May 13, 2008

Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies


Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies
I Laughed, But...

Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ****

The Criterion Collection continues their outstanding and very welcome "Eclipse" series, but only one director has thus far been deemed worthy of two box sets: Yasujiro Ozu. Last year, the Late Ozu set made #1 on my list of the year's best DVDs, and this year's Silent Ozu (Eclipse #10) set is also a strong contender. These early works, made between 1931 and 1933, show a younger and more rambunctious Ozu, whose films actually have occasional camera movements and moments of melodrama. Though sound film was perfected in 1927 and established in 1929, Ozu kept making silent films up through 1934 for two reasons. He felt that the form still had room for artistic improvement, and that adopting sound would force him to start all over. And also the Japanese film industry had a good thing going with Benshi, or live storytellers, who would talk over the silent pictures. (Some Benshi became celebrities in their own right, and fans would come to see them specifically.)

Tokyo Chorus (1931) shows Ozu already establishing the style he would keep until the end of his days, although a bit looser and lighter; there's a touch of Lubitsch here with some quiet comic asides. The opening sequence, with a flashback to the hero's carefree youth, is fairly overt and almost slapsticky. A clerk at an insurance firm, Okajima (Tokihiko Okada) looks forward to his bonus so that he can buy a bicycle for his son. But when he stands up for a wronged co-worker, he loses his job and his bonus. It's the setup of a hundred Hollywood comedies, but Ozu is more interested in the intricacies of the situation, rather than the situation itself. Okajima tries to make amends by buying a scooter, and finds himself conflicted at the prospect of taking a job that's beneath him. The ending doesn't neatly wrap everything up, but also doesn't leave us in the lurch. It's a beautifully sustained piece of filmmaking.

I Was Born, But... (1932) is a masterpiece, and one of Ozu's three or four greatest works. It alone is worth the price of this box set. It's an impossibly delicate balance of bittersweet and comedy. Two boys face a daily regimen of bullies and other troubles at school, but their world collapses when they discover that their father must kowtow to a much more powerful boss, and worse, that the boss's son goes to school with them. They decide to go on a hunger strike to show their disgust and disappointment. The moment of truth comes while watching home movies at the boss's house. The boys see their father mugging for the camera and making everyone laugh. This moment of levity slowly, imperceptibly turns uncomfortable as the mugging continues and it becomes clear that the act has become embarrassing. Again, Ozu finds the perfect ending not by wrapping everything up in a wealth fantasy, but by finding a level of brutal acceptance. The performances here are especially graceful, especially by the two boys and by Tatsuo Saito as the father. Ozu re-worked this story into the color film Good Morning (1959).

Passing Fancy (1933) is a kind of odd departure for Ozu, especially after nailing down his style so superbly in his previous film. Passing Fancy plays more obviously with high melodrama and tense moments. Uneducated single father Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto) works in a brewery and barely scrapes by. He and his son have a playful relationship, almost independent of one another; each would insist that he's looking after the other. (Ozu apparently made a series of films from these characters.) One night Kihachi discovers a cute homeless girl (Nobuko Fushimi) and sets her up with a place to stay and work: his favorite restaurant. He begins to make passes at her, but she only has eyes for Kihachi's younger, more handsome co-worker. When his son falls ill, someone must come up with a huge amount of money for doctor bills, and Kihachi must give up his quest for love. The brilliant touch is that the son (Tomio Aoki, also in I Was Born, But...) falls ill because he uses money his father gave him to overindulge in candy; later the father gives him sake to help him sleep, which only makes things worse. Ozu starts the picture with another Lubitsch-like comedy bit and includes threats of violence, and even closes with his hero swimming! It's a most un-Ozu-like concoction, but quite enjoyable.

Composer Donald Sosin cooked up three new scores for these films, and they're quite good, but I find that they sometimes assume humor in a scene when it could be more dramatic. The quality of the prints varies, and Tokyo Chorus and Passing Fancy have lots of wear and tear. Passing Fancy in particular has some odd editing choices, with intertitles coming up over the wrong character; it's difficult to tell if Ozu intended this disorienting effect or if some restorer merely placed the shots in the wrong order.

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Posted by cphillips at May 13, 2008 11:29 AM
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