Yasujiro Ozu - Tokyo Chorus (1931)

Tokyo Chorus seems to be the transition film between Ozu's earlier student comedies and his examination of the plight of the worker in tuff economic times he focuses on later. He introduces here a lot of elements and themes he would expand later and employs elliptical cut-aways for the first time I am aware of. Episodic in nature, but very focused on its main theme, the script centers once more on the question of masculinity and how men negociate their status in trying times. Every episode in the story is used to investigate a different facet of our main character's fight for male status. As is often the case, I am not entirely happy about Ozu's resolution of the problem, but Tokyo Chorus has to be counted among his (many) classics for its technical amplitude alone. The film's narrative structure is extraordinariy symmetric. We open and close with the same group of people, and in between, sequences forebode and recall each other.

On the day he gets paid a bonus, Shinji loses his job because he protests against the firing of another older colleague. When his daughter gets ill and has to be hospitalized, he has no choice but to sell his wife's kimonos to pay the medical bills. Later, he encounters his old teacher Omura who hires him to promote his restaurant. It is a tedious and, in Shinji's eyes, humiliating job but in the end, Omura finds him a real job as an English teacher in the countryside.

Tokyo Chorus opens on a slapstick college scene that establishes a lot of what we are going to see later in the film in more detail. Omura is a teacher and tries to bring order to a horde of defiant students. Among them, Shinji is one of the more flamboyant and impudent ones and he gets reprimended by Omura. We get glimpses into both Shinji's and Omura's characters and a first questioning of male dominance: in this case, it is young men mocking the authority of older men. Cut to years later. Shinji now works at an insurance company and it's the day everyone gets their bonus. Here, Ozu scrutinizes two models of male authority: financial providing and age. In an elaborate and expertly shot comedy sequence, the employees all hide from another how much they got paid. No one wants to lose his face should he reveal that he received less than a colleague. Everyone wants to project the image of the reliable provider. In the same sequence, Yamada is fired, simply because he is old, which reminds the whippersnappers in the office that their status as providers will, one day, inevitably be threatened as well, simply because the corporation wants to pump new blood into the workforce. Shinji, mirroring the first scene in which he ridiculed his elders, now stands up for them and speaks up to the boss - but is fired as well.

Next, Ozu gives us three stages of Shinji as father figure. After losing his job, Shinji buys his son a scooter, although the son wanted a bike. The son calls his father a liar, questioning Shinji's authority as the man of the house. Shinji's reaction? He beats his son. Later, when the family brings the daughter back from the hospital, Shinji acts as a unifying figure. He cheers up his kids by playing clapping games with them, and after recovering from the shock that her husband had to sell her kimonos in order to pay the medical bills, Shinji's wife joins them as well. But this family bliss doesn't last long. His wife and two kids spot him from a streetcar as he drags himself through the streets handing out leaflets for Omura's grease spoon (a scene that mirrors an earlier one where Shinji happens on Yamada who must hand out leaflets to make ends meet), a task he considers beneath someone who graduated from college. Even his wife won't believe it at first. When she confronts Shinji about it, his last shred of manhood his torn away. Not only does he not fulfill his role as provider by getting fired and being unable to find a new position. But he has to demean himself by doing work that is below his social (and male) status. The end foreshadows both Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family and The Only Son. In a scene where all of Shinji's old college chumps convene in Omura's restaurant, there is a very strong sense of nostalgia and a reflection on what time does to individuals that will later be developed in The Only Son. The resolution of the main crisis (Shinji's unemployment) demands relocating the family which will also be the case in Toda.

Yasujiro Ozu - Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (1932)

With someone like Ozu who exhibits such a thematic consistency throughout his body of work, it is interesting to jump around his filmography and see how certain subjects are molded and remolded and how he approached his theme from different angles. Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth?, perhaps my favorite Ozu so far, tackles the theme of modernity again, by way of class and male relations. Watching it immediately after having seen The Only Son, it became apparent pretty quickly that under the surface of slapstick comedy that comprises much of the first half of the movie the film text offers a lot about how youths defy tradition but still operate within its boundaries. The question of "modernity" is not so much one of living conditions and societal transformation like in The Only Son, but rather one of individual behavior.

