Beloved for his poetic observations of domestic life and intergenerational conflict, Yasujiro Ozu is an icon of international art-house cinema whose patient, exquisitely restrained style has influenced filmmakers around the world. But even though he directed more than fifty features over the course of his nearly four-decade career, the Japanese auteur is still primarily associated with two midcentury classics, Tokyo Story and Late Spring, both of which regularly appear on lists of the greatest films of all time. To commemorate the 120th anniversary of the director’s birth, we invited six writers to explore the retrospective of his films now playing on the Criterion Channel and shine a spotlight on a lesser-known gem. Covering different periods in Ozu’s career, from his beginnings in the silent era to the end of his life in the early 1960s, this series of essays foregrounds underacknowledged elements of his artistry, including his love of classic Hollywood comedy, his flair for melodrama, the various forms of masculinity depicted in his work, and the queer resonances of his family portraits.
I Flunked, But . . . (1930)
By Pamela Hutchinson
A film as bittersweet and ironic as its title, I Flunked, But . . . is Yasujiro Ozu’s sprightly tribute to the pleasures of some of his favorite American movies, as well as to a life experience that eluded him. It may surprise those who know only his later work that Ozu was smitten with the joys of Hollywood cinema—comedy in particular—as a young man. Early in his career, he was indebted to American studio filmmaking, the techniques of which formed the foundation of his own education in the art form, in lieu of a more formal variety.
In I Flunked, But . . ., he tips his hat to the charm of Harold Lloyd’s feature films, specifically the college shenanigans and impromptu jive of The Freshman (1925). The schoolmates in Ozu’s film elaborate on Lloyd’s own steps with miniature routines, while the director alights on patterns in the synchronized movements of both students and professors, suggesting a unity of purpose in the academic factory: the passage from scholar to graduate to working man. Ozu also demonstrates his mastery of the more complex ironies found in Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated silent comedies, the “but” of the title as ever hinting that life is complicated and plans are made to be scuppered. The notes that will guarantee the boys’ exam success are first obliterated by ink and then bleached away in the laundry.
Ozu, who barely scraped out of high school and failed entrance exams for two colleges, had never lived the student life he depicts with such verve. Instead of following his peers’ more conventional paths, Ozu took a junior position at the Shochiku studio in 1923, and precociously directed his first feature in 1927. By the time he made this college comedy—just over an hour long, and shot in a week—he was beginning to be noticed as a director of promise, and the movie features the first major role for the man who would become his favorite actor, Chishu Ryu. Like the friends in I Flunked, But . . ., Ozu had turned academic failure into an opportunity to play. The misfits return to college as cheerleaders, sidestepping the stress of jobhunting, which can only lead to the boredom and toil of work (reflected in the disillusioned salarymen who recur in Ozu’s filmography) or, very likely at the time, the ignominy of unemployment.
The youthful director—who had turned up at his own high-school graduation in a brand-new uniform, fully expecting to reenroll the following year—represents academic success as a trap. Why work so hard, only to be forced to confront the difficulties of the real world? Instead of succumbing to expectation and embarking on careers of wage-drudgery, his deadbeat heroes refashion the world: their energetic performance at a cheer rally transforms the rhythms of university and city life, the toe-tapping and pen-drumming of tedium, into a pattern of their own design.