Criterion Eclipse release their second set of Ozu films, this time three early silent comedies. John White appreciates the beginnings of a master film-maker…
Yasujiro Ozu’s very first films show little of the socio-cultural concerns that his later movies would explore so thoroughly. His earliest works were largely generic entertainment vehicles aping the successful foreign imports of early Hollywood such as the slapstick comedy of Days of Youth, but gradually the director started to explore the society he lived in and the rites and routines of Japanese cultural life. This set of three silent comedies made at the start of the 1930’s capture a growing concern with young family life and the world as seen through they eyes of different generations.
First up is Tokyo Chorus, where a young office worker’s family look forward to pay day with anticipation. His son wants a bicycle and Dad promises to buy one, and when he receives a larger than usual bonus this seems to be a promise he will keep. Then he gets caught in an argument with his boss about his treatment of an older worker, and the two men come to blows and soon Daddy is unemployed. His kids can’t understand why he can’t keep to his word and when his young girl falls ill this costs more money that the couple don’t have. A new job doesn’t come easily and the best offer he gets is leafleting for an old teacher who offers to pull strings at the education ministry for him. But is this another dead end in in the “city of the unemployed”?For a director who would become renowned for his subtle portrayals of family life, Ozu’s comedies show a rather bawdy sense of humour. One sequence in Tokyo Chorus involves the office workers jealously counting their bonuses in the staff toilet where one worker drops his money in the urinal and is forced to retrieve the tainted cash. This is not the only urine based gag in the film either, as obvious humour ensures that the story will be an accessible one of social misadventure rather than mired in political comedy. This doesn’t mean that the story doesn’t go into dark places as the father of this Ozu family sees the results of unemployment all around him when he goes to the labour exchange and is forced to pay hospital bills by selling some of the family’s possessions. His descent to the edges of society is further underlined when the only work he can find is to walk around Tokyo carrying message boards and leafleting with a possibly vain hope of better to come.
Ozu’s film keeps up the humour in order to stop the piece from becoming earnest but the work has a decidedly grim appearance at times. Tokyo is presented as a place where those in work are closer to poverty than they would like to think and where virtue and loyalty may cost you your job if you challenge authority. The film contrasts the unhappy present with an opening which takes place in the school yard of the father’s youth as students are put through their paces, and the cares of the adult world are far away. Fun and bitter-sweet, the film shows the director starting to use devices which would become hallmarks of his greatest work – the image of the factory whistle, the train journey and the esteemed former teacher all appear. Tokyo Chorus shows a growing seriousness in the film-maker’s choice of settings but rescues its characters from harm with light enjoyable comedy.Ozu re-used characters and situations extensively in his career and re-made two of his films in later life as well. I was born but was remade later as Good Morning, and it seems to me that the director had no need to do so as the latter rather rose tinted film proved very minor when compared with this excellent early comedy. Dealing again with a family with young children, who this time have just moved house, “I was born but” ostensibly considers the kid’s efforts to get used to new friends and a new school.
What raises the film above a simple comedy about the rites of childhood is a subtle and rather brilliant treatment that considers the story in the context of status and authority. When at first the two kids move into their new home, they are outsiders to be bullied by the local children and they find themselves scared to go to school. Then the kids learn to get the local drinks seller to bully their tormentors back and find themselves heading up the gang that once tormented them. On top of their own world they go with their gang to Taro’s father’s house to watch home movies which show them that whilst they may tell Taro what to do, their father has to defer to Taro’s father, his boss. The kids rebel against their dad and he reflects that he admires them for their irreverence, a quality that the adult world has educated out of him.Whilst largely whimsical and concerned with the world of children and their games, the film shares the father’s nostalgia for a place where status wasn’t such a bar to what you want to be and do. Ozu’s own misspent youth seems to be mourned as he recognises that compromise is an essential value of growing up. The father who once said his children could not understand why he had to defer to his boss, finds himself accepted again by his kids and encouraged to do what he needs to do to get by at the end of the film. Images of family abound with the symbolism of the clan’s washing drying together and Ozu even directly compares the office of the adults with the classroom of the kids in one mix of tracking shots which is very effective, if completely anti-antithetical to the later style of the man. “I was born but…” is truly wonderful, a real maturation which balances the comedy of children with the sanguine process of growing up.
Passing Fancy is about a deadbeat single dad, his young son, and the friends around them. Set again with unemployment, destitution and poverty as the backdrop to the comic drama, the film is not quite as revelatory as the former film in the collection. Instead, the movie enjoys Kihachi’s wastrel ways and the growing romance between his best friend Jiro and the woman he saves from the streets, Harue. There are again dramatic scenes where the son berates his father for being a loser and a child is ill hospital sequence like in both of the above films, and it does seem clear that Ozu has found a winning formula that means that he returns to certain elements in each of these films.Here the deadbeat Kihachi learns his place in life as an illiterate father and few women’s idea of a catch, and he finally attempts to make up for things by a dramatic sacrifice. It is rather symptomatic of the film that this sacrifice is soon renounced for the comforts of a relatively modest home, and the love of his son. Less earnest than the previous films, Passing Fancy still includes wonderful sequences like the opening concert where the impoverished audience all surreptitiously check a purse hoping it has money inside it. Passing Fancy is a warm hearted melodrama which opts to provide comforting entertainment rather than more complex social statements.
The three films are presented on dual layer discs with two audio options – silence or with rather good piano scores by Donald Sosin. The films are accompanied by no extras other than the very readable and useful liner notes, and each disc is housed in slim cases which are further accommodated in a thin dust sleeve for all three.As you can see from the above capture, the visual quality of each film does reflect the seventy plus years that have passed since they were first made and each of the transfers includes regular examples of print damages such as abrasions, lines and, very occasionally, tears. No extra restoration has taken place and the visual quality is very similar to the Chinese R3 disc of Passing Fancy, although the films have been transferred with more care here to avoid artefacts and aliasing and maintain the best contrast and detail possible. Passing Fancy is the only film to be at anything other than 4:3, coming in at 1.26:1. For a casual viewer these transfers may be difficult to sit through because of the print quality limiting sharpness and definition, but more ardent Ozu enthusiasts will excuse the ravages of time for the availability of three fine movies. Each film carries optional English subs to explain inter-titles, which they do clearly and sensibly.
Two good films and one superb one for less than the price of shop bought DVD. That’s excellent value for three films capturing the growing sensibility of Japan’s favourite director.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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