Four films, each a little over an hour long, provide fascinating glimpses of pre-war Japan. Maybe the best way to describe their charms is to provide some details about two of them.
In THE MASSEURS AND A WOMAN, two blind men who make tenuous livings as migratory masseurs, moving from seaside resorts to mountain spas each summer, are walking along the road, counting and taking pride in the number of sighted people they overtake - seventeen so far. One alerts the other that he senses eight and a half children are approaching. Eight and a half? Yes, one of the children is carrying another piggyback. Later on the journey, a wagon passes them, and the same masseur somehow detects from her scent that one of the passengers is an exciting woman from Tokyo, who, as the film progresses, carries on a flirtation with him and also with a potential rival, a young man on vacation with his orphaned pre-teen nephew, who with his baseball cap and intolerance of adults could have stepped out of a fifties Ozu movie. The woman turns out to be on the run, and perhaps both suitors will be disappointed.
ORNAMENTAL HAIRPIN, also set in an inn, relates the blossoming romance between a young soldier (Ozu's favorite actor, Chishu Ryu) and a geisha who wants to leave her profession and marry. The soldier, in the inn's public baths, cuts his foot on a hairpin left behind by the geisha, and she returns to the inn, apologizes, helps him recover as he takes more challenging walks each day, and falls in love with him. Meanwhile, we meet many of the inn's guests and discover their eccentricities in casual scenes. For instance, they decide to form a discussion group (led by a crusty old professor who somehow maintains his dignity even while waking the others with his snoring each night), and the first topic is to complain about the inn's food - every day breakfast is the same: miso soup, egg, sea weed, and pickles; dinner is invariably sashimi, grilled fish, soup, and boiled greens. Finally, recovered, the soldier returns to Tokyo, and the closing scenes, in which the geisha realizes her dreams of marriage will end in disappointment, are somehow heartbreaking and unsentimental at once.