A little surprised to see that there's so much comment until this set came out... but little since. Okay, I know, who has time to sit and watch three Ozu films as the stack of DVDs gets ever higher. I wrote the following for Nitrateville.com,
a discussion site about silent and early talkie films, but since no one else has really reviewed this set in detail here, I'll post it here too.
Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies
Though in academic literature on film he ranks very highly indeed, the name Ozu often seems to scare the lay silent film fan off before his films ever manage to get seen. He’s typecast as one of those severe, stark minimalists with dour philosophical preoccupations and a pace like watching milk curdle, like Dreyer or Bresson (who were, in fact, linked with Ozu in a celebrated 70s book by the critic and future filmmaker Paul Schrader). Yet Yasujiro Ozu is very much the odd man out in that group, not least because there’s no explicit religiosity in his films, even if Schrader did detect a “transcendental style” in his later films.
Far from making intellectualized art cinema about God or His absence, Ozu was actually very much a director of ordinary people-- of their little happinesses and disappointments, of the ebb and flow of everyday life. Especially in later years, you went to Ozu for a good cry and reassurance that the world would work out okay in the end (if not for you, for your descendants, because of your sacrifice). The Japanese are supposed to have considered Ozu unsuitable for export because he was “too Japanese,” but that doesn’t mean they thought his style
was too rarified and alien for us-- it was just that his movies about family were thought to be too personal, who’d want to see our troubles? Who’d want to share our sorrows? Don’t you have your own?
But set aside the postwar Ozu-- I love those stripped-down, gently sad Early Springs
and Late Autumns,
but you’re free not to. Before Ozu was Ozu, he was a strikingly different filmmaker, experimenting in a wide range of genres (the way Hitchcock did before he settled on making thrillers), as often comic as he was dramatic or tragic-- and far from being the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers, he was in many ways the most American-influenced.
He often cited, in interviews, his admiration for Harold Lloyd, Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra, and the inspiration he found in American films. Floating Weeds,
which he made twice (once in the silent era and once in sound*), was inspired by George Fitzmaurice’s The Barker
and King Vidor’s The Stranger’s Return. An Inn at Tokyo,
a heartrending neorealist tale of a father and his sons in the depths of the Depression, feels like DeSica a decade later, but was in fact inspired by The Champ.
And Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow,
the tale of an older couple realizing that they need to get out of the way of their children and let the next generation live their lives, was the wellspring for virtually his entire later career.
This is not to say that his sensibility was wholly Americanized. In fact, the outward American inspiration behind his movies ultimately throws the deeply Japanese attitudes at their heart into relief. It’s not that you can’t imagine an American filmmaker making a movie called Where Now Are The Dreams of Youth?
-- as a title it would fit The Crowd
perfectly well, and It’s a Wonderful Life,
too, for that matter-- but you can’t imagine anyone in America making a career
out of movies asking that question, making comedy-drama out of the subject of disillusionment and its resigned acceptance, over and over.
Japan, then even more than now, was a stratified society, rigid in its sense of what was proper, very good at stifling the ambition of young men-- especially during the Depression, when Ozu’s career really began to take off, but many other men his age found theirs stalling or hanging by a thread. Where Hollywood movies have always sold the half-myth that you can chase your dreams without disaster, Ozu’s films are rooted in the realism of accepting that it is one’s burden and duty to be beaten down a little over time by life and family obligation. The result is that the melancholic undertone of his comedies can seem shocking, and offputting, at first. But there’s also something bracing about comedies in which things don’t work out easily and perfectly-- that don’t pander, that are sober and a bit stoic about life, and make us laugh more honestly for not trying to bullshit us that we’ll all live happily ever after. After all, that’s part of what we love about Keaton, too-- why we consider him “modern.”
If the later Ozu dramas are an acquired taste, the three silent Ozu family comedies released by Criterion’s sublabel Eclipse in a box set are a taste no one who loves American silent film should have any trouble acquiring. This Ozu is funny, fast-paced and slick, capable of comedy about kids worthy of Our Gang, while at the same time offering ironic, empathetic observations about adult life that will ring true for anyone who has been an adult a while-- and are all the more striking for their rarity in silent film.
