This film is a remake of Shimizu Hiroshi's 1938 film Ama to Onna (The Masseurs and a Woman), recently released on DVD by Criterion. The original is also an excellent film and well worth watching.
The remake is, shot for shot and line for line, almost completely identical to the original. The only real difference is that the remake is in color and employs a few modern cinematographic touches, such as shots of the scenery or close-ups of the water. I had my doubts about the artistic integrity of such a slavish copy, but in the end the lyricism of the film won me over. The gentle tone of nostalgia and sentiment are surprisingly touching, and the cinematography is beautiful.
However, since it is such a faithful copy of the original, it also reflects a much earlier style of Japanese film making. Not much happens. The plot is incidental, the real purpose of the film is to show a snapshot of several people whose lives intersect for just a moment. There are many scenes of people just sitting together quietly, looking at the landscape, unwilling or unable to express their true feelings. Fans of Ozu Yasujiro will be delighted, but people expecting a more modern, faster-paced and more dramatic story will be disappointed.
The setting is a hot springs resort in the mountains of Japan in the 1930s. It was very common in pre-industrial Japan for blind people to find employment as traveling masseurs (Zatoichi is one example, if a fantastical one). Here we see the practice hanging on in rural areas far from Tokyo, with a group of masseurs who serve the guests at nearby hotels. The depiction of disability may seem a bit dated--most of the masseurs are played for laughs. But Tokuichi, the main character, is shown as being very capable and independent, which was a fairly progressive portrayal for the 1930s.
Tokuichi has a crush on a beautiful but mysterious woman who comes to the hot springs from Tokyo. She is kind to him, but seems to prefer another guest, an older man also from Tokyo who is taking care of his orphaned nephew. But given the nature of their meeting, at a hotel in a resort town, we understand that all three are just passing through on their way somewhere else. Don't expect a big revelation or a dramatic ending. It's not about the resolution, but about savoring the moment before it passes.
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