Tetsuo is a rich student, enjoying life with his college pals. He has an eye on the soda-fountain girl Oshige. When his father dies Tetsuo inherits his firm and serves as the new director. His college pals come to him to ask for work and Tetsuo helps them to cheat on the admissions test. Unaware that Saiki, one of his pals, is now engaged to Oshige, Tetsuo begins courting her. When he finds out about the engagement, he violently beats up Saiki.

A lot can be said about how Tetsuo's old friends become yes men once the class difference between them is apparent and how this can be seen as a metaphor for larger societal issues, but I was more interested, like with The Only Son, in the question of "tradition" versus "modernity". One scene in particular is interesting in that regard. Tetsuo's uncle has chosen a prospective wife for Tetsuo. But he doesn't want to meet her. With the help of his father, he feigns drunkenness and behaves in such a bad manner that it drives her away. Yamamura, the chosen wife, is called "the modern one" and she tells an older woman, "our times are different from yours!" When Tetsuo's father explains that his son is drunk, becomes violent when he drinks, and even steals, "the modern one" sees this more as qualities than anything else. She is attracted by this "bad boy" type, that stands against everything a more conventional (i.e. traditional) husband would need to be. It's a first-hand clash between old values and new ones. But Ozu, not one for easy characterizations, then takes the scene in another direction. Tetsuo finally comes to meet his prospective wife. He taps cigarette ashes into her purse, throws her lighter away and says that her bracelet is a fake. What started as slapstick turns into gratuitous cruelty. Ozu, who always made fun of the upper class, depicts them very harshly as spoiled sadists who mess with other people's lives for fun. The upper-class might be a motor for progress (whatever that means), but they are not better human beings for that.

As I see it, Ozu also makes the point that whatever this progress might be, time always catches up. What once was new becomes the norm, or even the tradition, and this cycle of breaking the mold and defying conventions begins again. When we first see Tetsuo as the new director of the company, the camera, in one of Ozu's early signature moves, tracks over a bunch of employees who all yawn (a scene foreshadowing the similar famous sequence in I Was Born, but…) and stops on Tetsuo who yawns as well. The new director, it seems, is, at this point, not too far removed from his subordinates. Subsequently, there is a lot of back and forth between him and the more conservative co-director about Tetsuo's unburdened and easy-minded management style (again a clash between old and new values). Later, Tetsuo's mother tells him, "you look more and more like the director". At work, it also seems like he is more competent and respected. It is at this point, that the divide between him and his pals becomes evident. Society, through various norms and codes of conduct, gulped Tetsuo's new dynamism and spat out an adjusted elitist. It is not that he adhered to the old ways, it is that he becomes the old way. And so, still nothing has changed.

A great film that gives us a lot to think about.

Yasujiro Ozu - The Only Son (1936)

Ozu's first talkie. And from all of his films I have seen so far, this is the one that makes the gap between "tradition" and "modernity", between "rural" and "urban", between "hope" and "disappointment" the most explicit. It recalls the "neo-realist" bleakness of An Inn In Tokyo (Ozu conceived the The Only Son as silent film at first) but adds another layer of despair and resignation. Ozu's grim social determinism translates here in the dreary assertion that once children grow up, they can only deceive their parents. The parents, in turn, will have to accept that all the effort, money and time they invested in their children won't pay off as hoped. The Only Son is also another example showing that labeling Ozu's work simply as "traditional Japanese" doesn't do it justice at all. Yes, he is concerned with Japanese issues (what sensible director wouldn't pay attention to what is going on around him?) but he has a far more nuanced point of view than is usually acknowledged by Western critics, and a wiredrawn sense of historical context. For The Only Son is not only a family drama, but also a biting social commentary of the unfulfilled hopes of economic prosperity during the Meiji era in Japan.

The plot is simple. Ryosuke goes to highschool although his mother, the widowed Tsune, can barely afford it, and later leaves his native village to study and find work in Tokyo, promising his mother to become a great man. Years later, when Tsune visits Ryosuke in his new home for the first time, she learns that he is now married and has a son. Furthermore, he only made as a nightschool teacher and is not in the best financial situation. Crestfallen, she accuses him of having given up.

