The Japanese Master earns a box set of his early silent comedies, and Judge Bill Gibron wonders what it means to Ozu purists and those unfamiliar with the director's work.
A master making a name for himself.
What does the name Yasujiro Ozu mean to you, the modern film fan? Here's a more pressing concern: are you even familiar with his movies? He died over forty-five years ago, and his most important works were part of a time period nearly five decades past. As a matter of fact, most Americans never saw the man's artistic interpretations of everyday life until the '60s and '70s, and then, some critics considered them "too Japanese" for mainstream acceptance. For anyone of Eastern descent, his films have become a canvas of a culture—and an era—long gone. But does a postmodern audience still respond to such old-world traditionalism, and even better, does the simplistic way Ozu presents it still work? Well, a good way to answer this dilemma is to delve into the man's earliest expressions, and Criterion's subdivision Eclipse is allowing us to do just that. Eclipse Series 10: Silent Ozu—Three Family Comedies collects three of his "family comedies," giving viewers a chance to size up the filmmaker. How you react to these transitional titles will greatly influence your take on Ozu—and then again, maybe it won't.
Facts of the Case
Representing the tail end of Ozu's silent period (he would make only six more such films before entering the world of "talkies" with 1936's The Only Son), we see three examples of a master honing his craft. While working for Shochiku studios, Ozu took familiar Japanese concepts and co-opted them, placing emphasis on those ideas he felt where important. We can see this in the stories he decides to tell, beginning with:
Tokyo Chorus (1931)
I Was Born, But… (1932)
Passing Fancy (1933)
Legend has it that when sound came to Japanese cinema, storied filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu completely shunned the new technology. His reasons seemed simple at the time: Why enter into a new expression of the medium when he was so close to perfecting the silent film? Indeed, over the course of several features, the director found solace and grace in the genre types that defined his industry—the family saga, the college yarn, the class struggle among workers, the complicated lives of children. Eventually, he would embrace sound and, with it, a desire to move away from that obstacles that came with a love of early Hollywood. Throughout the rest of his career, Ozu would reduce his technique, removing unnecessary panache and purposeless flash to become a minimalist in the most magnificent sense. He could illustrate the most awesome of universal truths within an unassuming, modest narrative.
So coming to three of his earlier, silent films may seem difficult, especially for the devotee who only knows his later refinement. Yet what one can witness throughout the course of Eclipse Series 10: Silent Ozu is how, early on, this artist understood the value of less. Each film here is merely 90 minutes long. None tells a complicated story. All evoke family in its most basic form—working father, honorable mother, stubborn insubordinate kids. Within the dynamic, the typical kitchen-sink situations apply—except instead of coffee and cake, rice and sake act as our cultural stand-ins. Without sound, the details become sharper, as do the ritualistic elements of the heritage. Not only do the three films stand as a unique look at a master's formative years, they give us a wonderful look at the textures, the principles, and the traditions that defined prewar Japan.
Of the movies, Tokyo Chorus is the most blatantly old-fashioned. It's like Bicycle Thieves without the neo-realistic sheen. Ozu's approach to a father losing his job on principle and the fallout among the family has very little to do with how circumstances actually sync up. Instead, we get a dainty divide between hurt parent (a father who now cannot provide) and child (a boy unhappy that he will not receive a promised present). Yet that thread is quickly dispatched so the director can explore the husband/wife dynamic. In fact, much of Tokyo Chorus is set up as an overview of life in the city circa 1931. The various vignettes—the opening college lineup, the office politics of bonus day, the curry restaurant routine, the care for clothing and kimonos—are perfectly realized, each one adding another layer to Ozu's intentions.
If we are to take anything away from this otherwise obvious movie, it's that hard work and dedication are rewarded in the end. In addition, there is a clear subtext of familial togetherness and support. When Okajima's son is mad or his wife embarrassed, the bonds seem fragile. Together, they conquer even the most adversarial stance and appear stronger than ever. Certainly there are dated elements here—all throughout these early silents, Ozu uses corporal punishment as a means of disciplining the children—and we do see a class system more startling than the one that mired the citizens of Britain for decades. Yet all of this works to Ozu's advantage. He takes these facets and forms the best, more believable illustration of everyday life he can. It's a style that would reach new heights with his next effort.
I Was Born, But… is often cited as one of the director's best silent efforts, and with good reason. By focusing on two awkward young boys coming of age in a rural suburb of Tokyo, dealing with their distant father and neighborhood bullies, the filmmaker finds the perfect filter for his burgeoning ideas. This is a movie made up of reaction shots, faces telling much more than dialogue or dramatics ever can. Since children are notoriously honest and unaffected, their disputes are purer, their concerns easily crystallized and conveyed. Here, all the sons of this harried businessman want to know is that their Dad is not some subservient stooge. When they witness the home-movie footage of the beloved guardian goofing off (mostly for a good natured if demanding boss), their worst fears are realized.
