Three Melodramas Review
Yasujiro Ozu is generally looked at as the cuddly grandfather of Japanese Cinema: the master of understatement, the purveyor of gentle family dramas that manage to be sad and uplifting with a subtlety that eludes modern cinema. As such, you’d think the BFI would be hard pressed to come up with films from his collection to label as melodramas, but they’ve put together a trilogy for their Three Melodramas collection. In actuality: Woman of Tokyo, Early Spring, and Tokyo Twilight may have moments that are clearly melodramatic, but in their own bleak way they are pretty typical Ozu films – albeit with common themes and actions running through each that make them appropriate bedfellows.
First up is the 1933 short feature: Woman of Tokyo, a silent tale of self-sacrifice and the fallout that follows scandal in pre-war Tokyo. The woman of the title is Chikako, a seemingly ordinary office clerk whose life revolves around providing a stable home and university education for her younger brother Ryoichi. This life becomes threatened when the police start investigating Chikako’s activities after rumours circulate that she is working as a hostess in a cabaret club. When Ryoichi’s girlfriend Harue learns of the rumours she eventually lets slip to Ryoichi, with tragic consequences.
At 47mins long (shorter with PAL speedup) and with only minimal dialogue, Woman of Tokyo could almost be viewed as a saturated aunt of his later post-war talkies. It lacks many of the subtleties of those famous works and even has a harsher edge, with one scene of domestic violence that must have been pretty shocking back in the thirties – Heck it’s still shocking today to viewers familiar with Ozu’s usual gentle tone – But in terms of characterisation and narrative it’s pretty effective, starting out almost as a mystery as the details of Chikako’s life are drip-fed to the viewer, then exploding into melodrama in the second half. Ozu’s use of the mise-en-scène is also as deft as ever, with little touches communicating much to the audience; like a shot of a sword hanging on a wall that instantly establishing a character as being a policeman, or the placing of a boiling kettle in the foreground so it counterpoints the rising emotions of the characters.
If the rather sensationalised aspects of Woman of Tokyo may come as a surprise to fans who are mostly familiar with Ozu’s more measured approach, then Early Spring will probably feel much more familiar. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find any melodrama at all in this second entry to the Three Melodramas collection. It examines the lives of office workers at a Fire Brick company in post-war Tokyo, concentrating on Shoji Sugiyama, whose marriage to strong-willed Masako has gone off the boil just a few years after the death of their infant son. Eventually he relents to the attentions of attractive co-worker Keiko Kishi, which inevitably causes fallout between co-workers and Masako herself.
At the heart of Woman of Tokyo and Tokyo Twilight are two young characters whose world collapses around them, Early Spring also examines shattered dreams, but ones that have begun to crack under the strain of years & years of gradual monotony. The film opens with a sequence of short scenes showing how entire wooden-house suburbs congregate together at the same time for the early morning train to the commercialised, concrete heart of Tokyo - Ozu even inserts an unusually didactic conversation between two co-workers who are happy to have pre-emptied the early morning stampede, which informs the viewer that over 340,000 commuters pass through Tokyo Station each morning – and from there a picture is methodically painted of “the daily grind”, which offers little prospects and fewer rewards for workers who were once University graduates promised a life of meaning and prosperity as a lauded “Salaryman”.
In its own way Early Spring is perhaps the most dispiriting film in this collection, sure it lacks the volatility of Woman of Tokyo and the sheer despair of Tokyo Twilight, but its picture of life in modern society is all too real for anyone stuck in a dead end, 9-to-5 existence. Its examination of relationships is also at times uncomfortably on the nose, showing how the disillusioned crave more engaging social interactions – be it a nightly game of Mahjong, or a trip to the local bar... or a full blown affair - which can lead to neglect at home. And yet Ozu doesn’t just hang the blame on a specific career path, or even the commercialisation of Tokyo. He explores how most people always view the grass as greener on the other side, regardless of whether you’re a salaryman, bar-owner, or a housewife idolising the lives of your single friends, and comes to the conclusion that it’s human nature to feel underwhelmed by your current destination in life, and that (in typically Ozu fashion) satisfaction is merely a state of mind that requires intent to achieve.
