Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies

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Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Wed Jun 18, 2008 10:34 pm

Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies

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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.

Passing Fancy 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.
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Unread post by boblipton » Thu Jun 19, 2008 6:38 am

Nice article. After the Ozu festival came through New York a couple of years, I spent some time being puzzled. Here is a director whose silent work reeks of American influence: not just the William Powell posters on the walls of the Japanese gangsters, but stories that might have been directed by Robert McGowan in a contemplative mood. The arc of his art, too, is very reminiscent of those Roach alumni, Leo McCarey and George Stevens: the early comedies, the later serious and sentimental works. His characters are driven by basic, universal urges. What was so alien?

Your statement that he was talking about the Japanese and we don't talk about family in front of strangers.... well, maybe, but I find Ozu more accessible than Kurosawa's historical epics (although not as visually sumptuous) and certainly more understandable than Mizoguchi. I suspect, from the few really early Japanese films I have seen that their story-telling technique had been completely hidebound so that people did things because the plot needed advancing, rather than because of their character. Characters were types, not individuals.

But bear in mind that the composition of the Japanese studio was as strange as the composition of American studios and, according to one of the interviews of Kurosawa I have read, it wasn't just the success of 7 SAMURAI that saved him from being broken after he had gone mad on the production. He was almost kicked out until RASHOMON won at Venice. And apparently Japanese studios never considered foreign markets. So it is quite possible that Ozu's studio simply never thought about exporting his works..... and offered a face-saving excuse.

Bob
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Unread post by Mike Gebert » Thu Jun 19, 2008 6:56 am

I really don't know how much distribution pre-1950s Japanese films got overseas. There's no question that Rashomon was a big breakthrough film (initially at the Venice Film Festival), and that many people reacted as if an alien world had just opened up. But I Was Born, But also played at the very first Venice festival, and a lot of 30s and 40s titles have English titles on the IMDB, which suggests some level of distribution, at least some of which must have been at the time, not later (though clearly 30s Mizoguchi, for instance, was introduced to the West much later, after the worldwide success of later works). All I know is, it's an oft-repeated truism that somebody thought Ozu was less accessible than Kurosawa, when like you, I don't think that's at all the case, especially for the earlier films.
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Unread post by boblipton » Thu Jun 19, 2008 4:59 pm

All right, then, the question becomes one of pre-war distribution. Any movie-palace programs from Argentina featuring Japanese films, folks? And what about from the West Coast and Honolulu, where there were significant numbers of Nisei? Any one?

Bob
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Unread post by Mike Gebert » Thu Jun 19, 2008 5:38 pm

Okay, you inspired me to look for any evidence in the NY Times archive that Japanese films got release and were reviewed. (If they played to Japanese-only audiences, they wouldn't have, but then that wouldn't really be "being known to the west," either.)

Mizoguchi: nothing before Ugetsu in 1954. Ozu: nothing before the 60s. Kinugasa: nothing before Gate of Hell in 1954. Yamanaka: nothing until 1964.

So despite the occasional English name on a 1930s Japanese film in the IMDB, it really does seem that none of these things were exported until the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe they were for Japanese-Americans, but not for general audiences.
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Unread post by spadeneal » Mon Jan 10, 2011 11:29 am

Mike Gebert wrote:Okay, you inspired me to look for any evidence in the NY Times archive that Japanese films got release and were reviewed. (If they played to Japanese-only audiences, they wouldn't have, but then that wouldn't really be "being known to the west," either.)

Mizoguchi: nothing before Ugetsu in 1954. Ozu: nothing before the 60s. Kinugasa: nothing before Gate of Hell in 1954. Yamanaka: nothing until 1964.

So despite the occasional English name on a 1930s Japanese film in the IMDB, it really does seem that none of these things were exported until the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe they were for Japanese-Americans, but not for general audiences.
Mike,

Thanks for looking into this. When I saw I Was Born, But... on TCM last night I was really quite puzzled by Robert Osborne's comment at the end, that Ozu's films were not shown abroad because it was felt that American viewers would not "get" his stories of ordinary people and their everyday lives. This echoes the truism that you mentioned; that "somebody thought" his films were not suitable for export.

I really don't think even Japanese-Americans saw many Japanese films outside Japan before WWII. Japan was still a fairly insular society in many ways before 1939 and might not have recognized the export value of their films apart from to China. My wife said that her grandfather used to drop her off -- this was in the 60s, when she was a small child -- at the Linda Lee Theater in LA, which was the main neighborhood Asian movie theater in the LA basin at the time. She said it was "old, but probably not older than the 30s or 40s." They showed a mix of Chinese-Japanese films; mostly current ones, but they did show some classics. Allisyn remembered seeing some black and white Mifune films and some of the earlier Zatoichi pictures at the Linda Lee.

The print I saw of Sadao Yamanaka's Sazen Tange and the Million Ryo Pot at the University of Michigan in about 2006 was one of the most beat up and abused specimens of 16mm I have ever witnessed; blurry, impossible to focus properly, bad soundtrack and those awful, burnished in titles of the kind you see in the most ancient subtitled prints of European films. When I was watching I was thinking that this print may have been contemporaneous to the original 1935 movie, however 1964 might work if the Japan Film Society of NY -- whose print this was -- was working on a budget and using sub-standard equipment for titling. And if that was -- and possibly is still -- the only print in the country of this Yamanaka subject then the heavy wear and tear on the title would be as justifiable to 1964 as it would 1935.

In short, I just think that there was no reason/business model for/appreciation of Japanese Cinema in the US before Rashomon. You certainly do not encounter stills from Japanese films in older 'film as art' type books, but you do in ones published after 1950. Love him or hate him -- and apparently some folks do hate him -- Donald Richie seems to have been a central catalyst of appreciation of Japanese film in the US; he was the main talking head in the first docu about Japanese cinema I ever saw, back in the 70s, and his books were the first I read on the topic. I also realize Richie might well be the source of at least some of the boring, auteurist academic rhethoric on directors like Ozu, but he appreciated Ozu enough to seek the man himself out in the late 1940s; not many critics can claim that for themselves.

None of this really answers the question as to how this led to the perception that Ozu wouldn't travel, what the basis was for this myth and why that is interesting in the context of Ozu's films, because they travel just fine, all of them. One doesn't know where to lay the blame; with the auterist academics, with their reasoned, intellectual explanations of everything, or the know-nothing ya-yas, bending over backwards to make these properties appeal to the g.p. In any event, this idea was considered cogent enough that Robert Osborne repeated it last night.

spadeneal

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Unread post by DShepFilm » Mon Jan 10, 2011 12:44 pm

A theatre in Los Angeles, the Linda Lee on North Main Street, ran both Japanese and American films with live katsuben (benshi) narrations for Japanese-American audiences. The benshi were billed above the film stars and were imported as guest artists from Japan, along with the film prints. This began about 1924 and continued until 1942 when the Japanese-American audiences were hauled off to internment. The Linda Lee had been a nickelodeon pre-1910 and last time I went by, the building was still there as a flower shop.

The history of its exhibition is chronicled in a Japanese-language weekly newspaper from Garden Grove (a southern suburb of L.A.) which is preserved in the L.A. Public Library, or at least it was before the terrible arson fire; I don't know whether the newspaper run survived or not.

David Shepard

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Unread post by Mike Gebert » Mon Jan 10, 2011 12:56 pm

Thanks, David. It seemed likely to me that Japanese films were brought over at some point but that they would have gone under the radar of mainstream media at the time. I wonder if there was a similar theater in the 1940s in Chicago, since many of the Japanese fled the coast for here where the restrictions and threat of interment were far less.
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