Introspection Tower

“Introspection Tower” (mikaeri no to, みかへりの搭) is a movie by Shimizu Hiroshi, an important Japanese Director of the 30’s and 40’s. When I was looking up reviews of the movie, I read one that said it was on the “lower tier” of Shimizu Hiroshi’s work, and I flew into a small rage. I knew I someone would have to correct this: Introspection Tower is his masterpiece.

The setting is a Japanese reform school. Before we begin, we watch a tour guide talking to ‘prospective parents’ as he explains how the school works. Most of the curriculum is practical in nature (farming and such.) Since it’s located in a remote mountain area, it looks more like a summer camp then a school.

 “last year, the number of bed-wettings reached 2,317. It is beyond our control.” [actual quote]

“last year, the number of bed-wettings reached 2,317. It is beyond our control.” [actual quote]

Before long we’re introduced to a new student, Tamiko. The daughter of a rich but neglectful father, ‘Tami-chan’ seems innocent enough at first. For a moment I thought this would be one of those dreary international films where random awful things happen to a pure-hearted girl (Mouchette, more recently Lilya 4-Ever). Fortunately it’s not that simple: Tamiko is as pure-hearted as most girls her age. Her dialogue is subtly passive-aggressive and egotistic.

Tamiko actin' all innocent.

Tamiko actin’ all innocent.

This doesn’t stop her from making friends with two much younger boys. I hope you can tell their faces apart, because I sure can’t.  The first is Yoshio, a notorious kid who lies  and gets into fights. Judging from his appearance, he loses most of them. The second one is quieter; Masao. He skips class, but only to walk around and play with spiders.

Masao offers Tami a spider to play with. She is not impressed.

Masao offers Tami a spider to play with. She is not impressed.

Tamiko is not the main character, just the first. The movie has a whole bunch of characters with their own stories: I could go on about Nobu, who won’t accept his stepmother, but i’ve taken too long already. I’ll just say they are among the most honest depictions of children I’ve  seen on film. It’s clear that the Director has worked with kids as a grown-up (Apparently one of his movies starred homeless war orphans who he’d raised himself. What a guy!) Introspection Tower is too unsentimental to be a memoir: It has no illusions about the innocence of children. the boys are all brats who fight, but they’re likeable characters in spite of it. You learn a bit about each kid’s parents (often neglectful, poor or dead) which helps you understand how they became the way they are.

“Fuck the po-lice!”

“Fuck the po-lice!”

The girls are equally terrible, Tamiko included. The other girls bully Tamiko because she acts like a spoiled rich kid. When her shoes are stolen, she doesn’t cry: she tries to steal someone elses! (but fails because “they were all too dirty”). Every situation is rational child behavior, and every single situation reminded me of something I’d actually seen kids do as a camp counselor.

Naoko the shoe thief: “you’ll never take me alive!”

Naoko the shoe thief: “you’ll never take me alive!”

Did I mention this movie is beautifully shot? Shimizu’s camerawork is composed and unintrusive, but not nearly as stiff as Ozu’s style. He uses long takes and slow tracking shots. He doesn’t have many close-ups, but he’s not afraid to use them. It’s almost all done on-location, in an improvised fashion (note, this is five years before Italian Neorealism.) But this improvisation is not the quick, energetic kind we know from Godard and his ilk. It’s very carefully observed, like Jean Renoir with a distinctly Japanese aesthetic.

Screen Shot 2012-12-15 at 10.57.30 PM

Boys be delinquent.

It’s not a perfect movie. 80 minutes in the Director remembers that the movie has to have a plot (always a bummer.) The kids spend the last half hour digging a canal to bring water to the school, because their well dried up… It’s an obvious contrivance to bring everyone together and teach a sincere but shallow lesson. And the kids personalities start to fall into the background. The payoff is an inspired scene where the canal is finished and the children run with the flowing water, but it still wasn’t worth it.

The last great scene in the movie.

The last great scene in the movie.

And then of course, afterwards, they all talk about how they’ve grown up and will not be bad kids anymore (they actually address the audience directly, as seen below.) Something about the stiffness of this scene makes me think the director doesn’t really believe the kids, entirely. He knows they’ll still be kids. For that reason, the ending doesn’t have the same tone as the rest of the movie; it seems like a joke, and brings to mind the forced happy endings Hollywood used to add (i.e. Fury and Invasion of the Body Snatchers). It’s also an example of wartime propaganda. (“Lets work hard, we’re sure to win! Etc.”)

Naoko wants to kill tamiko. You can see it in her eyes.

Naoko wants to kill tamiko. You can see it in her eyes.

Oh, did I not mention this movie was made during world war II? Maybe that’s because IT DOESN’T MATTER since the movie is about life, and could take place in any country and almost any time period. This is why so many people didn’t like it as much as I did. They think the plot makes the movie, and a propagandistic plot spoils a movie. But characters and everyday scenes are what make Shimizu’s films, not plot. And if a movie does something great that almost no other movie in history does, but makes a common mistake that most movies at the time made, it’s still a masterpiece.

Tami and Yoshio being cute. (For some reason this scene never appears in the version of the movie I watched. Censorship, perhaps?)

Tami and Yoshio playing around. (For some reason this scene never appears in the version of the movie I watched. Censorship, perhaps?)

Conclusion:

Pre-1945 Japanese movie characters may be the hardest in all of cinema for Americans to understand. Old Japanese movies are a world where an old man who’s son disobeys his arranged marriage proposal may go into the living room and try to kill himself (“I would rather die then be insulted by my children!”) This isn’t bad; it’s refreshing to see characters who think so differently then me…

But it’s equally refreshing (and amazing) that Shimizu Hiroshi’s characters don’t just act like real people, they act like people we know. We see a different Japan in Shimizu’s work then in Naruse’s, Ozu’s or Mizoguchi’s. His films show us rude old men and teenage girls who swoon over guys on motorcycles (named ‘Henry’, no less! That was a bit of a stretch…)

And of course, kids being kids. you should all see Introspection Tower. It will make you ashamed of what stereotypes most children on film have become.

Screen Shot 2012-12-16 at 12.12.03 AM

EPISODE PREVIEW:

A pretty Chinese singer lives with her wicked stepfather in Shanghai. There she waits for her Prince to come as well as the Communist revolution. Another love letter to Asian cinema, next time on the Blog…

“SLUMDOG CINDERELLA”

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