Ornamental Hairpin - Kanzashi - Hiroshi Shimizu - Kinuyo Tanaka - Emi - parasol

Ornamental Hairpin
1941, directed by Hiroshi Shimizu

Ornamental Hairpin is such a gentle movie that few people today, or even in 1941 with all the suspicions that accompany warfare, would see it as subversive. How could such a pleasant and unassuming story, so far removed from the theater of battle, challenge the militaristic drive of Imperial Japan? Hindsight may tell us that the film never threatened the war effort even if it wanted to, but all the same it’s an instructive call for peace. A movie can only speak its mind, and its makers must hope that enough other voices join the chorus to make a difference.

The subversive message comes at the end after much subtle preparation. In particular, the film is organized around three unspoken wishes:

  1. In the opening scene, Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and her friend Okiku, another geisha, are hiking up a mountain road on a Buddhist pilgrimage, discussing how the hot weather is cleansing the smoke, alcohol, and make-up powder from their bodies. Emi concludes with an unfinished wish: “You know, I’ve been thinking about something. One of these days….”
  1. About a minute before the movie’s midpoint, Emi writes a letter expressing a second incomplete thought: “Dear Okiku, I’m sorry I left without telling you. I won’t be coming back for a while. The reason is because….”
  1. The ending lacks dialogue altogether because Emi is alone, but we can infer from the letter she has just received from Takeshi Nanmura (Chishu Ryu), inviting her to an upcoming reunion in Tokyo, that she is thinking of seeing him again. All three silent wishes have to do with leaving her geisha life behind and finding love.
Ornamental Hairpin - Kanzashi - Hiroshi Shimizu - Jun Yokoyama - Chishu Ryu - Masayoshi Ōtsuka - Taro - Takeshi Nanmura - Jiro - practicing - walking - healing - recovery - foot wound

These three wishes, or more properly three expressions of the same wish, form a progression that must be deliberate. The first is spoken – it’s ephemeral, and we do not yet have any clue what she’s thinking. The second is written, and we can begin to guess at her meaning. The third, which is expressed without words, deriving meaning through its context, is cinematic – and the wonder of the ending is that it’s constructed so that an attentive viewer should be able to read Emi’s precise thoughts.

After receiving Takeshi’s invitation, now that all her newly acquainted companions have left the hot springs resort, Emi walks alone across a meadow, over a crooked footbridge, and up a stairway on a forested hillside. These three locations happen to be the same places where Takeshi had measured his recovery from the wound inflicted by Emi’s hairpin – a kind of Cupid’s arrow that brought them together. Takeshi had climbed the staircase only a couple minutes of film time before Emi’s final ascent, cheerfully egged on by the two boys Taro and Jiro, and his success meant he could return to Tokyo. If climbing the stairs meant he could go home, why shouldn’t it have the same effect for her, bringing her to the promised reunion? Emi’s walk through those three locations has the force of a sacrament, symbolically repeating events from the past with a kind of religious hope.

Ornamental Hairpin - Kanzashi - Hiroshi Shimizu - Kinuyo Tanaka - Jun Yokoyama - Masayoshi Ōtsuka - Chishu Ryu - Emi - Taro - Jiro - Takeshi Nanmura - stairway - staircase - stairs

The emotional power of this ending is all the greater for being wordless, because we have to reconstruct Emi’s thoughts ourselves. The open ending won’t satisfy everyone. It offers no certainty, but it gives cover to a wartime message that could not have been spoken aloud in 1941.

When Ornamental Hairpin was made, Japan was already waging aggressive war against China and much of the Pacific, but it had not yet attacked Pearl Harbor. The movie barely alludes to war at all, and we might guess that it simply means to remind Japan of its national values and the beauty of its land and traditions, or possibly to give viewers a sentimental escape from their worries. The story however echoes the wartime experience indirectly. Like Japan’s soldiers off in foreign lands, the characters at the hot springs are far from home with a group of strangers, forging new relationships, enduring the tedium of everyday life, squeezing into ever-tighter quarters, eating sub-standard food, and taking care of an injured comrade. The situation would have resonated with viewers who might at least have loved ones stationed overseas.

