Sayon’s Bell

Original title
Sayon no Kane
Japanese title
  • サヨンの鐘
Running time
92 minutes
2 June 2009
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Midnight Eye has been banging on about the director Hiroshi Shimizu for several years now, ever since the Tokyo FILMeX festival gave us a retrospective of this wonderful director back in 2003. A close friend and contemporary of Yasujiro Ozu who also began directing in the late 1920s at Shochiku's Kamata Studios (their lives ran almost concurrently, although the Tokyo Story director's star was definitely in its ascendancy in the latter half of his career, whereas Shimizu's peaked in the prewar period), Shimizu pursued his own trademark style (of motion in depth) and choice of subject matter just as doggedly as his internationally better-known confrère.

Up until recently, Western viewers have had scant opportunity to see Shimizu's work, although as Roger Macy points out in his review, Introspection Tower is one of the titles included in the two English-subtitled Shimizu boxed sets released in Japan relatively recently, while those kind folks at Criterion have just put out another boxed set, Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu, under the Eclipse label, which includes some of the director's most interesting works, including Japanese Girls at the Harbour and Mr Thank You.

One film not included in these boxed sets, and therefore one which Western audiences probably won't have a chance to see any time soon is Sayon's Bell, a war-time 'kokusaku eiga' ("national policy" movie) based on a true event that occurred in the then Japanese colony of Taiwan in September 1938, when a young girl named Sayon from one of the country's indigenous tribes fell into a mountain stream and drowned whilst carrying the possessions of a Japanese policeman. The Governor General in Taipei presented her home area with a bell inscribed with her name, and attempts were made to advance Sayon's case as an exemplar of self-sacrificing loyalty amongst the colonies within the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The legend gathered momentum in a number of stories, plays, songs, and this particular film.

It should be said, Shimizu's version of the tale isn't his best work, and neither did it seem to be entirely successful as a piece of propaganda at the time, concentrating more on the exotic costumes and day-to-day routines of the denizens of the aboriginal village where Sayon (played by the subject of Ian Buruma's novel The China Lover, Yoshiko Yamaguchi, here playing under the name Ri Koran) dwells. The Japanese occupying forces are portrayed as a genial presence, though kept marked off in stiff, formal, uniformed ranks from the hordes of milling happy-go-lucky locals. Sayon's role is crucial to these images of harmony, with much of the film given over to depicting her interactions with the local kids as they attempt to foster a wild boar, but her relationship with the policemen Saburo (Shimazaki) takes a definite second place to shots of the exotic landscape and the natives within it. One comes away with the feeling that Shimizu, as in his other works from the wartime era such as Introspection Tower (1941) and The Ornamental Hairpin (Kanzashi, 1941), was less interested in advancing propagandist ideology than focusing on his usual thematic concerns (children, itinerants, and underdogs).

Evasive as it is, Sayon's Bell was not Shimizu's only wartime foray onto the continent. The now-lost Friends (Tomodachi, 1940), filmed in Korea, depicted life in a school containing a mixture of Japanese and Korean children. At the end of the war Shimizu was ousted from Shochiku, allegedly due to a combination of factors including the excessive cost of his on-the-road productions and his own personal hubris, with a section of the omnibus film Victory Song (Hisshoka, 1945) being his last work for the company. In 1948 he made Children of the Beehive (Hachi no Su no Kodomotachi), produced outside the studio system through his own company Hachi No Su Eiga (lit. 'Beehive Films'). It depicted a nameless soldier just repatriated after the war leading a group of war orphans on foot across Japan to the orphanage where he himself grew up, and was based on his own experiences after taking a group of parentless children into his own home after the war. For me it is one of his most powerful and touching works, though given the poor quality of the only surviving print of the film, I doubt it will ever get any sort of release outside of Japan.