(1938) dir. Hiroshi Shimizu
Though I can imagine that someone might read the title of this film and get the wrong impression, The Masseurs and a Woman is a 1938 Japanese film by Hiroshi Shimizu, who was known mostly for his silent films, but has recently been getting recognition and promotion in the US via The Criterion Collection. Apparently, his films are not all that well known in Japan. Not being a particular Japanese film scholar, it seems that perhaps there are a lot of fascinating and potentially important Japanese film directors who never managed to make it across the Pacific.
It’s an unusual film if you compare it with the American genre films that were made in it’s day, late 1930’s leading up to WWII. I do know that WWII had a massive impact on Japan’s film industry, which like probably so many things in Japan, had much to recover from after the War. But I don’t know that I’ve seen any pre-WWII Japanese cinema. So, I don’t have a lot to compare it to. It’s certainly no screwball comedy, though it has its elements of comedy about it.
The masseurs of the title are blind men, who I am now recalling from Samaritan Zatoichi (1968) and The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003), often found work as masseurs because of their blindness, I suppose weren’t considered a threat to either men or women and needed a way to make money. These masseurs in this film are a migrant bunch, having taken to the mountain retreats for the summer, returning from the southern regions.
Probably the most interesting thing to me in the film was Shimizu’s use of camera movement. The film opens on the road, tracking in front of the two blind masseurs, who like to walk fast and see how many people they can beat up the hill. The camera moves along with them in clearly exterior shots, location shots. And again, when a horse-drawn carriage passes them, the camera follows, keeping them in the frame.
Shimizu seemed to do a lot of interesting framings and used depth of field to fade inward and outward as two characters played a “blindman’s bluff” of sorts. How near or far, there was a lovely shot of the woman as she slowly blurred in the distance.
In the end, if looking for genre, you cannot find a clear one. The story follows this woman who comes to the spas and her meetings with one of the masseurs and with an orphaned boy, cared for by his gruff uncle. There is quite a bit of fun had at the expense of the unsighted masseurs, and other comedic bits, such as when the masseur intentionally pains a certain group of students when he feels upbraided by them. And finally, there is a plot about thievery, the mystery of whether the strange woman from Tokyo is behind it or not. But in a greater sense, that is never truly resolved.
At 66 minutes, it’s not quite a tone poem, or a drama, or a comedy, but a small snapshot of people meeting at this distant resort, perhaps of class and perhaps a bit of a love story, but quite hard to pin down. And since I do not know much more, I’ll leave it at that. I quite liked it.