The usual 1930s Japanese film preoccupations with societal roles are explored in writer-director Hiroshi Shimizu's moving Anma to onna / The Masseurs and a Woman (1938). Whereas contemporaries such as Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi frequently examined the effects of a changing world upon traditional families or acceptable female behavior, Shimizu takes a less direct approach in this beguiling piece. His protagonist is not an overwhelmed father or a fallen woman, but a blind masseur on the fringes of conventional society. Through this main character and his interactions at a rural mountain retreat, Shimizu offers a broader insight into those marginalized by the establishment.
Toku (Shin Tokudaiji) and his friend Fuku (Shinichi Himori) are employed along with other blind men as masseurs in a resort community. When not at work, they challenge one another to “overtake” sighted hikers on their frequent walks in the countryside, a satisfying display of a larger self-sufficiency. Keenly aware of the senses, the friends notice those around and assess with accuracy individuals who enter their sphere.
One such person is a nameless woman from Tokyo (Mieko Takamine). She captures the attention of Toku in particular, as he slowly becomes absorbed by the mystery she brings to his life. (It should be noted that she is likewise captivated by him.) When a petty-crime wave emerges in the resort community, Toku's crush verges on obsession. Eventually, his self-awareness is shaken when circumstances call into question his judgment.
Toku's challenged worldview is a dramatic representation of one's unease in an evolving world. Shimizu stresses the sharpness of change through the blind character, though it's worth noting that it is not Toku's sight that is confronted, but his instincts. As such, the filmmaker suggests that the superficial progress of Japanese society – its culture and economy moving toward Western ideals – is much more penetrating. The upheaval is also marked by the woman from Tokyo who may be living off the grid and by a solitary man with his nephew, who are also visiting the resort.
Whether positive or negative, few representations of the traditional family exist in The Masseurs and a Woman. That conventional core is lost here, though alternative camaraderie is proposed. Yet, loneliness permeates all characters; whether by choice or happenstance they all live in some form of isolation.
Though Shimizu is pointed in his observations, he is never absolute. He injects physical humor reminiscent of the early Ozu to soften the melancholy, while eschewing the grimness of Mizoguchi in this period. Shimizu ensures that The Masseurs and a Woman has a lightness that prevents the melodrama from ever overwhelming the viewer. Specifically, he uses a soft, visual frankness that allows the audience to perceive and determine his meaning.
In one brilliant sequence, for instance, he presents an encounter between Toku and the woman from Tokyo, placing the viewer alternately in his and her shoes. In his composition, and use of character point of view and focus, as well as in the film's editing, that scene becomes unquestionably tender. Even so, it is open to multiple meanings. Is it thrilling, romantic, or unnerving?
Perhaps it is all. Shimizu allows many gray areas of exploration in this piece, and he is also constantly aware of perceptions. The simple idea of placing viewers in varied shoes and different viewpoints is underscored later in the film with a brief, thrilling shot of hurried feet rushing, for Toku does not want to be overtaken by his fears. This nod to the game enjoyed by the blind masseurs at the opening of The Masseurs and a Woman brings the story full circle and leads toward a most delicate and bittersweet resolution from the compelling Hiroshi Shimizu.
© Doug Johnson
Anma to onna / The Masseurs and a Woman (1938). Dir. / Scr.: Hiroshi Shimizu. Cast: Shin Tokudaiji, Shinichi Himori, Mieko Takamine.