SWEET AND TENDER HOOLIGANS
Glowering men in fedoras. Wisecracking molls lounging in nightclubs. Masked villains sticking up stunned businessmen. None of these conventions scream Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese director of over fifty films who is best known for such perceptive, precisely wrought studies of postwar family life as Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953). Yet in the early thirties, during the first decade of his career, Ozu was a young stable director for Shochiku studios and as such made silent films in a variety of genres; those films included three that center on the lives of criminals. Produced at a time when American culture was in vogue in Japan, due to an influx of movies and pulp fiction from the United States, these films—Walk Cheerfully (1930), That Night’s Wife (1930), and Dragnet Girl (1933)—were heavily influenced by Hollywood gangster melodramas and employed an aesthetic that today we might call noirish. In them, Ozu employs bold camera movements and attention-grabbing set design (including walls covered in American movie posters and other homages to Western culture)—a kind of experimentation one sees less of in his later films, with their subtle, refined sensibility. But however un-Ozu-like these three may seem narratively and formally, they evince the warmth, humor, and sensitivity to human relationships that are hallmarks of all the director’s work.
Among Shochiku directors, Ozu was particularly enamored of American cinema. In fact, he had borrowed from it before, partially basing the plot of his now lost 1927 debut feature, a jidai-geki (period film) called The Sword of Penitence, on that of a contemporary American crime drama, about an ex-con trying to go straight, that he’d read about in a movie magazine. He first returned to the themes of crime and redemption with Walk Cheerfully. Ozu’s fourteenth film, it cheerfully walks the lines between relationship drama, crime thriller, and breezy comedy—the latter not surprisingly, considering that he had apprenticed under the comic nonsense-mono man Tadamoto Okubo, and then directed a handful of his own comedies. The film is notable for its briskness of tone, camera experimentation, and physicality (clusters of snappy yakuza toughs move with dancelike synchronization). The first shot is virtuosic, tracking back along a row of parked automobiles, away from a docked steamship; when the camera pauses, a flock of people run in the direction the camera just came from; already, there’s a sense of dynamic movement through space.
The quarry of this foot chase is a petty thief (Hisao Yoshitani) who turns out to be the right-hand man of the dapper hood Kenji, a.k.a. Ken the Knife (Minoru Takada). Despite his ominous nickname and corresponding wrist tattoo, Kenji is a softy, falling hard for Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki), a woman he assumes is wealthy after seeing her buy a diamond ring. Yasue reveals that she was actually buying the ring for her boss; the fact is, she’s poor and lives with her mother. But Kenji’s love is undimmed; he throws over the Louise Brooks–bobbed moll Chieko (Satoko Date) for Yasue and vows to become an upstanding citizen. The plot and characters of this good-natured crime-doesn’t-pay drama are sufficiently endearing, but Walk Cheerfully is most luminous for the early evidence it provides of Ozu’s peerless visual storytelling skills. His combinations of medium and long, still and tracking shots communicate more about his characters’ relationships to one another than any synced dialogue ever could.
A THIEF IN THE NIGHT
After the relatively gritty charms of Walk Cheerfully, Yasujiro Ozu returned to more straightforwardly comic stylings with I Flunked, But . . . (1930), a satire of college life starring the legendary Chishu Ryu, in his first major role for Ozu. Immediately following that lark, Ozu ventured back into shadowier territory. That Night’s Wife (1930), the tale of a man driven to a dangerous and unlawful act, is more somber in tone than the earlier crime drama. Adapted by Ozu’s screenwriting collaborator Kogo Noda from a story by the American writer Oscar Schisgall, the film begins as a pitch-black, chilly noir and gradually becomes a humane domestic drama, elegantly grafting Ozu’s generic experimentation of this period onto the kind of intimate family narrative for which he’d forever be remembered.
As That Night’s Wife opens, Ozu deposits us in a distinctly nocturnal realm. While a night watchman patrols the exterior of a looming municipal building, a masked figure commits a robbery in an office nearby; the high-contrast lighting gives the scene a classic gangster-movie feel, and Ozu even uses the convention of the thief’s silhouette creeping ominously across a frosted glass door. The man absconds from the office with bags of cash, and what seems to be the area’s entire police patrol immediately spills onto the streets in hot pursuit. But this burglar, as dangerous as he seems, is hardly Scarface. Shuji (Tokihiko Okada), an everyman at the end of his rope, and his wife, Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo), need the money to pay their daughter’s doctor bills; she is very ill and may not live through the night. An exquisitely composed sequence in a phone booth, where Shuji is talking to the little girl’s physician, conveys both the father’s sense of entrapment and his shame; in one brief, strikingly enigmatic shot, we see Shuji’s hand pressed to the glass in the foreground, obscuring his face.