What I found the most compelling about this film was not the family plot per se, but how Ozu staged the diatribe between the dreadful rural life, and the irredeemability of the city life for the lower classes. The Tokyo of The Only Son is not the buzzing urban Tokyo of Dragnet Girl. It's the bleak industrial cesspool of An Inn In Tokyo. Ozu shoots the factories, waste disposal plants and the palsied barracks that give shelter to the exploited workers similarly in both films. The scene where mother and son talk about his present situation, with a dark Golem of a factory always looming in the background, almost as if it were ready to devour them both in its incessant race for efficient industrialism, clearly recalls the scene in An Inn In Tokyo where the father and two sons, sitting in front of a towering factory building, mime having a feast when in reality their stomachs are growling. "Modern" living conditions don't fare well with Ozu's characters, and he makes sure to drive home his point by repeatedly using modernity's iconic symbol of the alienating and repulsing factory, culminating in the jarring shot of a horse grazing peacefully, while a smokestack spouts ashes in the background.

Another interesting thing that is never talked about but clearly hinted at visually, is how "urban modernity" - I use this term very loosely without attaching a precise meaning to it and it will be another thing to determine what modernity means to Ozu - is in part dependent on the rural backbone of the country. Tsune works in a silk factory and Ozu insists on it by repeatedly cutting to her workplace. When she arrives at Ryosuke's new home, almost immediately we get a shot of some laundry hanging outside to dry. The countryside, it seems, provides raw material, matter and human, for the project of urban modernity Ozu seems to hint at here. But the outcome on both sides is bleak. Workers in the city are as miserable as workers in the countryside. The promise of modernity is empty. The average man or woman doesn't win, no matter what they do. And they can't escape. When Tsune returns home she tells a co-worker that her son his doing fine, even though she really is disappointed by him. Shortly after, she steps outside and cries. And the factory courtyard, as framed by Ozu, suddenly looks more like a prison courtyard. We don't know what ultimately becomes of the son, but I don't believe in any kind of happy ending for him either.

Yasujiro Ozu - Dragnet Girl (1933)

In Dragnet Girl, we have Ozu's version of an American gangster movie (The Public Enemy and Scarface had been shown before Ozu shot Dragnet Girl), and of all his early work I have seen so far, this is by far the film that looks the most Western. From his choice of locale (boxing gym, night club, back room, etc) to the way the characters are dressed, everything evokes American gangster movies from the 30's. However, a lot of Ozu's stylistic attributes are already tightened. We get a lot of visual repetitions (the tracing shots that establish a locale, the RCA Victor dog, his constant framing of action through glass windows and doors), some shots that are echoed later (his close up of feet walking in the street like in What Did The Lady Forget, his knack to clutter the frame with bottles and glasses) and his use of 90 degree and 180 degree reverse shots in climatic confrontations.

The story centers on Jyoji, the leader of a small time gang, and his girlfriend Kokiko (Ozu, like Haneke, uses the same names over and over again, accentuating the thematic consistency of his oeuvre). When the young hoodlum Hiroshi joins the gang, Jyioji falls for his sister Kazuko. But she doesn't want his brother to lead a gangster life and pleads for Jyioji to throw him out of the gang. He does so but Hiroshi had stolen money from Kazuko's store. In a last job before going straight, Jyoji and Kokiko rob her boss to give Kazuko her money back.

It's very interesting what the weight of over 100 years of film history can do to a certain film material. While I enjoyed watching Dragnet Girl, I wasn't as invested in the story as I was with other Ozu films because it follows genre conventions so faithfully that I couldn't find much to get excited about (I already had this problem with Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way). While Ozu's less rigorous but already very formalized style gives us plenty to marvel at, the script is not one of his most interesting. There are some things to think about though. We start with a relatively large set of characters which made me think that Ozu, instead of focusing on more "traditional" themes of the role of family in society using his trademark "extended family" device, was applying this "extended family" device to the world of gangsters. After all, a gang operates after the codes of family, and when we think back to the first years of The Sopranos, for example, the tag line on the DVD cover said "meet his two families", propping Tony Soprano in the middle of his family at home (wife, kids, mother), and his family at work (the gangsters he worked with).