The final film in this collection: Tokyo Twilight has already been reviewed for The Digital Fix by Noel Megahey back when Tartan started their own DVD Ozu Collection eight years ago. Those releases are long OOP (hence this new release from the BFI) but Noel’s review is certainly not out of print and it says everything that needs to be said about the film in concise form, so I will simply present his review here:
Tokyo Twilight (1957)
Unusually for Ozu, Tokyo Twilight depicts the darker side of human and family relationships. It’s not unique in Ozu’s film career and there is a measure of conflict and tragedy in most of his films - Ozu wouldn’t be the director he is if his films only depicted the positive values of family relationships. At his best, in films like Tokyo Story Ozu manages to combine both aspects in a manner that is usually termed as bittersweet, but in reality the counterbalance of tragedy and comfort offered by the family bond is often far more complex and mutually inter-dependant than that reductive description would indicate.
These same issues then are examined in Tokyo Twilight, although the balance and tone present quite a different perspective on post-war Japanese living and family values. As the title suggests, the film skirts the darker side of Tokyo, the twilight world of Shinjuku gambling houses, mah-jong and pachinko parlours, police cells, late-night bars and pick-up joints, where lives are falling apart and relationships are fractured.
Takako (Setsuko Hara) and Akiko (Ineko Arima) are two sisters, raised alone by their father Mr Sugiyama (Chishu Ryu) after their mother walked out on them many years ago. The broken family unit has had an unfortunate affect on both women. Takako is married to Numata, with a young daughter, but her husband drinks a lot and it is an unhappy marriage. Takako has temporarily moved back to with her father, who blames himself for arranging the marriage. Akiko is not married, but leads a rather dissolute life hanging around late-night bars and gambling houses looking for her boyfriend Keiji. At a mah-jong parlour, she meets a woman who claims to know her as a neighbour in the district they grew up as children, but she suspects the woman might be the mother who left them when she was only three years old.
Touching on issues such as alcoholism, mothers abandoning children and unwanted pregnancies, Ozu’s concern in Tokyo Twilight is not so much the social issues they give rise to, as the affect they have on the family unit. If that message is a little too heavy-handed and obvious here, lacking the complexity of his finer work, formally Tokyo Twilight is as strong as any Ozu film, with superb compositions and performances, maintaining a subdued, even languid tone throughout.
Noel’s review in its original form can be found here, and the rest of his excellent reviews for the Tartan Ozu Collection can be found at the bottom of our Ozu Collection Grouping page.
PresentationAll three films in the set are presented in their original 4:3 aspect ratio (give or take a few pixels) and their runtimes suggest they are also native PAL, but understandably given the age difference between Woman of Tokyo and Early Spring/Tokyo Twilight there is a very distinct disparity in quality between them. Having said that, the presentation of Woman of Tokyo is serviceable enough. Obviously there’s a plethora of print damage and instabilities (although not nearly as much as you’d expect, the BFI have cleaned it up well) and the image looks soft with dreary contrast that barely registers anything close to black and whites that bloom (the latter a deliberate stylistic choice on the part of Ozu), but we can’t expect more outside of an all-expensive restoration. The only thing that really disappointed me in any way was the amount of ringing present, as both dark and bright halos, suggesting the masters the BFI were given were far from ideal (the screengrab below of Harue & Ryouchi at the cinema really shows this). Compression could also be better I suppose, but again you’ve got to look at this film as more of a (very) generous extra tagged alongside the more famous films in this set.
