Ozu Collection Volume 2 Review

Tartan’s second Ozu Collection might not appear to have the thematic coherence of the earlier ‘Noriko Trilogy’ in Ozu Volume 1, but Ozu’s preoccupation with the family, their inter-relationships and the societal background in which they exist, as well as the refined style of the scripts and filmmaking approach, keep both Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) and Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (1952) firmly within recognisable Ozu territory. The two films included in this second set are also from that same golden period of Ozu’s post-WWII films - Record of a Tenement Gentleman preceding Late Spring (1949), while Flavour of Green Tea over Rice nestles between Early Summer (1951) and the director’s masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953). Consequently, both the films in this set, if not key works, are nevertheless superb examples of the director’s craft.

Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947)

Ozu’s 1947 film, his first post-war film, is a straightforward and simple small-scale story. Most of them are, depicting as they almost invariably do, simple little events in ordinary people’s lives; the circumstances that bring people together and the bonds that keep friends and families together. Record of a Tenement Gentleman, running at around 70 minutes is on the surface simpler than most, but it retains all the essential elements and the sheer mastery that would be subsequently be demonstrated in the Noriko Trilogy.

Tashiro (Chishu Ryu) returns to his tenement block with a young boy in tow (Hohi Aoki), a scruffy little urchin wandering the streets, who has followed him home. He manages to unload the boy onto a neighbour, Tane (Chouko Iida), a widow who reluctantly takes on the task of looking after him. Taking the boy back to his home town in Chigasaki, she discovers that the boy had been brought to Tokyo by his father, a carpenter looking for work, who has either lost or abandoned the boy. The kid is a nuisance – he wets the bed and cries a lot when confronted by Tane’s fearsome scowl. He doesn’t even bring the widow luck when he buys a lottery ticket, like the son of one of her neighbours. Yet despite the unlikely association and their frequent misunderstanding of each other, a bond develops between the young boy and the old lady.

There’s nothing deeper to Record of a Tenement Gentleman than this (although I have to confess the title of the film baffles me). It’s a simple story of the lives of ordinary people getting by in the post-war years and the story is treated without sentimentality or contrivance. The characters, as in all Ozu’s films are resolutely human and recognisable in their behaviours and characteristics. The boy is just an ordinary child, not some cute little orphan out to solicit sympathy from the audience. He's an ugly little tyke who hardly speaks a word, and tags along like a dog seeking an owner - and this realistically is how a child really would behave in such a predicament. The neighbours of the tenement block are similarly flawed in a very human way. None of them particularly want to take on responsibility for the child, tricking each other into looking after him and even trying to run away and abandon him again like a stray dog. Yet they do what they have to - for themselves and for other people - sharing their fortunes and helping each other out of their misfortunes. There is no social commentary in the depiction of post-war Japan here – the social hardships are evident, but are not shown to make any political statement – they are merely a background for the playing out of the lives of the characters. In Record of a Tenement Gentleman there are lots of those little Ozu moments of wonder and humour, kindness and joy – all the little moments that make up life, depicted on the screen as only Yasujiro Ozu could do.

Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (1952)

There is a sense of familiarity in the situations depicted in Flavour of Green Tea over Rice; the generation gap and their different attitudes towards marriage; coming to terms with the cards life has dealt you; making the most of what you have; and enjoying the simple things in life. If you haven’t seen an Ozu film, that description of the themes will sound utterly trite and banal, but if you’ve ever seen what Ozu can do with such everyday situations and characters, you’ll know to expect something special from this familiar ground.

Takeo (Michiyo Kogure) is bored with her husband (Shin Saburi), a stable and unadventurous businessman, who she calls Dull-chan, and not in an affectionate way. Takeo likes to do things her way, and her husband’s unexciting lifestyle is not for her. Making an excuse that one of her friends is ill and that she is going to visit her in hospital, she takes off with a group of friends for a weekend in a spa, drinking sake and making fun of each other’s dull, boring husbands. Takeo’s niece Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), who is visiting, goes with them. Her mother is trying to set-up a suitable match for an arranged marriage for the young woman, but seeing the petty deceptions and lack of respect that constitutes the married life of Takeo and her friends, she isn’t happy with the old-fashioned traditions.

Ozu tackles familiar themes and character types here – the theme of arranged marriages and the different attitudes towards it is most masterfully dealt with by Ozu the previous year in Early Summer (1951), but here, the director again subtly adjusts the balance and weight to examine one certain aspect of these themes in more depth and from a different angle. There is a sense however that everything is a little too neatly arranged here in Flavour of Green Tea over Rice - everyone knows what they want and speaks their mind plainly, leaving the viewer in no doubt as to what lies behind their nature and motivations. Combined with the formalism of Japanese manners and Ozu’s minimalist filming style, it can look a little artificial and theatrical. At the same time however, the precision of the script is remarkable, the performances are perfectly measured (as they always are in an Ozu film) and the film is admirably successful in telling its little story and in being entertaining at the same time. It may not be classic Ozu, but it is not far from it and a wonderful piece of filmmaking in its own right.