Ornamental Hairpin - Kanzashi - Hiroshi Shimizu - Tatsuo Saito - Chishu Ryu - Professor Katada - Takeshi Nanmura - spa resort hotel

In this context, Emi’s wish to return home represents a kind of sublimated wish for the end of the war. At the height of Japan’s militaristic fervor such a feeling could not be expressed directly, and it might seem reckless to read it into the movie were it not for one particular detail when Takeshi climbs the staircase. As he struggles upward, Taro and Jiro goad him on in their usual fashion, counting the steps as he ascends. The moment he reaches the 21st step they gleefully announce that he’s halfway there, which would mean there are exactly 42 steps. If 42 is the number associated with going home, then the movie is expressing a hope that the war would be over by the following year, 1942.

Just as the love story between Emi and Takeshi is left unfinished, the movie ends before she reaches the top of the stairway. More significantly, the picture begins to fade out as she passes the 21st step. Just as the stairway’s midpoint had hinted at a deeper meaning when the boys called attention to it during Takeshi’s climb, its place in Emi’s climb reinforces its earlier significance while expressing hope that the war is more than halfway over. Framing this hope is the beauty of the mature mountain forest, her elegant costume and parasol, and the majestic pace of her climb, but especially the music which contrasts with the quasi-militaristic march of the opening scene.

Ornamental Hairpin - Kanzashi - Hiroshi Shimizu - Chishu Ryu - Tatsuo Saito - Takeshi Nanmura - Professor Katada - hot springs

Of course the movie’s wish for peace is not only in its ending. Even though the characters are on vacation, the whole story is a celebration of ordinary life and the values that war pulls us away from. The key to its appeal is in a conversation between Takeshi and the two boys shortly after Emi’s letter to Okiku. The older boy Taro shows Takeshi his school assignment, a journal of his vacation, and Takeshi asks how he can finish his diary when there are still several days left. Taro replies, “Because every day here is the same. I get up, exercise to the radio, bathe, eat breakfast, study, play, have lunch, take a nap, go for a walk, help you practice walking, then have a bath, eat dinner, and then study a little more and go to bed.” Takeshi suggests it would be better to write about the special incidents that distinguish each day from the others.

Ornamental Hairpin follows Takeshi’s advice, but like Taro’s diary it also acknowledges the repetitiveness of ordinary life. The boy’s error was not in describing his routine, but in his attitude toward it. The trick lies in looking at the repetitions with affection. We constantly find the professor overhearing people talking about him or complaining about the hotel’s service. Mr. Hiroyasu keeps annoying the professor by deferring to his wife’s opinion, then he begins catching himself each time and apologizing. The two boys make sport of everything, whether prodding Takeshi to new records, pitting their grandfather against the professor in a snoring contest, or cheering a pair of blind masseurs across the bridge. These patterns however set up insightful or humorous moments that give the film its particular flavor. Mrs. Hiroyasu breaks her husband’s pattern when she defers to him, revealing an unsuspected equality in their relationship. When the boys’ grandfather bugs the professor to play Go with him, we realize where Taro and Jiro get their competitive behavior. Emi’s unfinished questions are repetitive, but they set up both the ending and also a similar thought from Okiku: “Someday I too will….”

Ornamental Hairpin - Kanzashi - Hiroshi Shimizu - Kinuyo Tanaka - Hideko Mimura - Shinichi Himori - Kanji Kawahara - Masayoshi Ōtsuka - Chishu Ryu - Jun Yokoyama - Tatsuo Saito - Emi - Hiroyasu - Jiro - Takeshi Nanmura - Taro - Professor Katada - dinner - spa resort hotel

This celebration of ordinary life is not trivial, even against a backdrop of global war. As Alfred Hitchcock reminds us in so many movies, the impulse to rise above ordinary life, to become “special”, is what makes people vulnerable to violent movements and ideologies. Ornamental Hairpin may not have had much chance to sway opinions during Japan’s feverish belligerence, but in the subsequent years many films in America, which was fighting a defensive war, also portrayed ordinary life as a means of keeping the country true to its values.


Shadow of a Doubt – Celebration of ordinary life in a time of global warfare

Monsieur Verdoux – Movie structured by three wishes/questions near the beginning, middle, and end

Roman Holiday – Wordless ending in which it’s possible to read a character’s precise thoughts

Nostalghia – Sacramental and wordless solo walk at the end