Early Spring and Tokyo Twilight fare much better, in fact their transfers are close enough in quality for me to discuss them together, with both films exhibiting much better balanced contrast and sharper transfers than their older companion piece. If I had to choose, Twilight seems to just have the edge in image detail, which can be a little less consistent in Early Spring, but both exhibit that distinctly soft greyscale look that tends to typify releases struck from Japanese masters that haven’t had their contrast adjusted (ala: Criterion), and both look remarkably clean for their age, with only minimal scratches or flecks and only the occasional instability moving from shot-to-shot. Alas, compression isn’t a great deal better for the newer titles, with banding and the occasional blocking noticeable throughout. This is unavoidable given the length of the Spring/Twilight, and the first disc has to deal with Woman of Tokyo on top, pushing the total content past three hours.
There is one issue that separates Early Spring from Tokyo Twilight however, and that is what appears to be some sort of interlacing or de-interlacing “glitch” that mire the Tokyo Twilight transfer at periodic intervals throughout the film. This appears as jagged lines running through the image in a sort of “wave”, and can be quite distracting for brief amount of time it occurs.
Ironically the best sounding film in this collection is the silent film Woman of Tokyo, because alongside the option to watch the film in total silence, you also have the choice of an accompanying film score composed by Ed Hughes and presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Having the advantage of being a contemporary recording, it unsurprisingly sounds very dynamic with solid bass and smooth treble. The score itself reminded me a little in places of the work of Thomas Newman, and while it accompanies the film nicely enough, it is perhaps a lot “busier” than any music Ozu would have probably chosen himself. I’m sure many will much prefer it to the silent option though, so it’s a very welcome addition.
Early Spring and Tokyo Twilight are presented in Japanese DD2.0 Mono to a roughly comparable standard of quality, with both tracks sounding very clear and clean for their age. The audio for Early Spring has to have the edge though for its fractionally greater clarity and general lack of hiss and crackle in comparison to the slightly rougher sounding Tokyo Twilight. Both films obviously feature bass that is a touch hollow, treble that’s a touch harsh, with some tearing in the upper register, but these things come with the deterioration of time. Overall they’re both very pleasing audio presentations.
Optional subtitles are included for all titles in the collection.
ExtrasSadly there are no extra features provided on the DVDs themselves, which is probably a good thing in terms of video footage given the length of the feature film footage on each disc. Nevertheless, it would have been nice to have an audio commentary for Tokyo Twilight at the least.
Instead you’ll have to make do with the 28pg BFI Booklet, but if you’ve bothered to flick through any of the company’s previous booklets you’ll know that these things can be a treasure trove of information. Four essays are provided, one for each film and an excellent introductory essay from Tony Rayns that establishes the context of the collection mainly by examining Ozu’s use of melodrama.
It’s at this point that I must reveal in the interest of full disclosure that we at The Digital Fix could be accused of bias when reviewing this booklet, because our long time friend and contributor Anthony Nield was commissioned to provide the essay for Woman of Tokyo. This is Anthony’s first properly published original work, so it’s something of a big deal, and I feel I can speak for everyone at TDF in offering hearty congratulations to Anthony. Here’s to the first of many! The essay itself is easily up to his usual standards, providing welcome information on the history of the film and offering his opinion as to why Ozu chose to present clips from the 1932 Western anthology If I Had a Million in his film.
Nick Wrigley, a former TDF contributor who wrote briefly for the site back in the early days of DVDTimes before he moved on to bigger and brighter things like founding the Masters of Cinema label, provides an essay for Early Spring that is the most expansive piece of writing in the booklet. Extensively researched and imparting a wealth of information on the film, including a list of personal observations that come with screenshots, this is a must read for Early Spring fans and perhaps the closest thing this set comes to offering a running film commentary. The final film essay sees Daisuke Miyao examining Tokyo Twilight, concentrating mainly on Japanese history and certain stylistic flourishes Ozu adopted for the film, this essay could very well have you rediscovering the film in a whole new “light” (poor pun intended ).
Concluding the booklet is a final piece of writing by composer Ed Hughes explaining the creative choices made for the score for Woman of Tokyo, the BFI also provide a brief biography for Ed and also technical information on the transfers for each film in the set, along with the customary acknowledgements for the booklet.