TOKYO CHORUS: HARD AT WORK
There’s an irony to the fact that Japanese master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu lived his life as a bachelor, for he made some of the world’s most insightful, lived-in, and emotionally authentic films about marriage and parenthood. Today he is primarily known for his late-career family portraits, such as Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953), but even in his early years at Shochiku Motion Picture Company, Ozu was drawn to contemporary domestic turmoil. And though in his first working decade he also plied other popular genres (gangster pictures, romantic melodramas, student comedies), it was the family he would return to time and again.
His first inclinations, when he started out in the silent mid-twenties, were toward comedy. A fan of Hollywood films, especially those of comedy directors Harold Lloyd and Ernst Lubitsch, Ozu chose to apprentice under Shochiku filmmaker Tadamoto Okubo, a skilled practitioner in the art of the popular nonsense-mono, in which slapstick sketches were strung together with just a sliver of plot. Ozu would eventually weave such absurdities into the fabric of his own films, though unlike the nonsense films his were firmly grounded in everyday experience—humanistic and warm yet always informed by the sad realities of life, not unlike the concurrent work of Charlie Chaplin in the United States.
Tokyo Chorus (1931), which exemplifies this more realistic approach to comedy, is widely considered to be a turning point in Ozu’s career, marking the emergence of a more mature style (he already had twenty-one films under his belt, and had churned out seven in the previous year alone). Though it is something of a genre hybrid (there are elements of the student comedy, salaryman film, and domestic drama), Tokyo Chorus feels anything but overstuffed. Instead it’s a lovingly modulated, pared-down slice of life, with equal doses of humor and poignancy, concerning an insurance company clerk, Okajima (Tokihiko Okada), who is hoping his annual bonus will ease his family’s financial struggles, and maybe even allow him to buy a bicycle for his son. Ozu depicts the financial burden on the family as great, and things take a surprisingly dark turn, yet Tokyo Chorus remains delicate, almost bemused, in its observations, offering up terrific sight gags to punctuate the workaday misery—such as when Okajima’s co-workers try to spy on each other’s bonus figures at the office urinal, or when a verbal fight with the boss segues into a childish game of tag with folded fans.
Ozu and his faithful screenwriter Kogo Noda (who started at Shochiku just five months after Ozu and would remain his friend and collaborator until the end) had played out similar scenarios in such films as The Life of an Office Worker (1929), yet never had Ozu directed with such wit and grace (a scene of family patty-cake is edited with gorgeous, complex solemnity). Tokyo Chorus came directly after the artistic failure of Beauty’s Sorrows (1931), whose tragic heavy-handedness Ozu had vowed to leave behind. It was thus with breezy abandon that Ozu set out to make Tokyo Chorus, and he proved himself an excellent social realist, with a gentle disposition. “From this point on,” wrote Ozu scholar David Bordwell, “Ozu is a major director.”
I WAS BORN, BUT . . . : DADDY DEAREST
With Tokyo Chorus Yasujiro Ozu showed how perfectly matched his sensibility was to the shomin-geki genre (shomin roughly translates as “people like you and me”). His next film to explore the daily travails of a working-class family, I Was Born, But . . . (1932), focuses more directly on the relationship between parent and child and all the resentments, misunderstandings, and hard-earned love therein. In between the two films, he had made Spring Comes from the Ladies (1932), which harked back to his earlier college comedies; yet I Was Born, But . . . was the true step forward, using the template established in Tokyo Chorus to investigate with more humor, sentiment, and sophisticated editing the fragile bonds of father and child. The film’s rich vein of behavioral comedy, and its touching adoption of a kid’s wiseacre mind-set, made it his most popular to date; it won first prize at the prestigious Kinema Junpo Awards and is to this day the earliest Ozu print in regular circulation.