More than anything, what Flavour of Green Tea over Rice has is that beautiful luminous transparency of Ozu’s, opening up the characters without contrivance, so that you can plainly and simply see their nature and make-up. It’s nothing complex – people’s basic make-up and behavioural patterns are easy enough to identify (although it still takes incredible skill to present that effectively and realistically on the screen as Ozu does here) – it’s the interaction with other people’s nature and character that little dramas arise. Ozu recognises this and presents it in this film with deceptive ease, perfectly summing up this theme in the title of the film – it’s the simple little things in life and the interaction between different elements, like sharing green tea over rice, that give rise to true happiness, not in getting your own way and doing everything you like. And this holds true for the older couple in the arranged marriage Taeko and Satake as much as for the young Setsuko and Non-Chan in his second-hand suit.

Ozu Volume 2 follows Tartan’s earlier release of Ozu Volume 1: The Noriko Trilogy. Forthcoming volumes will include Tokyo Twilight, Equinox Flower and Good Morning (Volume 3), Late Autumn and Autumn Afternoon (Volume 4). The two films included on Volume 2 are not region encoded.

Any unreasonably optimistic hopes that Tartan’s delay in releasing this second volume of Ozu titles was through an attempt to find better source materials are soon dashed. The picture quality on Record of a Tenement Gentleman is simply dreadful – the image is made up of very grey, murky, flat tones and lacking in detail and sharpness. Some marks are certainly evident – not little dust spots, but larger flaws that mar individual frames and shifting brightness tones. The worst problem however is the telecine transfer, with frequent little jumps and wobbles throughout the film’s length, visible not only in editing transitions, but in the middle of scenes, blurring the image as it pops. On at least 5 or 6 occasions, the whole image shakes quite noticeably from side to side and up and down for a 10-15 seconds at a time. This is an intolerably bad transfer.

The image on Flavour of Green Tea over Rice is a little better – it’s at least watchable. It does however have the same very dull grey, soft, hazy quality, with poor contrast and flat blacks. There are a few jumps and wobbles in the image – not as much as in Record of a Tenement Gentleman, they are mostly confined to transitions between shots and edits. Fluctuation in the lighting can be seen throughout, making the image flicker a lot. Damage is not extensive, but marks are certainly visible on occasions and are of the larger type rather than dustspots.

Like the titles in Tartan’s previous Ozu Volume 1: The Noriko Trilogy, the running times would indicate that these are also probably NTSC to PAL transfers, but since the films are - like most Ozu films - made up of static shots, there is little evidence of any telltale motion blurring. I’m not sure what condition the materials made available to Tartan are or how much they can be restored, but these surely ought to look much better than this. Overall though, the brilliance of the films is hardly affected by the rather poor condition of the prints.

The audio track on Record of a Tenement Gentleman, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, is fairly crackly, but mostly clear and audible. One or two scenes aren’t quite so clear and the hiss threatens to overwhelm the dialogue, but this is rare and probably down to the state of the original elements.

Flavour of Green Tea over Rice is also rather dull and flat, occasionally rising in volume and sounding a little bit harsh. It’s reasonably good though and quite clear and certainly better than the crackly source material demo-ed in the extra features.

Each of the films has removable English subtitles. The titles are clearly visible at all times and read well.

Record of a Tenement Gentleman contains a Commentary from Derek Malcolm, which illustrates the futility of commentating on an Ozu film. He makes a few interesting points early on about Ozu’s background and technique, but lapses into silence for the main part (added-up, with the long gaps removed, the commentary would scarcely cover 10 minutes of the running time) popping up now and again to point out things you can basically see and work out for yourself. A short essay would have covered this in a much more convenient and appropriate format. Other than giving you the opportunity to see the film again, sitting through the commentary is a complete waste of time. The Photo Gallery is lovely, made up of 18 gorgeous black and white images which show just how good this film could look with a better transfer. Considering the state of the transfer on Record of a Tenement Gentleman – the four-minute Restoring Ozu demo must be some kind of joke. Three scenes are shown in split-screen, the only noticeable difference being that one section wobbles a lot more than the other. I’m not convinced they used the restored version for the final transfer.

Flavour of Green Tea over Rice has no commentary track, just a Photo Gallery which contains 20 beautiful black and white promotional stills. If only the DVD print looked as good as these. A three and a half-minute Restoring Ozu demo focuses on the audio restoration showing three scenes which are noticeably improved from the before and after comparisons.

Neither of the films in The Ozu Collection: Volume 2 are quite the up to the level of the masterpieces in Ozu Volume 1: The Noriko Trilogy, but what is really? Both Record of a Tenement Gentleman and Flavour of Green Tea over Rice however are pure Yasujiro Ozu, containing many of the directors favourite character types, themes and subjects and these beautiful little films are treated with no less of the customary precision and delicacy that you expect from the great Japanese director. Tartan’s presentation of their Ozu films however continues to be very poor – dull, shaky NTSC to PAL transfers that do nothing for the films, but neither do they take much away from these little gems.

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