A Star Athlete (1937)

22 11 2008

A very minor film in Hiroshi Shimizu’s filmography, but still a fairly good film none the less. It gets a lot of watchability points for being interesting, as opposed to legitimately great. Any film that has a young Chishu Ryu as a soldier in training is almost inherently entertaining, at least to me. There’s plenty of the usual Shimizu formal goodness to go around as well, but it never comes together than being an exceptional formal exercise for one of cinema’s most under appreciated geniuses. It’s probably a bit too light-hearted for its own good, though. Shimizu’s work tends to be extremely likable, but I think this was a bit uneventful, even for his standards.

The little dramatic tones that are present are mostly build around a seemingly non-violent rivalry between Ryu and Shuji Sano. This rivalry is fueled by Ryu’s own desire to be the faster runner of the two. Towards the end, things get a bit more complicated when Sano begins spending time with a woman who may or may not be a prostitute, but in the end, everything works out and the two rivals seem to have a more friendly relationship. It’s a very Shimizu sort of story: there’s a conflict, a very undramatic one, and he somehow manages to create wonderful moments within something so devoid of typical storytelling elements.

Watching this did remind me how much of a “comedic” director Shimizu really is, and how he is probably my favorite type of filmmaker. This may be underselling his technical brilliance but I think he deserves to be mentioned alongside Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Placing him with Jacques Tati is a little more accurate, though Shimizu was far more prolific than Tati and probably not nearly as meticulous. Whatever the case, this film is really quite funny and it is so in a way that is so unique to Shimizu’s type of cinema. His gags are rather difficult to explain and I don’t really feel like giving them away for a film that is only 64 minutes long, but they are really quite memorable.

Adding another dimension of comedy is the fact that this film was actually Shimizu’s response to Shochiku’s demand for a propaganda film. There are many films that were made as “propaganda” but were obviously intended to be the exact opposite. Such films make one think “how did the studio not notice this was not at all what they were looking for?” but part of this film’s charm is how slyly Shimizu masks his jokes as pro-government sentiments. It’s subversive, but it is still easy to see how it was mistakened as a government-approved depiction of military life.

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