From its opening image of a spinning wheel stuck in the mud to its succession of expertly composed and timed reaction shots, I Was Born, But . . . shows Ozu at the height of his subtle comic powers. There’s also a visual elegance to the storytelling, achieved through rigorous editing techniques. Ozu relies mostly on action and expression (intertitles are infrequent, as in much silent Ozu) to tell this alternately sly and sympathetic story of a family whose recent move to a Tokyo suburb has placed the father, Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito), in closer proximity to his boss, and put his sons, aged ten (Hideo Sugawara) and eight (Tokkan Kozo), in a new school. In one especially graceful sequence, Ozu compares the social adjustments of father and children by deftly cutting from a gliding shot over students standing in a single-file line to one of adults perched at their office desks—an eloquent expression of the persistence of life cycles, both stultifying and warmly familiar.
It’s the schisms and reconciliations between children and parents that form the core of the film, as Yoshii’s bullheaded sons, mercilessly picked on by neighborhood bullies, take their aggression out on their father for his perceived deference to his boss, eventually going on a hunger strike in protest (a plot point that formed the basis for Ozu’s 1959 sound, and Technicolor, reworking of the film, Good Morning). The film is precariously balanced between the humor of everyday life and the harrowing recognition of unbridgeable generational divides; for all its Little Rascals–style high jinks, there’s a sense running through it that the two boys are indeed losing their innocence: when son exclaims to father “You’re a weakling!” it cuts like a knife. “I started to make a film about children and ended up with a film about grown-ups,” said Ozu, speaking to the film’s dark side. Because of this, Shochiku didn’t know what to do with the picture, even delaying its release for two months. This potent mix of comedy and pathos within the domestic space would, of course, continue to dominate Ozu’s oeuvre in the coming decades—and while the age disparity between the generations would grow smaller, the resentment gap would grow even wider.
PASSING FANCY: BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
During the silent era, Japanese cinema was struggling to find its place on the world stage; it was the advent of sound, increasingly common in Japan in the early thirties, that finally made movies into a viable business there. And though Shochiku studios produced the country’s first successful feature-length talkie in 1931 (Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine), Yasujiro Ozu held out, believing that silent film was an art form on the verge of artistic perfection and that sound was something of a rude interruption in reaching that goal. Ozu was hardly the only director of that opinion, but he is notable for how much of his astonishing output in the thirties remained silent. It wasn’t until 1936 that Ozu made his first talking feature, The Only Son.
The happy result of such obstinacy was that Ozu continued to hone his craft unabated, and without what he saw as faddish technological distractions (he would return to this stance on the subject of color, refusing to make the shift until 1958’s Equinox Flower). Instead he zeroed in on what was increasingly becoming his preferred subject matter, if not yet his trademark: relationships between parents and children, viewed through the prism of their specific class conditions. Though further on in his career his on-screen families would rise considerably on the social ladder, in the thirties he was more concerned with the trials and tribulations of those living from one paycheck to the next. Like in Tokyo Chorus and I Was Born, But . . . , the protagonist of Passing Fancy (1933) is a dad struggling to make ends meet. Yet unlike those portraits of suburban family units, Passing Fancy centers on a single father, Kihachi, living with his son in a Tokyo tenement.
This was the film in which Ozu introduced the character of day laborer Kihachi, wonderfully played with a mix of mischievousness and naïveté by Takeshi Sakamoto; as Kihachi, Sakamoto would go on to headline a series of Ozu films in the years following—A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), An Innocent Maid (1935), and An Inn at Tokyo (1935)—and is generally remembered as one of Ozu’s greatest collaborators. Kihachi, whose vivid personality drives Passing Fancy’s narrative, was a character close to Ozu’s heart, an amalgam, he would later say, of his father and other men he encountered during his childhood. Passing Fancy also reveals Ozu’s increased skill at directing children: as son Tomio, he recast the unforgettable rapscallion from I Was Born, But . . . , Tokkan Kozo, and Kozo’s interaction with Sakamoto is terrifically wry, their father-son role reversals handled with slapstick aplomb.
Yet Passing Fancy depicts more than just generational conflict, offering up a tentative love-triangle subplot that intertwines with the main narrative. In its depiction of a father considering a late-life romance, at the necessary expense of complete devotion to his child, the film anticipates similar story lines in films such as Late Spring, which in 1949 would herald Ozu’s “golden age” of complex domestic dramas. Passing Fancy is part of a golden age of its own, when Ozu showed he didn’t need words to express the fragilities, joys, and absurdities of family life.
Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.