First Steps Ashore

01/25/2014

Japan / 1932 / Japanese

Directed by Yasujirô Shimazu

Starring Joji Oka, Yaeko Mizutani, Akio Isono

Still from 'First Steps Ashore'From the pre-1920s chambara (sword-fighting period films) to Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto’s “new tribal art” that it’s grown into, Japanese cinema seems fated to be measured against its American counterpart. It seems customary, indeed unavoidable, for Western critics (along with many Japanese critics) to evaluate the films based on the degree to which they have either assimilated or withstood foreign modes and codes. The comparison overshadows the economic factors that shape film production, even though these usually play a significant role in cultural and artistic adaptation.  Take a paragon of the Hollywood tropes of the late 1920s, Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928), and its Japanese remake (file under “most assimilated”), Yasujiro Shimazu’s First Steps Ashore; side-by-side they provide a snapshot of a time when the Hollywood economic model, and by extension its aesthetics, began to take on predominance in Japanese productions.

First Steps Ashore follows the premise of the original film closely, transplanting it to contemporary Yokohama. The original’s fragrant invocation of the past is no longer evident (the debauchery of the harbor “before it was cleaned up”, etc.). The merchant ship where rough-neck coal shoveler Sakata works has come into port, and he goes on shore leave with his sidekick, Tomura. The skipper, Nozawa, engages in some dealings with a wealthy gangster named Masa, although these are never fully revealed. Meanwhile Masa’s mistress, Sato, tries to commit suicide by jumping off a dock. Sakata witnesses this and jumps in to save her. After being revived, Sato follows Sakata to a bar, where Masa and his henchmen try to take her back to his place by force. Sakata stands up for her and beats all of them up, making himself a target for their revenge.

Still from 'First Steps Ashore'The two check in to a musty hotel, Sakata spending the night on the couch and Sato in the bedroom. In the morning he hears Sato’s tragic story – born in the North of Hokkaido, bought and possessed as a bauble for men – and realizes that he is her ticket out of this grim life. Unfortunately his time is slim, as he has to return to the ship before dark. The landlady teases him about his apparent one-night-stand with Sato, and Tomura drops by to impishly sing a love song. Sato banks on her new friend’s return, but it is only after a confrontation once again with the local goons that Sakata becomes convinced that he has a certain responsibility to help her out.

Not only are the cues of Sternberg’s film submerged – from its crazily asexual early interactions of the two principles to the tender eroticism of Mae mending Bill’s shirt – but also the totality of its moods, the harsh and almost surreal swirling of gloom and glam, are melted down to mere nubs of the once-jagged edges. As many critics agree, continuity of setting (or continuity of anything, free of disruptions and inscription) was not one of the foremost concerns for Japanese 1930s films. This neutralizing of the original text, as one can imagine, is in itself interesting. What we get instead of Sternberg’s poetics is a half-formed romance, not even allowed to grow into ambiguity. Sakata and Sato both suffer for their involvement with one another, but a palpable bond never forms between them.

Gone are the layered constructions of the original (presented and distorted in mirrors, mist, and murky water), having given way to single-point compositions where everything is pulled into a central source. The frames are mainly deep-focus, neither modulation nor compression giving rise to any sense of dimensionality. Sternberg’s material might have been more faithfully handled by Nikkatsu, at the time being the studio for the grimmest shomin-geki (petite bourgeois drama) – most of which, however, seemed stuffy and outdated by the time sound pictures came about. But since Shimazu worked for Shochiku, we get a pasty and somewhat diluted rendering, whose primary point of interest is its use of sound.

Still from 'The Docks of New York'

The Docks of New York (1928)

In all likelihood the success of imported sound films in the early 1930s had not overshadowed expressive masterpieces like The Docks of New York, defined as it is by complex visual bravado. Even setting aside the staging problems of the early talkie, many of the most set-dependent scenes are notably flat and presentational in Shimazu’s rendering. Sound becomes something of an open field, as naively inventive as Sternberg’s late-20s imagery is cynically accomplished. The scene in which the noise from Masa’s pistol is matched and drowned out by a nearby jackhammer could, needless to say, never have been done in a silent film. In an essay called Sound in the Early Japanese Talkies, Kenji Iwamoto writes that Japanese producers wrestled with ways to increase the depth of the setting by way of sound, while retaining a relatively flat visual sensibility. The result, in the early days of sound, is often very literal, with sound elaborating mainly on what we see, and not on the encompassing scene.

Iwamoto concludes his overview by saying, “when the arrival of the age of talkies seemed inevitable, the pages of Japan’s film journals were enlivened by disputes over whether sound was necessary, debates over proper expression, and the introduction of the theory of the contrapuntal use of sound initiated by Eisenstein and his colleagues…” Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (1931) is a film that Iwamoto compares to Rene Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris (1930) in its use of “sound perspective”, or varying levels of off-screen sound that give a sense of proximity and dimensions. Shimazu’s film is relatively low on unmotivated sound, and is thus more reminiscent of partial talkies like Fejös’ Lonesome (1928) or Mizoguchi’s Hometown (1930) than the developing social realism being practiced by Clair and Gosho.