The rest of the film takes place almost entirely in the family’s home, where a tense game plays out, over the course of the rest of the night and the early morning, between husband, wife, and a police detective who’s on to them. The limitations of space and time give That Night’s Wife a theatrical feel, albeit with wholly cinematic flourishes. Ozu later said that filming so much on one small set made him nervous, and that he lost sleep over continuity questions. This early meticulousness was a harbinger of the finely modulated aesthetics for which he would become known. And despite his anxiety, That Night’s Wife demonstrates confidence and maturity, and confirms Ozu as a true artist of space. Even within these tight quarters, the camera is untrammeled; fluid tracking shots and dollies make the reluctant criminal’s tiny, shabby apartment into an expansive emotional universe.
That Night’s Wife invokes the social consciousness that marked not only many of Ozu’s early works but most serious Japanese films of the thirties. Like the country’s art and literature, its cinema of this era often spoke to the plight of people living in economic conditions that were partly a result of the worldwide Great Depression. In this way, the film is like the shomin-geki (contemporary “common people” dramas) Ozu was making around the same time, such as The Life of an Office Worker (1929), Lost Luck (1930), and Tokyo Chorus (1931). That Night’s Wife may concern a crime, but it’s above all a work of empathy.
ONE LAST JOB
Western viewers will surely note the Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, and Walter Huston movie posters decorating the walls in Walk Cheerfully and That Night’s Wife. In 1933’s Dragnet Girl, such references to American culture stand out even more, occasionally all but overwhelming the rest of the mise-en-scène. They include a poster for Wallace Beery’s The Champ and a Jack Dempsey flier, seen in a gymnasium (whose door reads, in bold English, “Boxing Club”); a French poster for All Quiet on the Western Front hanging in a living room; an English-language house-rules list writ large on the wall of a poolroom; and the RCA Victor logo (featuring the famous dog Nipper) dominating a record store. These aren’t peripheral details but a strong expression of Yasujiro Ozu’s abiding love for and fascination with American movies and culture. Such audacious art direction choices were rare in Ozu’s career. As he fine-tuned his sensibility in the coming years, he would pare down his style to hushed compositional essentials. Those who know only that Ozu may be startled by the brashness of Dragnet Girl, which is even more flamboyant—in terms of camera movement and set design—than his previous two crime dramas.
Ozu’s ability to summarily convey an entire world is evident from the opening, with its static images of ticking clocks and punch cards, followed by fluid matching shots that alternately track past faceless typists hunched over their work spaces and rows of hanging hats. But so is his ability to dash expectations: the fast-paced office environment he establishes is something of a bait and switch, as what Dragnet Girl is actually interested in is the underworld beneath this workaday veneer. In the office, we meet Tokiko (a vampish Kinuyo Tanaka, later known for her heart-wrenching work with Kenji Mizoguchi), a no-nonsense secretary who is also a gangster’s moll. She moonlights as the right-hand gal of the sleek, fedora-wearing Joji (Joji Oka), a yakuza and former pugilist who hangs around boxing gyms scoping out the latest talent. He’s drawn to the newbie featherweight Hiroshi (Hideo Mitsui), but even more to Hiroshi’s good-girl sister, Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo). After Kazuko pleads with Joji to dissuade the aspiring punk Hiroshi from a life of crime, Joji becomes devoted to pleasing her, much to the chagrin of the increasingly sidelined Tokiko.
Dragnet Girl is packed with so much visual bravado—unexpected, rhythmic editing choices, as in a distinctly musical cut from a jump-roping kid to a bass being slapped in a nightclub; stunning, Josef von Sternberg–esque chiaroscuro compositions; smooth tracking shots; forced perspectives—that it’s easy to overlook the emotional complexity with which Ozu and screenwriter Tadao Ikeda sketch the film’s array of characters.
There aren’t strictly defined parameters for good and evil, and the conflicted bad girl Tokiko skirts all the clichés of the jealous girlfriend, admitting kind feelings toward the decent Kazuko even if she’s unwilling to completely let Joji go. Ozu handles the emotions of these lowlifes with the same delicacy he would grant the stoic fathers and daughters, mothers and sons of his later domestic dramas. For the final image in this, his last dip into these genre waters, Ozu offers a stunning grace note that seems to suggest the quieter register to come: a redemptive light shining through the window of a now-vacant apartment, its former inhabitants en route to a better, more honest life.