TOKYO CHORUS (1931)
The earliest of the three, and the second oldest Ozu film I’ve seen, Tokyo Chorus
seems an important formative film for Ozu but not a greatly successful one. Indeed, except for the fact that you can see the later films coming out of it, it’s hard to justify its place in a box devoted to comedies.
The film opens in a school, where a teacher is drilling some fairly lackadaisical students, among them Okajima (Tokihiko Okada), in military exercises. We jump forward a decade to Okajima’s life as a salaryman with three children; speaking his mind about the firing of an older worker gets him fired too, and failing to come home with a bicycle for the oldest boy earns him strife at home. A series of poignant episodes of straitened home life follow, until at last the prologue’s relevance is made clear: Okajima runs into his old teacher, who has opened a small cafe. The teacher enlists his help in launching the business by walking the streets handing out flyers-- a fall in status which his wife takes hard, but which Okajima adjusts to stoically.
Technically, the title may refer to a song of tribute sung at the end by students to a teacher, but my guess is that Ozu’s attempting to suggest a parallel to American works such as Vidor’s Street Scene
or LaCava’s Symphony of Six Million
, in which gritty urban reality was itself a kind of modernist artwork. Indeed, the pictures of Depression-era Tokyo, shot on location with the same sort of matter-of-fact realism as Roach comedies, are fascinating, but the episodes of the film, affecting here and there in themselves, don’t really add up to drama.
Part of the reason, I suspect, is that the middle-class Japanese setting never seems clearly dire or desperate to Americans, nor are we likely to feel that something status-altering has happened to the family when Okajima goes around handing out flyers. Some of that is our not being sensitive to the subtler indicators of 1930s Japanese economic status, but it’s also just a fact that these characters are never that bad off. An Inn at Tokyo
tells a similar story (or episodic non-story) of day to day struggle in the Depression, but sets it among characters who have become homeless and for whom every day is a struggle and a test of the father’s love and devotion to his children-- and as a result every scene is freighted with anxiety and hope. That just doesn’t happen here.
The print quality is the weakest of the three films, as well, with quite a bit of wear and varying levels of contrast, though it still serves the location photography reasonably well. Donald Sosin contributes a piano score which, to be honest, I found rather too jaunty in places for the drama, as if trying to make the movie into the comedy promised on the box.
I WAS BORN, BUT (1932)
What’s nascent in Tokyo Chorus
suddenly comes into sharp focus in I Was Born, But,
Ozu’s first known/surviving masterpiece and an utter charmer, one of the handful of great naturalistic films about childhood along with The Childhood of Maxim Gorky, Shoeshine, Small Change,
and My Neighbor Totoro.
Again, the film is episodic, and outwardly, little happens that would normally qualify as plot. But this time the ups-and-downs-of-life flow and pace make perfect sense and engender instant audience sympathy, because the focus is on two school-age boys and their perceptions of the world, which of course are quite a bit different from the reality their parents know.
The family has just moved to a suburb-- houses in a cornfield, basically, linked to the city by train, not at all the Tokyo you expect (except, perhaps, in a Miyazaki cartoon). Ozu’s moving camera** ambles around the neighborhood like the boys, catching them in the process of discovering their neighborhood and shaking out their place in the pecking order with the local kids. These scenes are as unforced and charming as anything in Our Gang, filled with humor and sharp observation of the rituals and social hierarchies of childhood (I was delighted to see that “pinky swearing,” which my own kids picked up somewhere, was practiced in Japan in the 1930s). In particular Tomio Aoki
(whose career lasted all the way to Seijun Suzuki’s Pistol Opera
in 2001), who has a little pig nose and as wide a mouth as one of Miyazaki’s cartoon children, gives one of the great “kid brother” performances in films, pugnacious and impudent, yet ever ready to stand slightly behind
his big brother in a fight.