Thus begins a surreal cycle of adventures, adversarial actions, schoolyard scrapes, and unspoken urchin codes. Ozu's work with the various underage actors is magical, packaging them in almost mechanical (if meaningful) movements. Our heroes waddle more than walk, their gait underscoring the fear they have of the world. The odd pecking order put together among the neighbor boys bears unusual fruit when the leadership shifts several times. Ozu's compositions create plenty of iconic images (the two dejected lads walking home, a flat lonely landscape framing their defeat) and the performers—young and more mature—deliver flawless turns. I Was Born, But… may not measure up to later masterworks like Story of Floating Weeds or Tokyo Story, but for anyone unsure of their ability to relate to something made seventy-six years ago, this delightfully deep (and very funny) motion picture is easily digested.
So, for that matter, is the last movie in this set—the far more somber Passing Fancy. Refining his approach even further, Ozu tells the hard luck story of a sentimental single father whose love for his son is tempered by the financial position he finds himself in. While we're never told if he is divorced or widowed, it's clear that women remain a strong connection to his persona. Kihachi is good natured but often oversteps the social boundaries because of how lonely he is. Devastated to learn that Harue, a pretty newcomer to town, thinks of him more as an uncle than a potential lover (or husband), the hurt that registers across his face makes explanatory conversations unnecessary. Of course, there is more to this movie than a failed romance. Defiant son Tomio gets ill, and as a result, the ever-present money problems facing Ozu's characters again come to the fore.
How people pay for things in these three films is also something that's inherently intriguing. Since debt is considered a blow to dignity and pride, no one wants to owe anyone, and they will go to extremes to avoid such a personal pecuniary stance. Kihachi wants to pawn his possessions to pay the hospital bill, yet soon realizes he owns nothing of value. Similarly, when the young girl he fancies offers her help, he is repulsed. Not because of the implication over how she will earn it, but that it would cause his family to lose face. Yet he's willing to abandon those whom he loves to travel hundreds of miles away for the promise of work—and the cash to make things right. It's a strange dynamic, one that is used rather well in all three Ozu films.
There are also a couple of ancillary issues that need to be addressed here. The Japanese were unlike the Americans in that the acting in their silent films resembles the work of many post-modern auteurs. There is no bulging eyes, no hair-ripping ridiculousness. Even the kids, when fussing and fighting, do so in a very naturalistic and recognizable manner. It could be part of the restrained nature within their society, but these performers seem light years removed from the Kabuki-like outrageousness that many associate with silent movies. Also, Ozu is not beyond his own directorial tricks. In Fancy, he shoots every dressing scene in the exact same manner—from the perspective of a person's feet. Whenever someone is about to get dressed, the editor cuts to the actor's lower half. It becomes something of a laugh. Finally, don't let the packaging title trick you. These are not laugh-out-loud satires. Instead, they are a more subtle form of funny business, especially when you consider the heartwrenching aspects of each.
For fans of the director, Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies will be an eye opener. For those used to Criterion's craftsmanship and attention to detail, this particular presentation by subdivision Eclipse will be a tougher sell. As noted in previous reviews, these releases are not concerned with preservation or perfection. Indeed, all three of the full-screen transfers here have age, print, and picture defects. Sometime, they are painfully obvious. At other times, they are barely there. It makes one wonder what the format purists think. If a company like VCI can get roasted for putting out subpar VHS like copies of contemporary fare, does Eclipse earn a pass merely because of the product they are championing? Does the fact that there are no bonus features added make a determinative difference? The Dolby Digital Stereo mixes are important only to those looking to listen to the newly recorded scores by Donald Sosin (like ragtime redux). You have the option of watching each film sans music. Of course, English subtitles help us understand the Japanese captions.
So the question is asked again: What does Ozu mean to you? Is his name as revered in your film art lexicon as Renoir? Godard? How about fellow countryman Akira Kurosawa? Does he even matter at all? All of these filmic facets are further confused by Eclipse Series 10. What we have here is excellent Ozu, but not necessarily the director that history and the medium celebrates. The work is wonderful and the narratives natural and refined, but it's difficult to determine what newcomers and the uninitiated will make of it all. Granted, Ozu shows an artistic command that makes these silent films more than palatable. If he's truly an auteur, do these movies represent that cinematic skill, or are they merely paving stones in a path that's far more complex? Obviously, there will always be varying inroads of discovery when it comes to this important director. This box set will either clear the road or add a few perspective potholes.
Not guilty. While the transfers are trying, the films strike a familiar yet refreshing familial chord.
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