The comparison of this film to its source shows there has to be more than a misreading at work. There were films produced in Japan (and by Shochiku, no less) that use expressive lighting, such as Ozu’s Dragnet Girl (1933), made only a year later. Shimazu was evidently not so influential that he couldn’t stretch the home aesthetic to his own tastes. Either that, or he was sold on that cheerful two-dimensionality almost completely. The ambiance of the original – gauzy, fumy, electric; piled high with swollen, gloom-slick faces – is dried out in favor of the flat whiteness that was de rigeur for Shochiku films at the time (bear in mind the company began as a kabuki producer).

Japanese actor and filmmaker Henry Kotani returned from America in the early 1920s, initially hired by Shochiku to pass on what he’d learned to their stable of directors. A surface reading of Hollywood productions resulted in scenes that are stagey, frontal, and spare. It’s interesting that the desire for the bright, cheerful, and dull, manufactured by the studio to implement a supposedly American way of doing things, would largely take away from the adaptation of a most exceptionally expressive American film like The Docks of New York. What could Shimazu have felt upon seein Sternberg’s film? It’s hard to say, since so much of its effect was lost to the peculiar and already outdated standards of his home studio. The shadows that stretch toward their source figures like cobwebs, that grip the frames’ peripheries like dark rime, are here given up for the obvious, the overt and laid-bare.

Still from 'First Steps Ashore'Although this is through-and-through a Shochiku picture, some of its most striking scenes are in low-key lighting – striking not because they are dark, but because they use as their focal point their apparent, isolated light-sources. The initial shot down in the bowels of the ship, where the coal stokers toil, shoveling before the furnace, is lit only by a narrow plume of sooty light emanating from the furnace’s mouth, dispersed upward by a column of smoke. Another scene, which takes place after Sakata has rescued Sato, could be grounds for comedic farce, but takes place in half-darkness: he waits outside the shack where she is changing out of her wet clothes, trying to idly busy himself so as not to be tempted to peer through the window at her. In the fight that Sakata has with Masa’s henchmen in the crowded bar, the one light gets knocked out, and much of the conflict occurs in the dark, without ambient sound. Then a woman lights a lantern and moves throughout the crowd who are watching the action.

Other than a handful of notable exceptions, the lighting isn’t put to expressive use, as dictated by the Shochiku standard. Instead, angles and architecture take up some of the function of composing the scenes that shadows so richly do in The Docks of New York. Sternberg’s shattering of human the figures through the diagonal lines of a wooden steering wheel is echoed in the geometric screen foregrounded in the Yokohama bar scene (not unlike the one used in the chic café setting in Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1929 film The Undying Pearl). Similarly when Sakata and Tomoru first lay eyes on Sato, as she is about to jump into the water, a locomotive arrives and artificially separates the diegesis, obscuring the background while isolating the foreground.

Expressly looking over the bar scene in the film, David Bordwell highlights Shimazu’s ability to “press us to the very limits of visibility.” He continues that, although “we must strain to see the action… we simultaneously appreciate the ‘modular’ differences which shifts in character position can create.” He compares it to the opening scene of Tomu Uchida’s Police (1933), in which a narrow space between two curtains is used in a decorative way, to reveal part of a scene while blocking out most of it, the subjective, visual and thematic elements at once summarized and intensified. Unlike Police, Shimazu’s film has several such scenes, which could be said to utilize abbreviation as a form of stylization, much in contrast to Sternberg’s ethereal levels of appearance and reality.

Still from 'First Steps Ashore'Daisuke Miyao, in his book The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema, maintains that The Docks of New York‘s melodrama is embodied in its visual contrasts: Mae’s almost painful whiteness with Bill’s baked-on darkness, and that the latter character is redeemed by eventually choosing to emerge from the shadows. In First Steps Ashore, it is Sakata (the character modeled after Bill) who is luminous, bringing the brightness of the coal fire to the into the gloomy port town and the life of the kept woman Sato. Miyao hastens to add that “while it is not true that First Steps Ashore is a film insensitive to lighting since it certainly uses it for dramatic purposes, Shimazu’s film is characterized by brightness.” While Sternberg invests heavily in contrast, a heavy mixing that produces an ambiguity between night and day, love and hate, strength and resignation, Shimazu achieves narrative and emotional depth through subtraction.

While Noel Burch identifies Shimazu primarily by his inadequate attempts to recreate Hollywood technique, such a dismissive classification doesn’t quite do justice to a film like First Steps Ashore. It’s true that the film’s disruptions don’t go far enough to subvert the already partially-digested Hollywood coding into the surfaces of a decorative Japanese visual regime. Nonetheless, panning shots are interspersed with still frames, and long takes (such as the final shot of Sato crying) go against the narrative economy exemplified by Sternberg.

It may be tempting to dismiss Shimazu’s film as flotsam floating in the wake of the wildly successful original, but the degrees to which it only goes part way – to invoking the cynicism of the original, to being merely a saccharine rehash of it – but never entirely, make it an intriguing exercise of the implementation of Hollywood norms into the surface-focused diegeses of the decorative 1930s Japanese film. This implementation served simultaneously as a continuation of various threads of artistic tradition and also a building-upon of a burgeoning capitalism in 20th Century Japan. If there were an elevator between a faithful rendering, ascending to the level of fresh invention, Shimazu’s film gets off halfway, at a strange and uncertain middle ground all its own, a curious hybrid of sound-stage ambiance and murky visual flourish that whittles down both considerably, at the same time exploring their core codes in a marvelously associative way.

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