While he still lacks the extensive critical examinations of his peers, there is still a narrative built around Hiroshi Shimizu and his films. It’s one that I have likely contributed to, yet here I feel the urge to resist this facile story. The narrative is heavily reliant on the upbeat, “bubbly” surface of Shimizu’s films, and the “darkness” boiling underneath. The description works to describe A Hero of Tokyo, at least to an extent. But perhaps we should get beyond that surface, and just acknowledge that for all the smiling, there is something deeply troubling happening in all of Shimizu’s films. He only has but an hour here, yet he becomes sincerely biting and downbeat in a hurry. For some, it might seem like descending into an excess of pathos too quickly, but one of Shimizu’s strengths has always been that he’s been able to communicate the pain of his characters in a completely unique structure. No one made movies like this before Shimizu, and no one has made movies like him since. That’s not hyperbole, his films operate on a unique wavelength.
Kaichi and his friends lament about their fathers working long hours. To alleviate this, Kanichi, Kaichi’s father, decides to remarry. He marries Haruko who already has her hands full with two kids, Hideo and Kayoko. Not soon after, Kanichi disappears, leaving his son with his “new family.” Ten years later, Kaichi is on the verge of graduation and Kayoko is to be married. The night after wedding, though, she returns home. Her husband has rejected her, on the grounds of her mother’s profession. To keep the family together, Haruko has secretly become a barmaid. Upon finding this out, Hideo becomes an alcoholic while Kaichi graduates to become a journalist. Walking around Ginza, looking for a scoop, he discovers his half-sister, Kayoko, has followed in her mother’s footsteps.
The unstable patriarch is frequent motif in Japanese cinema. Hell, Shimizu wasn’t even breaking new ground himself, at least not from a strictly narrative perspective. After all, the most celebrated film from this previous, I Was Born But… offers us a disillusioning image of a father, one that Ozu actually meditates on. Shimizu’s father is more schematic. He disappears in the first act and then reappears in the end, where he is loudly condemned both by the film and his son, Kanichi. This moment might not seem so satisfying because Shimizu credits all the family’s struggles to the father’s leaving. The cynical viewer might scoff when Kanichi verbalizes this analysis of his father’s taking off, but we’ve been shown the repercussions of his act throughout the film.
I don’t disagree with the film finding fault in the father’s actions, but I do think that its most interesting moments occur when he is out of the picture. The family is then, left without the “stabilizing force” of a father, thrown into chaos. The father acts almost like a Chekov’s gun, albeit a human one that influences the moments of tragedy in the narrative. It sounds petulant to blame everything on the father that left your family, but in this situation, the seductive lure of patriarchy, the pitch that promises a wife that she need not find a vocation, has all collapsed. The system itself is shaky because the “positives” of it can’t even be experienced. Haruko, in fact, takes up an occupation in which all the negatives are crystallized. Though, we never see it, “sex work” is coded into her work as bar maid and thus, various forms of violence are ever ready to impose her body.
It might be enough for some just to have a film in which the resilient woman rises above these impositions (if you want just that, there’s always Mizoguchi) but Shimizu, clumsily but admirably shifts this into a critique. Hideo discovers Haruko at her bar. Their standoff reaches its climax when she calmly suggests that he shouldn’t be there, “Being my son, you shouldn’t be here.” He retorts, “True. Being my mother, you shouldn’t be here.” All the resiliency Hideo has seen in his mother has evaporated because he’s discovered something about her that doesn’t comfortably fit his own narrative of motherhood. His quote suggests that he’s never been able to see her as her own person. He’s not upset because a woman has to resort to work as a bar maid, but he’s upset that his mother did it. Even if it did provide for him in the long run. Her occupation, while stigmatized, never prevented her from spending time with her children. The family crumbles but it only does so when two men (Kayoko’s husband and Hideo) discover the truth about Haruko. Before her secret is revealed, the family was fully functional and loving, but it is undone by something that is unsavory.
There’s maybe only two valid complaints I can think of, the first is the final father-son standoff, which verbalizes the film’s conversation in a way that manages to be too neat and too awkward at the same time. My second issue is not entirely fair on my part, but it is the handling of Kayoko, played by the wonderful Michiko Kuwano. She becomes a “famous” (her description) sex worker in the Ginza district. While she has followed in her mother’s footsteps, she hasn’t shared her feelings to this labor. There’s evidence, in fact, to suggest that she’s enjoying her work considering the circumstances. The reveal of this is treated as a plot point, though, and her own resiliency is never celebrated as her own mother’s is. In truth, the reason here is because the film is ultimately about Hideo and Kaichi, their vulnerable masculinity, and what they construct and interpret “a mother’s love” to mean to them. Hideo refuses to adapt to his mother’s reality, and it kills him. Kaichi accepts her and, with much catharsis, confronts the source of the family’s misery, his father.