If one continues this train of thought, one could read Dragnet Girl as a questioning of male authority as well. Jiyoji replaces the family patriarch and he too must come to terms with his masculinity. There is a dichotomy between Kazuko, always wearing kimonos, working in a store that sells classic music, and Tokiko who dresses Western style and is generally more of a spoiled brat. It's "tradition" versus "modernity" that clash here and Jiyoji must choose which model he will follow. Or, asked differently, with what type of woman can a man thrive? The ambiguous ending does not give us a definitive answer, but Ozu questions male-female dynamics not only when linked to the institution of the family, but in other settings as well.

Yasujiro Ozu - What Did The Lady Forget? (1937)

What Did The Lady Forget? is a terrific little gem and it becomes more and more clear to me that one of the aspects of Ozu's work that are the most consistently overlooked or ignored is his use of humor. For me, What Did The Lady Forget? is a comedy first and foremost. All the themes Ozu touches on are revealed through humorous situations and I couldn't help but laugh out loud at lines like "It's terrible that she makes you play golf" or "something dreadful happened. Aunty read the postcard". Lady has somewhat of a rocky start but it becomes apparent pretty quickly that it's a film about refusing conventions, evading responsibility, and keeping up appearances, which is not what Ozu is generally known for.

Komiya, a medical professor who is mostly interested in reading the paper and spending quiet hours in his study, is bossed around by his authoritative wife Tokiko and sent on a golfing trip over the week end he does not want to go to. Instead, he finds refuge at his assistant's house and spends his time drinking at a bar. His niece Setsuko finds him there and insists that he takes her to a Geisha house. When she gets home late at night drunk, both most cover up their lie the best they can in order to avoid Tokiko's wrath.

In the world of What Did the Lady Forget?, convention dictates that people behave in a certain way, but they are very reluctant to do so. Early in the film, two boys have to do homework, and Komiya's assistant Okada is talked into tutoring them. But neither of them want to do what they're supposed to. The boys begin to play a game with a globe and Okada sits there and enjoys the luxury of not having to teach some recalcitrant boys. Komiya, as we have seen, does not want to play golf. Setsuko smokes (which makes for a great visual gag when she tosses her cigarette to Komiya right before Tokiko enters the room) and drinks against conventions. This, of course, is not Ozu making a sociological point but is used as a comic device that makes for a lot of the film's charm. Another source of humor is Ozu's mocking of the upper-middle class. Their manners and behaviors are revealed to be void of any meaning. Everything is just a facade. And when things get serious, they reveal themselves to be surprisingly tactless.

In that, and the obsession with numbers by a lot of the characters at the beginning of the film, What Did The Lady Forget? clearly foreshadows Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family. Lady is smaller in scale but every theme Ozu will later develop with Toda is present, and it reveals how clear of an agenda Ozu had during his whole career. Chiefly, it is the demise of masculine authority that he highlights. And where An Inn In Tokyo or I Was Born, But… examined male devaluation through their work environment (or lack thereof), Toda and Lady approach the theme from the point of view of absence. Be it because the death of the patriarch, or a general lack of interest in taking part in familial activities like in Komiya's case, family ties disintegrate and only a selfish act can remedy the situation. Here, Komiya reasserts his authority by slapping his wife in the face, which betrays a questionable attitude towards women on Ozu's part. Be it as it may, Ozu believes in radical behavior in order to really achieve something. In An Inn In Tokyo it is stealing, and the outcome is a lot bleaker in that case, in Toda Family it is relocating part of the family to another country. Maybe my frame of reference is too narrow because I haven't seen enough pre-war Ozu yet, but I am curious to see how this theme will manifest itself in other early Ozu films.

