A few minutes into Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1938 film The Masseurs and a Woman, the titular characters cross paths for the first time, in rather less than auspicious circumstances: while walking along a mountain road with fellow masseur Fuku (Shin’ichi Himori) — both of them blind, a tradition in Japan — a man named Toku (Shin Tokudaiji) stumbles on a rock and falls to the ground just as a horse-drawn carriage rounds the corner. Fortunately, he manages to get to his feet in time to move out of its way, and when he resumes his conversation with Fuku, he doesn’t even comment on his narrow escape. Something much more agreeable has captured his attention. “There was a nice woman aboard,” he says. “A lady from Tokyo. She had the scent of Tokyo.” Meanwhile, the driver of the carriage tells his passengers, including the woman in question (Mieko Takamine), about the two masseurs, whom he describes as “famous in these parts” due to their fondness for overtaking sighted people on the road during their annual visits: “Like swallows, they come north every spring, then return to the spas in the south every winter.”
It’s a strange way of life, this perpetual migration. When a customer (Shin Saburi), mid-massage, asks Fuku where he’s from, the masseur is uncertain to how to respond: “Where am I from? Well… that’s hard to say. Always on the road between mountains and seaside, I’ve lost all sense of where home is.” In all likelihood the customer is simply asking out of politeness or making conversation to fill a potentially awkward silence, yet Fuku’s words strike a chord with him, prompting him to talk about his own feeling of displacement upon visiting his parents’ grave and finding his native village altered. A meaningful connection is made. Such moments are both rare and fleeting, given the circumstances of the masseurs’ work. Their clientele is composed of guests at the local inns — students, hikers and people looking to get away from their regular lives for a few days (or possibly longer) — who may come or go at any given time. Even with the owners and staff of these inns, whom Toku and Fuku meet every year, there’s a certain superficiality to their genial interactions, their exchanges of pleasantries. Theirs is primarily a business relationship, after all, and their time together is brief.
However, the very transience that prevents the masseurs from forging deep, enduring bonds with people can also give their encounters an impact that they might not have if they were more drawn out. Most, no doubt, are neither noteworthy nor memorable, and others are downright unpleasant — witness, for example, the rivalry and antagonism that develops between Toku and a group of male students, culminating in a physical fight. (The scenes depicting this rivalry tend to be humorous, but the characters involved are unlikely to share that attitude toward the matter.) On occasion, something exceptional occurs, something of lasting value and import, perhaps. This is the case with Toku and the lady from Tokyo, who fascinates, troubles and even obsesses him from the instant he catches a whiff of her scent.
That “perhaps” is significant. Toku has a limited view of the woman, which has little or nothing to do with his physical blindness; on the contrary, he probably pays more attention to her than anyone else does, and he makes good use of his other senses — identifying her by her smell, for instance, and noticing during a massage that she has stiff shoulders, unusual in a young person and indicative of worry. “You can tell? Then tell me what I’m worried about,” she says, but he admits, “Oh, I can’t tell that much.” In the end, closely though he’s observed her, he finds that he’s completely misinterpreted her behavior and given himself the wrong idea about her. To be fair, she’s a secretive person, intentionally vague when questioned, and this air of mystery may make her all the more romantic a figure to Toku, even while it frustrates him. (The fact that he and others always refer to her as “the lady from Tokyo” further sets her apart from the mundane.) Still, his error illustrates how difficult it is to understand people, particularly in a short period of time; the viewer has the same challenge.
No film can express everything a viewer might want to know about its characters, of course, and The Masseurs and a Woman runs a mere sixty-six minutes and covers only a few days. Hence the “perhaps”: Toku’s infatuation with the Tokyo woman, which seems like an important event in his life, may not be of much consequence after all. Maybe he falls in love every time he and Fuku move to a new locale. There’s some evidence that he’s particularly susceptible to feminine charms: he brings a gift of camellia oil for Okiku (Hideko Kasuga), a maid at one of the inns (though he urges her to keep it a secret), and when the woman from Tokyo asks why he didn’t acknowledge her when he encountered her with another man, he replies, “I steer clear of hornets’ nests. I’m stung often enough as it is.” We can infer, we can speculate, but we can’t be certain.
And yet there are pleasures for the viewer, too, in the fleeting, the subtle, the inexplicit. It’s a film of small pieces, varied in tone, and many of its loveliest moments are quiet and tinged with melancholy. Shimizu generally eschews big drama and action: he cuts away from Toku’s fight with the students just before it begins, opting to show the aching, bandage-covered aftermath instead, and the uproars caused by a series of thefts are reported after the fact rather than portrayed on-screen. In fact, the theft mystery, which appears to be an important thread running through the story, is never solved (at least as far as the viewer knows). It serves its purpose by forcing Toku to confront the lady from Tokyo, which forces her, in turn, to tell him the truth about herself. Even in this revelatory, climactic scene — which is preceded by increasingly tight shots of the two characters’ feet as they hurry through the streets, possibly the most dynamic sequence in the film — Shimizu exhibits restraint. The camera hangs back much of the time; the woman is sad yet composed as she tells her story.
Besides fleshing out her character and dispelling the aura of secrecy around her — she’s actually a kept woman fleeing her possessive lover, whom she left out of pity for his wife and daughter — her story casts a new light on various comments, seemingly incidental, made about women earlier in the film. Characters, including the lady from Tokyo herself, talk about the boldness of modern female students and the fact that more and more women are entering the workforce, often taking away jobs from male masseurs; however, her experiences suggest that women in late 1930s Japan still faced many disadvantages. The connection isn’t belabored — maybe Shimizu didn’t even intend it — but the material is there.
More obviously, her homelessness gives her something in common with Toku and Fuku and, to a lesser degree, with the customer who felt like a stranger when he revisited his native village. This man (the same one whom the woman is with when Toku fails to acknowledge her) is staying at one of the local inns with his young nephew (Jun Yokoyama), an orphan whom he felt obligated to adopt after the fairly recent death of the boy’s father, despite being ill-equipped for parenthood. “I can barely take care of myself, and now I’ve got a kid to worry about,” he confesses to the woman. Two people thrown together unexpectedly — a more permanent version of what happens socially in this mountain resort area. For a few days, perhaps a week or two at best, people become acquainted with strangers, and relationships and feelings of all sorts spring up between them: friendship, rivalry, romance, jealousy, sympathy, longing. At last, though, they all go their separate ways, likely forever. “We met as fellow travelers, and soon we’ll say good-bye,” as the woman from Tokyo puts it.
Shimizu must have been fond of these themes, because he returned to them in his 1941 film Ornamental Hairpin. Again, diverse vacationers — one of whom is a woman attempting to leave her old life behind — are thrown together at an inn and form a temporary community. This time, they make plans to meet up again after they all return to Tokyo. The arrangement may last, it may not, but the idea that these relationships could continue in some form is an interesting alternative to the ending of The Masseurs and a Woman. Here, the closest thing to a certainty is that Toku and Fuku will return to the mountains next year and encounter a new group of guests; everything else remains unknown.
This post is part of the Made in 1938 blogathon, hosted by Pop Culture Reverie and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.