Days of Youth Review
For a director who became known as the most Japanese of film-makers, Ozu's early films reflect his western influences extensively. Films like Hen in the Wind and There was a Father seem very like Japanese versions of neo-realism, but his silent films owe even more to the west. Days of Youth is a simple comedy in the mode of early Hollywood where plot, characterisation, and structure are merely in the service of entertainment. In fact, it resembles a student comedy much like a less crude Japanese version of the cack that has followed in the slipstream of American Pie.
The ninth film to be directed by Ozu is a light comedy with none of the earnest reflections on modern Japanese life which mark the director's later films or the passionate moralising which are the hallmark of his films from the 1930s. It is a basic entertainment which may owe something to the director's own experience as a somewhat slack student, and in the character of Yamamoto's friend it has a role not unlike the shy Ozu himself. The comedy is broad and largely about one-upmanship and pratfalls, and the drama is merely a vehicle for the slapstick to be delivered. It would be tempting to read the two male leads as differing male archetypes but this would probably be looking for too much craft in what is basically a naive piece from a director still working out how to make pictures. The story itself centres on Yamamoto, a young student, who hits upon the idea of renting his room out as a way to meet young women. After a number of unattractive false, and male, starts, he succeeds in meeting a young woman who he puts his far from subtle moves on. The error in his plan is that he must find himself somewhere else to live and moves in with a fellow student, who unknown to him has the same feelings for the young woman. Thus begins a tale of male competition with the two men trying to win the woman over with their respective overtures. Once their exams are finished they apply themselves in earnest to their romantic pursuit on the ski slopes.
Days Of Youth is full of love for the films of silent Hollywood. Yamamoto's friend bears more than a slight resemblance to Harold Lloyd and is similarly set against a more worldly man in Yamamoto as Lloyd often was in his films. The two students even have a poster of the 1927 film Seventh Heaven up on their room wall, but the story itself of outright male competition for the attentions of a young woman is the most American thing in the film. To make this competition interesting Ozu has the contrast of the nerdish friend and the very gauche Yamamoto. Both characters lack the depth of later Ozu roles and are merely inventions servicing the script. Ozu's work on later scripts involved a process where he and collaborator Kogo Noda would start with familiar characters and place them into common social situations - the roles would be fully rounded and understandable and not simply servicing melodrama or plot. Ozu's later movies would not have dared to be so judgemental on his characters as the stereotypes that he rolls out here, the female lead here is simply asked to look embarrassed or shy and to put up with all manner of nonsense that the later stronger Ozu women would not have countenanced.
In technique terms, the film is shot a world away from what became Ozu's trademarks. The basic setup of a camera at the eye level of a sitting person is not used, nor is the extensive straight shots of characters talking directly to camera. There are very few set up shots to establish the milieu of scenes or to emphasise the home, and there is even extensive outside shooting. Technically, I imagine making a film which has most of it's third act outside in the snow must have been a headache in 1929 but the efforts to use the slapstick of the location are rather well done. There are some elements of what would become common in Ozu's films with the men's traditional dance in the ski lodge, men drowning their sorrows in alcohol, and the schoolmaster figure. These scenes are evidence of how he would later revisit ideas not for their dramatic interest but for their cultural meaning – the schoolmaster appears again in There Was a Father, an almost autobiographical film, the traditions and ceremonies of life would almost become the whole of his later films, and his male leads would constantly seek solace in drink(like Ozu himself).
Days Of Youth does raise some mild smiles and I like the slightly disappointed ending. It is well delivered physical comedy with some minor efforts at capturing the urban lives of students (we even get some pans over the Tokyo skyline where busy factories are contrasted with the sedentary life of the students). It is far from exceptional and gives little hint of what Ozu would start to achieve with his films in the next decade, yet it is intriguing for its evidence of a young man learning his craft and paying his dues.
In recent years Panorama have delivered many of Ozu's films to DVD on region three with English options. The discs have largely been inexpensive single layer affairs with far from brilliant subtitles or transfers. This is the earliest of his films they have released so far and the age of the print is reflected in the presentation. The print is very, very worn with extensive scuffing, blurring, and associated damage that 77 year old films tend to have, the poorest scenes are in the train carriage as you can see below. The transfer is also poor with moments of excessive combing, macro blocking and contrast levels which don't handle variation well between different levels of black.
The transfer is quite sharp though. Still films this old don't usually exist let alone find a life on DVD, and this completely silent film is only available elsewhere in a Japanese box set without English subtitles. The English subtitles are for the title cards that occur regularly and the standard of English on them is excellent. The menu is dual language as well.
The extras on this single layer disc amount to a filmography and biography available in English and Chinese. The biography is rather well written and the English translation is clear and grammatical, parts of it are reproduced in the handbill which comes as an insert to the DVD case.
It needs to be remembered that many of the great films of Japanese masters like Mizoguchi, Naruse and Sadao Yamanaka may never see the light of day on DVD so the ongoing release of even a very minor Ozu is a cause for joy. Days of Youth is a film which shows how much Ozu loved the films of Hollywood and also how much he had still to learn to become the master that he was. This is the only English friendly version out there and despite the aged print and cheap transfer, this is essential for any fans of Ozu as it represents the earliest of his films available on DVD.