Yasujiro Ozu - I Was Born, But … (1932)

Almost didactic, I Was Born, But ... is another display of Ozu's extraordinary stylistic rigor. And of his fine sense of humor. By paralleling two boys' rise to power in a neighborhood gang and their father's subordination at work, Ozu lays bare two sets of power structures and examines how they tie into each other. The Yoshii family move to a suburb. The boys get into trouble with local bullies and fight with their father's boss son. Fearing retribution, they skip school. Finally, with the help of an older delivery boy, they defeat the main bully and assert their new power. Meanwhile, we get several scenes in which the father is shown as an apple-polisher, who moved to the suburbs in order to be near to his boss, who slaves away in order to advance his essentially meaningless career and who is being laughed at by his co-workers. In this context, status is key. The boys take great pride in their fathers' social position and demand from the others to recognize that their father is the best. But at a private screening at the boss' house, they witness how their father is willing to make a fool of himself in order to entertain the boss.

What at a younger age is achieved through force and power, in later years equals to subordination. But this rather bland assertion is aggremented by Ozu's critique of social streamlining. In what is one the most famous sequences in the film, a tracking shot of school students marching in front of the school building is followed by a tracking shot of office workers yawning. Society, Ozu tells us, takes a bustling human capital and molds them into a bunch of lemming-like worker bees who don't begin to realize their potential, instead following meaningless social conventions. What good is social status, then?

Another interesting thing is that Ozu makes it very clear that social power is deterministic, whereas the boys determine power by force or brains. In the grown-up world, the boss is the boss. There is nothing more to it. He is not the smartest, not the biggest, not the strongest, he just is. People catering to him simply come from this fact. Status in the boys' world however is constantly negotiated, which makes more sense, and it is all the more devastating for the boys to see how their father must behave in order to get some form of social power. And even then, he is ridiculed by his co-workers, which renders void whatever social power he might have.

Expertly shot and very funny, I Was Born, But ... is another outstanding offering from Ozu. And yet again, the myth that he was a big defender of Japanese tradition makes no real sense here. In my mind, for what it's worth, he critiques social conventions quiet sharply. Although I have to admit that the lofty happy-endingesque closing moments of the film reached for generational and family unity where Ozu could have been a little more critical. Which doesn't diminish the overall quality of the film.

Yasujiro Ozu - An Inn In Tokyo (1935)

An Inn In Tokyo is generally considered to be Ozu's best silent film (of the ones available to us) and to be a foreboder of the Italian neo-realism that would come into full swing a few years later with The Bicycle Thief. The story is rather simple. Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto), an unemployed factory worker, and his two sons Zenko and Kuniko (the formidable Yomio Aoki and Kazuko Ojima) roam about the flatlands of Tokyo's outskirts. The father can't find work, and the small family scrapes together the pennies for meager meals by capturing and selling stray dogs. Kihachi happens on an old acquientance, Otsune (Chouko Iida) who gives him shelter and a job. But, social determinism being what it is in Ozu's eyes, just when there seems to be a silver lining in the sky, misfortune strikes again. Kihachi becomes friendly with a homeless single mother (Yoshiko Okada) who lives a similar life of poverty and despair. When he learns that her son suffers from dysentery and that she cannot pay the necessary medical bills, he steals the money and eventually decides to surrender to the police, leaving his beloved sons behind.

Although Ozu never lets room for the hope that the small family could one day ascend the rungs of the social ladder, thus effectively robbing them of a hopeful future, there is a strong emphasis on precisely that future. "We will find you a job", "it is good to live long", it's as if the poorer members of society lived in anticipation of the future without ever being able to escape the present conditions. However, there seems to be an escape: children. The father always tries to cheer up the kids by repeating "tomorrow we'll make it". They never do, of course, but the children are the far more dynamic force. Ozu makes this even more explicit when characters say things like "Childhood is the best time of life" or "I wish I were a child". They, the director seems to say, are the only ones who have a realistic, albeit very small chance to really see another, better life. In this sense, the incredible scene in which Zenko tries to cheer up his starving father by imagining to have a feast, pouring his father tea into an imaginary cup and serving him imaginary rice can be read as an indication that maybe one day these kids might very well be able to eat all that dreamed up food. But, Ozu being always very aware of location, in this scene, the family sits in proximity to an ash spouting factory which makes sure that they are still and always very much tied to the bleak reality of their existence. In choosing this specific locale (the bleak outskirts of the Tokyo suburbs) Ozu makes a strong political point. He pits the galloping modernism, symbolized by the industrial landscape, against the traditional institution of the family.

