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.
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 Yôko
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Labels: Aesthetics of Shadow, Hiroshi Shimizu, Japanese Cinema, Silent Films