Nobuko (1940)

4 10 2008

I’ve taken an unintentional break from Hirosh Shimizu for quite awhile now so I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t connect with this like I did with his previous efforts. Within the first few minutes, such fears were cast aside. While this is probably the Shimizu film with the worst print, it’s brilliance still shines through. Once again Shimizu crafts a formal brilliant little drama that appears so innocent and carefree on the surface, but is tragic and heartbreaking underneath. If I have any complaints at all, I’d say that it is a tad bit too gentle, which isn’t all that unusual for Shimizu. This is the sort of wonderful film I’ve come to expect from him.

The story here is very particular and atypical. After all, most of the plot’s forward momentum comes from the title character’s accent. Nobuko comes from out-of-town to become a teacher at an all-girls boarding school. She lives with her aunt, a geisha, which eventually causes some controversy with the school’s authoritative figures. Inside this geisha house, though, we see something very Shimizu-ian, a character whose tragedy is quickly approaching. The aunt’s daughter is destined, just like the reserved female character in Arigato-san, to pursue a career as a geisha, something she has little to no interest in. By the film’s end, this character seems pretty much unimportant, but she still is an example of those hidden tragedies woven within most of Shimizu’s work.

The main focus here is, instead, Mieko Takamine as the Nobuko. Takamine, unfortunately, has been generally forgotten but her performance here and in Shimizu’s Anma to onna gives us a wonderful taste of her talent. At first, she comes off a bit awkward with her greatly exaggerated accent, but I guess a lot of this could be blamed on the subtitle translation, which goes to great efforts to make it known that she clearly doesn’t talk like her teaching peers. I can’t stress my respect enough for Shochiku’s decision to make these films accessible to the English-speaking world, but perhaps some sort of short explanation on the differences in dialect would be helpful. This isn’t too much of a problem, though, as Nobuko quickly adapts to her surroundings, loses her accent, and becomes a much more interesting character overall.

I must admit, the “dark” turn the film takes in its final act is pretty surprising. Even if Eiko’s character “opening up” was predictable it is handled in a manner that isn’t the least bit old-fashion. At first, we see Eiko as the popular and likable troublemaker that has long been a headache for the school’s faculty. As most of the girls take a rise to Nobuko’s teaching style, Eiko continues to display her rebelliousness. It is then revealed that the school’s finances are supported by her father, thus explaining the staff’s resistance to “disciplining” her. It may not need to be mentioned, but such scenarios still happen in modern life. Nobuko is the first teacher to treat Eiko like the other students and when she does, Eiko turns to suicide.

This all sounds over-whelmingly melodramatic, but Shimizu somehow crafts it with such sincerity for his characters. The sequence in which Eiko disappears (to proceed in killing herself) we are never shown anything that is meant to manipulate the sadness of Eiko, but instead, a selection of static corridor shots complimented by the students calling for their peer. She is found and quickly taken to the hospital, where she essentially tells Nobuko why she is such a troublemaker. It is a bit too tightly put together, as it seems to explain away all of the character’s problems, but the sequence itself is so honest. Even as the film ends on a string on near monologues (first from Niko, then from her father, then from Nobuko) it doesn’t feel the least bit preachy. If the moral is that all kids want attention, than in my humble opinion, no amount of manipulation can water down the cause. At least not when it’s in Shimizu’s hands. What could have been the Japanese Dead Poets Society is instead, one of the truest meditations on life as a teenager and as a young adult.

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One response

24 08 2011
Gerry

I have a picture of Mieko Takamine that my Dad brought home from the war iin 1945. On the back is written Mineko Takamine. It certainly appears to be the same actress..I also have picture of another period actress that my Dad brought home. Same last name (Takamine) but first name Hideko. Both pictures may have been autographed but I can’t read Japanese…I would love to see a movie with either Mieko or Hideko in it…Kind of a connection to my Father…

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