This existence, Ozu's editing tells us, is above all monotonous and dull. His characteristic mirroring of scenes or shots signify an inescapable succession of "same shit different day". It is again only the kids, symbolizing a future that needs to be unlocked by defying the present, that sometimes succeed in breaking this cycle, but they are ultimately left by their father and there is nothing that indicated that things could take a turn for the good. The film's formal patterning is rigorous. Virtually every scene mirrors a previous one.

Visually, An Inn In Tokyo is striking. Superb cinematography and, as always, sharp editing show Ozu at the height of his craf. And again, assumptions about Ozu's work are misleading. The comparison between his pre-war realism and the Italian post-war realism ignores the fact that Ozu has a much stronger stylistic agenda than De Sica and company. Visual repetition abounds, especially in this movie, and his careful choice of visual motives serves him to create a thematic unity throughout the movie that completely lacks from any Italian neo-realist work.

Yasujiro Ozu - Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941)

Deconstructing a myth: Ozu has always been on my radar, at least ever since I began tapping into "auteur", or "independent", or "early" cinema many years ago. But I had always read more about his work than I had actually watched his movies. And approaching his work, the consensus among critics, writers and even scholars is so unanimous that, even though I had only seen a vanishing minority of Ozu's films, my idea of his oeuvre as a whole is so precise as if I had studied every single of his available films with great care. His theme is the family. His plots are uneventful. His style is minimalistic and evokes Zen Buddhism. His camera hovers immobile 3 feet above the ground, enabling the audience to observe everything from the point of view of a seated Japanese. These characteristics are such a commonplace in discussing Ozu that I simply assumed they were true, although I had only an approximate idea of his work.

Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Todake no kyodai) is seemingly an early example of all these "Ozuisms". It is with this film that he introduced what David Bordwell called "the extended family plot" (i was very confused at times, as one has to keep track of 16 different family members and close friends) and anticipated later stylistic attributes. But watching this film, originated during the Sino-Japanese war, what led some scholars to accuse it of being propagandistic, I realized more and more that reducing Ozu to these few bullet points does not begin to do his work justice.

Toda Family opens with the death of the patriarch and then observes how the widow Mrs. Toda and her youngest daughter Setsuko are shoved around from family household to family household, until the youngest son Shojiro, who had gone away to work in China shortly after his father's death, offers them to live with him and gives a tongue-lashing to his family about how disrespectful their behavior was towards his mother and sister. The strong emphasis on patriarchy in this movie (the death of the man of the household plunges the family into turmoil and it belongs to another man to restore its order) has been criticized, but it is, in my mind, more a generational critique. The oldest and the youngest, the wise and those who still have to fight for life, are the ones Ozu seems to regard best, while he dismisses the "middle-aged" as nagging and spoiled brats. This becomes evident in the way most of the daughters treat Setsuko and her mother as a nuisance when they are at their place, while the youngest of the bunch Ryokichi and Mrs. Toda bond in a very sweet scene where he shows him his snot under a microscope, and then tells her a secret which she promises him to keep. Toda Family also harshly criticizes the well-to-do - the Toda family definitely belongs to the higher classes - by depicting the upper-class life as wasteful and decadent, reinforcing his critique of the ones who can sit comfortably threw life. No wonder people in the movie seem obsessed with figures, be it age, age differences, or money. In Ozu's eyes, these chicaneries hold no value at all. Only the most self-absorbed - and thus removed from life - concern themselves with it.

What struck me most however was the humor shining threw even the most grim scenes. From Shojiro putting his hat on his sister's head during the wake of the funeral to Ozu's use of repetition to create comedic moments (the maid is asked twice to call a taxi, and is finally sent to prepare rice balls), he takes a lot of time to capture otherwise mundane moments and infuse them with cheerfulness. Repetition is key anyway, as it will be in all his later work, shots of hallways and living rooms are set up in the same way at different times in the movie, scenes echoing each other, and certain visuals are recalled time in time again to reinforce the theme (the bird, the father's picture).

All in all a satisfying viewing experience and a very good starting point to either go ahead and observe how his style solidified, or go back into Ozu's catalogue and explore his silent work. I will do the latter, as I am much more interested in Ozu's stylistic roots.