Mr. Thank You and Other Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu (Criterion Eclipse Series)

My buddy Chuck, he's seriously into Japanese movies. He met his current girlfriend at an anime/manga film festival (a strong indicator that she'll last longer than his previous gf, who broke up partly because his DVD collection crowded out her shelves of Royal Doulton figurines). He's always handing me DVDs of Japanese films that I just have to watch because my otherwise comfortably wide and deep film-wonk cred, when it comes to Asian cinema, has some embarrassing gaps in it.

I'm up on my Kurosawa, sure. I got my Yasujiro Ozu on. Hayao Miyazaki's animated features -- Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke -- always take me to a good place. However, beyond that starter-level canon, when it comes to Japanese cinema I'm a burgers-and-fries dude staring at a sushi menu and going, "What the hell am I looking at here?"

But gaps are meant to be filled, and there's never been a better time to be a movie buff open to new experiences. Still, when Chuck handed me this box set of four movies, Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu, there I stood staring at the sushi menu. "Who the hell is Hiroshi Shimizu?" Turns out that although he was highly regarded in his time -- the silent era 1920s through the postwar 1950s -- here in the west Shimizu has been just one sashimi slice away from being completely unknown. Even among Japanese cinema hardcores here and in his native Japan, this stylish and deeply humane director's films have been nearly impossible to find and his long career overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries, namely his lifelong friend and colleague Ozu. Go to his English IMDb page and you see a list of 42 titles directed by Shimizu. However, if you dig deeper in places where the experts hang out, you find that during a career spanning more than 35 years he directed over 150 films. Who today matches that level of output?

Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu is the 15th title in the Eclipse label DVDs put out by The Criterion Collection. As the text on each of these multi-disc box sets puts it, "Eclipse presents a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed films in simple, affordable editions. Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer." Adventurous home viewer. I like the sound of that.

I took the box home and watched these four short movies one after another. To sum up the experience: Arigato, Criterion. These four affecting, cinematically adroit movies barely scratch the ink on Shimizu's résumé, but they're an impressive, good-looking, and often moving toe dip into a body of work that -- for me at least -- represents the discovery of a previously unsuspected island chain.

The umbrella title Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu points to the director's predilection for shooting on location -- he obviously enjoyed Japan's beautiful mountain countrysides -- and for framing within his fluidly moving traveling shots characters who are themselves moving literally or figuratively from one place to another. Here's what on tap:

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933, 72 minutes)

The only silent film in the set, this gorgeously shot character melodrama of transformation and redemption follows two Yokohama Christian schoolgirls -- Dora (Yukiko Inoue) and Sunako (Michiko Oikawa) -- who dream of adventures in the big wide world while promising to be best friends forever. But then they meet Henry (Ureo Egawa), a charismatic motorcycle tough who has assimilated westernized gangster chic. After Sunako discovers that Henry has another, more worldly seductress on the side, she commits a violent crime and must flee Yokohama. The girls' destinies spin apart in opposing trajectories -- one as a prostitute in Nagasaki and Kobe accompanied by a penniless artist (Tatsuo Saito); the other to banal domesticity with Henry. Later, when the two friends encounter each other again, they see in each other choices made or not; meanwhile Henry is torn by his opposing feelings for each of them. Already we see Shimizu's surprisingly modern talent for innovative cinematic and storytelling techniques, such as characters whose exits are accented by ghost-like dissolves. It's talent that influenced filmmakers who today are far more famous. The optional new musical score by Donald Sosin is excellent.

The Masseurs and a Woman (1936, 78 minutes)

This amusing story demonstrates its director's keen eye for character detail as well as lush on-location imagery. A pair of blind masseurs, Toku (Shin Tokudaiji) and Fuku (Shinichi Himori), travel by foot bringing their trade back and forth to vacationers wintering at the southern coast and the resort residents spending spring and summer in the mountains. The two friends are paid well for their work, and while they cannot see their customers they still overhear everyone's secrets and confidences. Among the crisscrossing plots and characters, an alluring woman from Tokyo (Michiho Misawa) attracts Toku's attention by her city scent. But what is the mystery of her past, and is she involved with the rash of thefts plaguing the remote mountain spa?

Arigato-san (Mr. Thank You) (1938, 66 minutes)

By itself this "road movie" charmer makes the entire Eclipse set worth picking up. The title represents the nickname of the unflappably pleasant bus driver (Ken Uehara, who's marvelous) ferrying his daily passengers along the roads between the Tokyo train station and the mountain villages of rural Izu. Shimizu pulls us into the stories of Mr. Thank You's delicately drawn passengers, some of whom are just barely getting by as best they can in Depression-era hard times. In particular, his saddest passenger in the back of the bus -- a young woman accompanied by her widowed mother to Tokyo, where she's to be sold into prostitution -- changes the bus driver's routine journey permanently. Poignant, light, and lovely, with the actors' subtle naturalism -- a virtue we see in all the films here -- bringing its own revelations.

Ornamental Hairpin (1941, 40 minutes)

Here's another gentle and beautifully told study of diverse, sharply created characters whose journeys intersect at a mountain inn. This time a soldier on leave (Chishu Ryu) cuts his foot on a hairpin in the bath. The pin belongs to a beautiful geisha, played by the exquisite Kinuyo Tanaka. (Tanaka later became Japan's first woman film director and for a while was married to Shimizu.) She and the soldier get a meet-cute when she comes to claim the pin and apologize. She stays to help him convalesce, and their low-burning romance intertwines with other colorful residents at the spa. As Dave Kehr observed in his New York Times piece on this set, "The ultimate challenge is a flight of stairs leading to a forest temple: if the solider can make it to the top without crutches, it will be time for him to go home, putting an end to their flirtation. The parallel camera movement that Shimizu uses to describe the final ascent represents a perfect blending of formal beauty and emotional power." Kehr ranks it "as one of the most devastating moments in Japanese film."

When taken altogether, the four films packaged as Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu reveal a storyteller who was a warmhearted and sensitive observer of people, a man of great personality whose compassion and appreciation for life's simpler connections rings true, and a director who exhibited an inventive, lyrical eye behind the camera. (It's too much of a stretch to think of him as Japan's Jean Renoir, but still....) If these films are any indication of what went into the rest of Shimizu's vast body of work -- much of which, I suspect, has been lost forever -- I'll be happy to travel with him anywhere, anytime.

Typically focused on a single director or theme represented across two or more discs, each Eclipse set isn't quite like the mainline Criterion releases. Rather than arriving with newly restored transfers and a small library of authoritative extras -- plus the higher sticker prices that go with them -- the budget-priced, no-frills Eclipse titles deliver only the movies in the best available prints without the restorative polish and bonus materials Criterion is known for. So the print quality here is mixed but always at least quite good, with some scratches and wear that would have been removed had the films received the full-on Criterion treatment. But that's picking nits. The soundtracks -- DD 1.0 mono -- are good.

Each disc comes individually cased and with excellent liner notes by Michael Koresky, which are posted for comments at Criterion's site.

Again: arigato, Criterion.