Status being an ever-present issue in Japan, however, a moment comes when their carefully ordered universe and admiration for their father is shaken by events (which I won’t spoil). And now, like an Our Gang comedy turning into The Crowd
(you will have noticed a visual homage to that film earlier), the film shifts perspective to the adults, and gives us the point of view of the father who, like his counterpart in Tokyo Chorus,
recognizes the compromises he’s had to make and hopes for something better for his own children. Here the picture of the middle class salaryman’s acceptance of his fate, which had made Tokyo Chorus
seem a somewhat drab and downbeat film, adds layers of poignancy and depth to the supposedly carefree picture of childhood that has preceded it. To transition so seamlessly from the simplicity of childhood to the ambiguity and compromise of adult life is as close as we can come to growing up ourselves in the space of a 90-minute movie.
The print, though bearing some marks of wear here and there, is generally in very good shape, and Donald Sosin’s score more closely follows the moods of the film than its predecessor’s did.
PASSING FANCY (1933)
Perhaps no movie better illustrates Ozu’s debt to American cinema in this period than the comedy-tearjerker Passing Fancy;
with its lovable lug protagonist and romantic triangle, it’s easy to imagine it starring Wallace Beery or Edward G. Robinson (depending on studio), with Loretta Young or Ann Sheridan as the girl and Franchot Tone or some other blandly good-looking type as the other fellow. It’s interesting, then, to see the preoccupation of so many of his later films-- self-sacrifice to allow others to reach happiness-- getting a run-through here in such an Americanized way, long before Ozu made it his own in a thoroughly Japanified context.
represents an important shift in his 1930s work; where earlier films (including the two above) had been about middle-class salarymen and their personal issues, this one drops down a socioeconomic class or two to the proletariat, probably as a result of the influence of Hollywood’s early 30s focus on laborers, roughnecks and blue collar sorts. (You could probably throw Chaplin's Tramp and The Kid
in there as well, among the influences.) The most obvious sign of the change is the physical build of the lead character.
In Tokyo Chorus,
the lead was a tall, rail-thin actor with a somewhat worried face (aptly enough, as it turned out, as he would be dead of tuberculosis within two years) named Tokihiko Okada. In I Was Born, But,
a similar part was taken by an even more beanpolish actor named Tatsuo Saito, who had played (in old age makeup) the teacher in the previous film, and brought a wryer perspective to the role.*** Even in allegedly straitened circumstances, their trim, Jimmy Stewartish builds make them rather dapper leads.
In Passing Fancy,
however, a stockier, broad-faced “everyman” named Takeshi Sakamoto-- who had played character roles in both of the earlier films, the older employee who’s let go and a buffoonish higher-up in the company, respectively-- was promoted to lead and would be the star of nearly all of Ozu’s films until the mid-40s, including Floating Weeds
and the masterful An Inn at Tokyo.
Like Wallace Beery, he’s rough-edged but endearing, and where the struggles of the main character in the previous films had seemed a bit abstract, his life as a roughneck along the margins of Japanese prosperity is as elemental and immediate as Spencer Tracy’s or James Cagney’s in American films of the same period. (He’s reunited with Tomio Aoki as his son, who does indeed seem much more Sakamoto’s mischievous, broad-faced progeny than he did Saito’s.)
Again, the concept of comedy is stretched a bit by Criterion’s billing-- there’s little of the overt gagwork that we had seen in I Was Born, But,
merely the gentle, bemused tone you see in Hollywood small town comedies of the period. But Passing Fancy
goes over well as a skillfully handled melodrama that produces a few smiles and a few tears, and offers a convincingly homey picture of lower-class Japanese life at the time.
Print quality is excellent except for some scratchiness around (presumably) reel changes, and the Sosin score seems appropriate (even when it diverts into a familiar and very Western theme during the emotional highpoint).
* The Criterion set of that title contains both versions. I posted on AMS about it here.
** Everyone talks about Ozu’s later stationary camera placements at the level of someone sitting on a tatami mat, but has anyone noticed that his early moving camera shots are likewise low to the ground-- which clearly would make no sense in terms of a character sitting (unless it’s ours as the viewer in the movie theater), but does in terms of a child’s eye view.
*** Saito turns up late in life in several Hollywood productions, including Lord Jim and the Shirley Maclaine My Geisha.
This is a good overview of Ozu’s life and career.
Images courtesy Criterion Collection.