Brief Encounters: The Masseurs and a Woman (1938)

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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.”

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Life’s Tragedy: The Only Son (1936)

Otsune Ryosuke

The opening credits of Yasujirô Ozu’s 1936 film The Only Son end with a line that seems to promise high melodrama: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” Although the story that follows has its melodramatic moments, Ozu — in this, his first movie with sound (save for the previous year’s documentary short Kagamijishi) — seems equally interested in more mundane, universal sorrows.

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Misfortune Teaches Us the Truth: Ikiru (1952)

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Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is an unlikely hero. A perpetually hunched over, unremarkable man in late middle age, he’s spent the past thirty years working in civil service and is now the section chief of the Department of Public Affairs. His job — which appears to consist of little more than stamping documents and directing citizens to other departments so that he doesn’t have to deal with their concerns — is one of meaningless busyness, accomplishing nothing of significance to himself or to anyone else. “He might as well be a corpse,” says the rather contemptuous narrator of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru. In fact, before introducing Watanabe himself, the narrator introduces something more interesting: an x-ray of his stomach. Although he doesn’t know it yet, he has cancer, and in all likelihood he’ll be dead within a year.

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