku collides with the students from behind, so that we see his face, whereas Kenichi collides with the masseurs at the front, so that we do not see his face. Both scenes show isolated characters at the centre of the screen outnumbered and perhaps threatened by four men, and in each case Shimizu uses the color white (Fuku’s coat, Toku’s towel, Kenichi’s shirt) to contrast them with the darker colors worn by their antagonists. With these carefully arranged correspondences and differences, Shimizu artfully threads together the loose, leisurely and episodic storyline, avoiding both rigidity and formlessness.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is its use of sound. Shimizu developed an early enthusiasm for exterior location shooting, often involving roads (the Criterion box-set is entitled ‘Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu’), but it is the sounds to be heard at the river next to the spa that are most prominent: flowing water, birds, frogs, insects. The beauty of the natural world is not only visual, after all. The spa resort is a tranquil haven from the bustle of city life,** almost (but not quite) a paradise, and the natural sound is key to establishing this. At critical points, however, Shimizu manipulates the sound for effect. For example, while Michiho and Shintaro are engaged in tentatively flirtatious conversation, the background noises of the river and its fauna are loud and clear; when the conversation ends inconclusively and with Michiho in a pensive mood, there’s a cut to a more darkly-lit shot, with the sound suddenly muted. An even more striking instance of sound manipulation comes later. While Shintaro waits in the street for his nephew, who has run off to speak to Michiho, the street is virtually silent―unnaturally so. When he strikes a match to light his cigarette, however, the sound is unnaturally heightened, only to be muted again while Shintaro smokes. Now, of course, there’s an obvious symbolism available here in the poignant brevity of the flame bla bla bla, but while he doesn’t refuse such symbolism, Shimizu is canny enough not to make a meal of it, so there’s no close-up of the match, which is struck just below the edge of the frame. What registers instead is the eerie stillness of the moment, its offering of a chance for pause and reflection. How wonderful that in such a brief film Shimizu finds the time to be able to offer moments like these!

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In such a small, delicately balanced film as this, one bad performance might have spoiled the whole thing, but I have yet to see a single bad performance in any Japanese film of the 30s. The actors here are particularly wonderful. Takamine Mieko is understated, graceful and soulful as Michiho, while the actors playing Shintaro, Fuku and Kenichi are also first-rate. But the honors go to Tokudaiji Shin as Toku, who gives the most brilliant portrayal of blindness I have ever seen in a film, and along with Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase, one of the most brilliant portrayals of a disabled character I have seen. Tokudaiji’s achievement is to be at once naturalistic and stylized: the naturalistic aspects of his performance are in harmony with the tone of the film, while the stylized aspects are consonant with the exceptional nature of his character. At times, his acting suggests that of an outstandingly good and subtle mime, which seems somehow just right in a film so concerned with the senses.

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*Blind men traditionally found employment as masseurs in Japan, as their blindness made it easier for customers to expose their flesh to them. The film hints at social changes afoot, with talk of the increased popularity of female masseuses (I don’t know whether blind or sighted) at seaside spas threatening the job security of blind male masseurs. This is discussed as part of a wider trend, to be seen especially in Tokyo, of women taking jobs away from men. The story and title link two groups, women and blind men, traditionally marginalized and assigned strict roles by society, with the former in apparent ascendance and the latter in apparent decline.

**It’s important for the plot that Michiho, the uncle, and his nephew are all visiting from Tokyo. City and country form another of the oppositions in the film, along with sighted/blind, male/female, staying/going and appearance/truth.

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