“The proverb says that beautiful people do not live long, but it also seems that good people have short lives. Naruse, Takizawa, Mizu-san, Inoue Shin—they all died much too soon,” Akira Kurosawa wrote in Something Like an Autobiography. “I must say the same for directors Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Yasujiro Shimazu, Sadao Yamanaka, and Shiro Toyoda. For them too, I have to say ‘Good person, short life.’ But I am probably just being sentimental about those I have lost.”

Wife be Like a Rose

Wife Be Like a Rose

The men whom Kurosawa was mourning were all filmmaking pioneers who worked throughout the transition from silent to sound film. While nearly all of Hollywood had embraced sound by 1930, in Japan the change lasted through 1936 and was a period of restless innovation. The Early Japanese Talkies series at the Museum of Modern Art is screening a diverse sampling of this pivotal period, spanning the major studios of Shochiku, Nikkatsu, and PCL (Photo Chemical Laboratory).

Shochiku specialized in the shomin-geki, realist dramas of the lower middle class, while Nikkatsu continued to play with period dramas and the PCL focused on stories of modern, upwardly mobile youth. The formative films of pantheon names like Naruse (Wife Be Like a Rose), Mizoguchi (Home Town), and Ozu (The Only Son) are all represented in the MoMA series, but the revelation has been the laid back shomin-geki of Yasujiro Shimazu, a gimlet-eyed chronicler of aimless youth.

As programmers Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordstrom noted before the screening of First Steps Ashore (32), Shimazu is a critically important figure in the development of Japanese cinema but remains relatively unknown in the West. His career was short but insanely productive: he directed over 80 features before dying of cancer at the age of 48 in 1945. He was an important mentor to Heinosuke Gosho and Keinosuke Kinoshita (Ballad of Narayama), who were his assistants in the early days at the studio, and his films deeply influenced Ozu, Naruse, and Kurosawa. Shimazu was born in Tokyo in 1897, and entered the Shochiku Cinema Institute in 1920, and started writing scenarios after graduation. He exhibited an interest in small stories about the underclass, and landed a job as an assistant director on Souls of the Road (21), which was regarded as an important attempt at a “realist” film in the D.W. Griffith vein.

The Only Son

The Only Son

After the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 destroyed Shochiku’s Tokyo studio, much of the production shifted to Kyoto, where young studio head Kido Shiro was hired to modernize the organization. Shiro wanted to produce films, he said, that “directly connected to the actual lives of contemporary people” (quoted in The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and the Japanese Cinema, Daisuke Miyao). For Kido’s first production he tapped Shimazu to direct Father (23), one of the 16 features Shimazu directed that year, an incredible number even during this prolific period.

The story of a country girl who falls in love with a baseball star, Father (presumed to be lost) was notable for its depiction of class tensions as well as, according to Kido, being “very bright and cinematic” for a film with “a simple plot with daily events.” Shimazu became a trusted hand at these “simple” stories, and with the coming of sound would develop a pared-down style that put an emphasis on dialogue and gesture. Jacoby and Nordstrom noted that Shimazu was a notorious carouser who was rumored to leave the set in order to gamble at race tracks. Truly a man of the people.

Shimazu directed the second Shochiku sound film, First Steps Ashore (32), a loose adaptation of Josef von Sternberg’s Docks of New York. Sakata (Joji Oka) is an itinerant seaman who takes shore leave in Yokohama, where he meets a girl in trouble, Sato (famed stage actress Yaeko Mizutani). Deep in debt to a local mobster, Sato is facing a life of indentured prostitution to pay him back. Sakata, an impetuous, hard-headed (and handsome) type, immediately starts throwing elbows to set her free. But the mob wants its pound of flesh from them both, and freedom is elusive.

First Steps Ashore

First Steps Ashore

Where Docks of New York is filled with fog and netting, its world obscured and difficult to navigate, First Steps Ashore is bright and legible, easy to traverse. With its high key lighting, it is a shock whenever there is a moment of darkness, as when Sato smashes a lamp to give Sakata a moment’s advantage in a brawl. What attracted me to the film wasn’t its lighting, though, but its woozy rhythms and digressions. It opens with a song over a montage of the Yokohama harbor:  “The dream I had last night / was a dream of a ship / Knife in mouth / Fan in hand / What a strange dream!” Though the film takes place on land, it’s always fantasizing about an elsewhere. An early tracking shot faces a rooming house, moving slowly to the left as its inhabitants go about their daily tasks—brushing hair, thwacking a dusty carpet, stretching, yawning. The shot settles on a woman resting her head on a rail, staring dreamily into the distance. None of these characters appear again—their sole purpose is to have one of them announce the docking of a ship. But while that expository role is fulfilled, Shimazu also establishes a deliberate tempo to the town’s activities.

Shimazu is also experimenting with how to best utilize sound, and again it’s used in a rhythmic manner. Before Sakata disembarks the ship, he is shaving in the mess hall. He is surrounded by noises. The man next to him is slurping food while on the other table dice is clattering onto the surface in a craps game that is never shown, creating a bubbling, clattering symphony.

Even the acting is an experiment. Yaeko Mizutani, an actress of shinpa theater (a modern form of melodrama), seems almost Method in her nervous, expressive mannerisms (the way she applies a burnt match to her eyebrows because she can’t afford makeup is one heartbreaking example), while Joji Oka is a matinee idol, more of a presence than an actor. Their interactions have a peculiar potency that only diminishes during the last act series of false endings. Leading up to that though, is another feat of sound design. Sakata is tricked into an ambush behind a new construction, the jackhammering of the modern building masking the gunshots that will lay him low.

Our Neighbor, Miss Yae

Our Neighbor, Miss Yae

In Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (34) Shimazu turns the lazy rhythms of First Steps Ashore into something of  a mission statement. This is a laid-back comedy in which nothing much happens, a series of sketches rather than a coherent narrative. Two middle-class families have grown up next to each other in a rural suburb of Tokyo, and their respective children go through a variety of romantic travails. The main thread is the relationship between law student Keitaro (Obinata Den) and high schooler Yaeko (Aizome Yumeko). They are aging out of their combative childhood friendship and into something that looks like love, though neither are willing to admit it.

The film is steeped in Western pop culture. In the opening, Keitaro is training his brother for an upcoming start in a baseball playoff; Yaeko’s friend repeatedly compares Keitaro’s looks to Fredric March; and the kids have a fraught romantic outing to the movies in which they watch some Betty Boop shorts. Little concern is evinced for moving the story along, what is of paramount importance is seeing how these kids live. Which means a lot of waiting for something to happen, the curse of childhood. One of the longest scenes in the movie is an extended gag that involves Keitaro spilling tea on a mat, which he then hides from Yaeko in increasingly desperate fashion. Shimazu is patient in letting the gag build in long shot, until a glance from Yaeko leads to an insert close-up, giving the game away.

In both First Steps Ashore and Our Neighbor, Miss Yae, great attention is paid to objects and how people invest them with meaning. In Shimazu’s films, personal property reveals character, whether it is how an extinguished match reveals the depth of poverty in First Steps Ashore or how a tea-soaked mat represents the flirtation of two middle-class strivers in Our Neighbor, Miss Yae. Through these humble details a world emerges, one of an interwar Japan assimilating Western culture as tradition still held sway. The modernizing Japanese studio system, in its slow but steady transition to sound, was perfectly positioned to capture this moment in time.