A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Three Silent Films by Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu
That Night's Wife (Yasujiro Ozu, 1930)
I Flunked, But.... (Ozu, 1930)
Tokyo Chorus (Ozu, 1931)

I think the films of Yasujiro Ozu are the perfect exemplar of that powerful task of motion pictures: to enlarge human sympathies. Ozu typically does it by working in his characteristic milieu: the family. Most of us have families, and when we don't (or when we recognize intolerable flaws in the ones we find ourselves in), we form something to substitute for them: clubs, cliques, fraternities, political parties. These three silent movies, lesser or little-known parts of Ozu's oeuvre, shine with their director's deep understanding of human connections. They also document the impact of the Great Depression, not just on Japan but on daily lives around the world. Two of them are about actual nuclear families, the other about a kind of surrogate family. They range from crime melodrama to slapstick comedy to a domestic drama threaded through with humor. All of them reveal Ozu's knowledge of American genre film as well as his ability to transform the generic into the personal.

Emiko Yagumo and Tokihiko Okada in That Night's Wife

That Night's Wife begins with a touch of gangster film as we watch the police patrolling the nighttime streets, rousting a homeless man from his perch between the towering columns of a building, then witness a daring robbery of an office by a man masked with a bandanna and the police pursuit that follows. But we gradually learn that the man (Tokihiko Okada) has committed the robbery because he has a sick child and can't pay the doctor. Most of the film takes place in his small apartment, where his wife (Emiko Yagumo) is tending to the child, who the doctor says will be all right if she survives the night. Then a detective (Togo Yamamoto), who has posed as a cab driver and brought the man home, arrives. There's a standoff between the couple and the detective in which, after trying to stay awake all night, the detective prevails. But the film ends with an unexpected turn that in other hands might come off as sheer sentimentality but in Ozu's manages to feel like the working out of an ethical dilemma.
Tatsuo Saito in I Flunked, But....
 I Flunked, But.... is almost a tonal antithesis to That Night's Wife, a lively comedy about college students trying to pass their college exams by cheating. It centers on a group of five who live together as a surrogate family, looked over by their landlady (Kaoru Futaba), a pretty waitress (Kinuyo Tanaka) in the next-door cafe, and the landlady's small son (Tomio Aoki). One of the techniques they use to cheat is to have one of the group write out the answers on the back of his shirt: that way, the student sitting behind him can lift up the other's jacket and copy what's written. Unfortunately, the landlady picks up the cheat shirt with the other laundry and the plot is foiled. Moreover, Takahashi (Tatsuo Saito), the student chosen to wear the shirt, is the only one who fails the exam. But it turns out a year later that the others who graduated have been unable to find jobs, so Takahashi is no worse off than they. Just as That Night's Wife displayed the influence of American gangster films, I Flunked, But.... shows that Ozu had seen American films about college students, like Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1925). Ozu's college students hang banners from American universities like Michigan and Yale on their walls, along with American movie posters -- which are also a striking presence on the walls of the couple in That Night's Wife, whose protagonist seems to be an artist of some sort. But I Flunked, But.... is most notable for the sense of camaraderie among its students, who practice their own brand of silly walks and comic dances.
Tokihiko Okada in Tokyo Chorus
Tokyo Chorus is the most subtle and complex of the three films, and it serves as a kind of unintended linking of the other two: It begins with a group of college students gathering to rehearse some kind of drill routine under the direction of a teacher, Mr. Omura (Tatsuo Saito, again). It's a rebellious group, and one of the ringleaders is Shinji (Tokihiko Okada, again). Some years later, we find Shinji as the father of three small children, the oldest of whom, a boy (Hideo Sugawara), demands a bicycle for his birthday. (Children in Ozu's films are often bossy little brats.) But Shinji has a quixotic streak, and when he learns that one of his fellow employees, a man just a year away from retirement, has been fired, he confronts the boss and gets fired, too. (There is a very funny scene in which Shinji and the boss angrily poke at each other with folding fans.) Things go from bad to worse for Shinji's family -- his wife (Emiko Yagumo, again) is upset when he has to sell her kimonos to pay hospital bills after their daughter gets sick. The Depression has deepened -- there is an English subtitle that refers to the failure of  "Hoover's policies," which makes me wonder if that was an exact translation. One day, after a disappointing visit to the employment office, Shinji runs into Mr. Omura, who has quit teaching and now runs a restaurant, The Calorie Café, which serves large, filling portions of curry rice. If Shinji will come help him at the restaurant, Omura says, he'll use his connections with the Department of Education to try to find Shinji a job. Shinji's wife is shocked to find her husband walking the streets with a large banner and handing out leaflets advertising the café, but when she realizes how desperate he has become, she too agrees to help out at the restaurant. All ends well when Omura's old students gather for dinner at the Calorie Café and Omura reveals that he has come through with a job for Shinji. It means that Shinji and his family will have to move to a remote corner of Japan, but they reassure themselves that they'll be able to return to Tokyo some day. The film, like That Night's Wife, was made with two of Ozu's frequent collaborators, screenwriter Kogo Noda and cinematographer Hideo Shigehara. (I Flunked, But.... was filmed by Shigehara but written by Ozu and Akira Fushimi.)

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