Thursday, January 09, 2014

Aesthetics of Shadow: Japanese Girls at the Harbor

For romantically inclined girls coming of age in the port city of Yokohama, the ocean liners cruising in and out inspire frustrated daydreams.  As they grow older, they become a cruel tease. Social mobility only works in one direction—downward—and geographical mobility never changes their underlying circumstances.  Life is practically Victorian in Hiroshi Shimizu’s silent 1933 classic, Japanese Girls at the Harbor, which screens during Aesthetics of Shadow, a retrospective survey of the striking black and white cinematography of pre- to post- war Japanese cinema and the Hollywood films that served as a guiding model.

Sunako Kurokawa and Dora Kennel are students at Yokohama’s Catholic school, who both have eyes for Henry, the bad boy biker.  Initially, it seems the more forward Sunako holds the advantage, but Henry is just toying with them both.  He has taken up with YĆ“ko Sheridan, a scandalous woman better suited to the gangster life he has been flirting with.  Kurokawa does not respond well to this revelation.  In fact, things get out of hand, forcing her take flight.

Eventually, Kurokawa returns to Yokohama, plying her trade as an ambiguous bar hostess. Much to her surprise, Kennel has settled to down with Henry, living a life of married middleclass respectability.  This is not a time and place where social classes mix.  Nevertheless, Kurokawa cannot resist looking up her old intimate associates and they cannot bring themselves to turn her away.  There will be a lot of angst generated as a result, particularly from the artist Miura, who kind of sort of acts like Kurokawa’s common law husband.

Visually, the work of Shimizu and cinematographer Taro Sasaki is dramatically stylish.  It is clear from the outset why Harbor was selected for Aesthetics of Shadow.  At times, Shimizu’s camera work is quite bold, not unlike what you might find some of Scorsese’s better films.  In fact, the pivotal scene of Kurokawa’s downfall is downright mesmerizing, even by contemporary standards.  Yet, despite Shimizu’s modern technical approach, the film is surprisingly forceful in its defense of conventional middle class morality. Regardless of the circumstances, it argues Kurokawa should have known better and must assume responsibility for her actions.

Still, Kurokawa remains a sympathetic figure, thanks in large measure to Michiko Oikawa’s achingly vulnerable portrayal.  Yukiko Inoue also gives a subtly expressive performance as Kennel.  In contrast, it is hard to understand why they would make such a fuss over Ureo Egawa’s rather wooden Henry.  In truth, this is really a woman’s movie through and through, with Ranko Sawa scoring a death scene worthy of Ruan Lingyu. Yet, also Yasuo Nanjo earns props for his Adolphe Menjou-esque turn as Kurokawa’s natty gentleman “customer,” Harada.

Throughout Harbor, Shimizu gives viewers a vivid sense of the girls’ environment through still shots of Yokohama.  Often they appear closely akin to the “pillow shots” that would become a hallmark of Yasujiro Ozu’s later work, except they have a somewhat more noir flavor.  Like the partially westernized city itself, Shimizu’s film is a distinctive fusion of the innovative and the traditional.  A masterwork of the late Japanese silent era, Japanese Girls at the Harbor is highly recommended for all serious cineastes.  It screens this coming Tuesday (1/14) and Wednesday (1/15) as part of MoMA’s Aesthetics of Shadow and is also available in Criterion’s Shimizu Eclipse boxed set.