Hiroshi Shimizu’s “The Masseurs and a Woman” is a modestly scaled work that beautifully illustrates the yearning for – and frailty of – human connectivity. Set at a resort tucked away in the mountains, it follows a group of strangers who form with each other the kind of temporary friendship that is so common among passing travelers. The first two characters introduced are the blind masseurs Toku and Fuku, who migrate between the seaside and the mountains throughout the year. After a leisurely journey, they arrive at the resort and go to work right away, happily reuniting with coworkers and meeting guests. Toku is called upon to serve Michiho (Mieko Takamine), a mysterious woman from Tokyo who teases him and gives him purposely vague answers to his questions. He can’t help but become fascinated by her and strives to learn more about her during her stay.
If the above description sounds like a strong central pillar of plot that supports the film, don’t be fooled. The storyline concerning Michiho and her possible involvement in a string of thefts throughout the resort is just one of many that Shimizu touches upon. He in fact isn’t concerned with narrative so much as the characters he has gathered at the peaceful resort, his camera wandering and visiting them all at different points during their respective stays. Through this loose, observational structure, Shimizu takes the opportunity to present a variety of comical episodes. Many involve a cheeky little boy who divides his time playing pranks on the blind masseurs, seeking attention from the other guests and swimming and fishing in the river by the resort. He is passing through with his uncle, and the two of them soon form a friendly bond with Michiho. There is also the group of male students who one night ask for a round of massages. Toku obliges a little too enthusiastically, leaving them all with sore bodies on the morning they resume their journey, thus forcing them to go back to the resort for one more night while a separate group female students leave them in their tracks.
Accompanying the film’s light humor and seemingly carefree spirit is the bittersweet knowledge that the relationships forged at the resort are bound to eventually come to an end. Long before Sofia Coppola ventured into similar territory with “Lost in Translation,” Shimizu perfectly evoked in his films the loneliness of travel which hides beneath the wonder of discovering new people and places, emerging only when the time comes to part with them. For most of “The Masseurs,” the resort is a safe haven that blankets the characters in the illusion of timelessness and isolation, but eventually its guests must yield themselves to the outside world once more. Michiho, who has the greatest desire to seek an escape from her old life, knows this all too well as she says to Toku, “We met as fellow travelers, and soon we’ll say good-bye.”
It is truly a shame that more films by Hiroshi Shimizu aren’t available to North American audiences (I myself am curious about 1948’s “Children of the Beehive,” apparently one of his most popular works in his time). But then again, we should probably be thankful that a source like Criterion’s Eclipse branch can provide a taste of his gentle and compassionate worldview, which “The Masseurs and a Woman” neatly encapsulates. A beautifully crafted collection of frozen memories, it is sure to provide a rewarding if all too brief experience for new viewers.