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SILENT OZU
Three Family Comedies

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Tokihiko Okada, Tatsuo Saito, Takeshi Sakamoto, Tokkan Kozo
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Audio: Optional stereo music scores
Intertitles: English, Japanese
Video: Black & white, 1.26: and 1.33:1 aspect ratios
Studio: Criterion
Features: None
Length: 280 minutes
Release Date: April 22, 2008

Obey your parents while they’re alive.

Films *** ½

When Al Jolson uttered the immortal words “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!” in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, he was in fact ushering in a new era in cinema.  Silent films were on their way out, and the “talkies” would soon become all the vogue in the film industry...but not necessarily for everyone.

Silence is golden.  Some directors during this period considered silent cinema an art form that did not need to be perverted by crude fads like sound.  Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu was one such director who felt strongly about the artistic merits of silent cinema, and in fact, he would resist making “talkies” until well into the 1930’s.

As a film director, the young Ozu was quite prolific.  Initially employed as an assistant cameraman at the Shochiku Film studios during the mid-1920's, Ozu had quickly ascended the ranks to become one of the studio’s full-fledged directors.  By 1931, Ozu was already the veteran director of over twenty silent films, mostly period dramas and light comedies.

Criterion’s Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies compiles three early Ozu films (1931-1933).  Technically, these films are firmly entrenched in the conventions of silent filmmaking, but they do foreshadow some of the themes and the distinctive visual language that would characterize Ozu’s later sound films.  Read on below for synopses of these three early Ozu films!

1) Tokyo Chorus (Tokyo no kôrasu, 90 min., 1931)

A drowning man will clutch at straws.

Like many of Ozu’s early films, Tokyo Chorus is a light comedy about Japanese society and the workplace.  The film chronicles the comic struggles of life insurance salesman Okajima (Tokihiko Okada) to provide for his family.  The willful Okajima’s main foible is his hubris, and as is often the case, pride goes before the fall.  When a senior co-worker at Okajima’s company is fired wrongfully, Okajima protests vehemently with the boss.  The confrontation becomes physical, and the result is that Okajima is fired as well!

Suddenly, life’s burdens begin to weigh heavily upon Okajima’s shoulders.  How will he afford a new bicycle for his spoiled and selfish son?  How will he afford hospitalization for a daughter who falls ill after eating a bad rice cake?  How will he afford new kimonos for his wife, who has resorted to selling her own clothing to help support the family?  And what about the new baby, too?  With no job and no prospects, how is Okajima to earn the money for all of these expenses on top of simply providing enough food for the table?

Okajima eventually learns to swallows his pride.  He ends up working for his former school teacher, once a taskmaster but now the owner of a restaurant.  The work is demeaning and beneath Okajima’s previous station in society.  But, when one must support a family, sacrifices have to be made, and the stubborn pride and willfulness of youth must yield to the compromise, understanding, and altruism of adulthood and parenthood.

Tokyo Chorus represents an early collaboration between Ozu and his favorite screenwriter, Kogo Noda.  More a melodrama than comedy, the film displays a shift in direction for Ozu away from slapstick towards a more realistic interpretation of contemporary Japanese life.  Tokyo Chorus also explores the relationship between father and child as well as between husband and wife, important themes which would re-appear in Ozu’s later works.

2) I Was Born, But... (Otona no miru ehon - Umarete wa mita keredo, 90 min., 1932)

All young boys should have a little mischief in them.

Ozu’s next significant film, I Was Born, But..., again examines the trials of adulthood, but this time as seen through the eyes of children.  Two brothers, ten-year-old Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) and eight-year old Keiji (Tokkan Kozo), have just moved into a Tokyo suburb with their mother and father.  The boys immediately encounter trouble with the local bully and his gang but learn that in unity, they can stand up defiantly.

The first hour of the film essentially plays out like an Our Gang episode, Japanese-style.  The two brothers skip classes, clash with the neighborhood bullies, play with sparrow eggs and Japanese chain puzzles, and generally scamper about the rural neighborhood in search of fun as children are wont to do.

Eventually, the neighborhood kids, bullies and all, become friends and set about comparing the relative societal worthiness of their dads.  But, when Ryoichi and Keiji witness their own father repeatedly kow-towing before his boss, they begin to reconsider their idol worship of their father.

In the grand hierarchy of life, the boys’ father Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito) suddenly does not seem like such a “somebody” anymore.  He is merely a company man, just another “miserable apple-polishing” member of the working-class.  The disillusionment the brothers feel leads to a failed hunger strike that does not even last beyond breakfast.  Typical for children!  The family crisis forgotten by school time, the two brothers are soon back to being just regular kids.  But they have just taken the first of many steps in their gradual development into adults.  The world is not always a just place, and parents are not so infallible and perfect.  For now, the boys will have food for later thought when they ponder the relationship between having money and being important, not in an idealized setting but in the real world.

The delightful I Was Born, But..., as with Tokyo Chorus, explores the relationship between a father and his children.  The film was so successful with the Japanese populace that Ozu would revisit its themes for his later film, Good Morning (1959).

3) Passing Fancy (Dekigokoro, 100 min., 1933)

I’m useless as a dad, but please don’t hate me.” 

In Passing Fancy, single father Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto) is raising his son Tomio (Tokkan Kozo) in a Tokyo tenement.  Although impoverished, father and son still lead a fairly happy life until Kihachi hits a mid-life crisis.

Pretty Harue (Nobuko Fushimi) has just arrived into the neighborhood and has started to work at Kihachi’s favorite restaurant.  Sure enough, Kihachi becomes infatuated with her.  Yet Harue is too young for the middle-aged Kihachi, and perhaps she instead fancies Jiro (Den Obinata), Kihachi’s best friend and young co-worker at the factory.  This comic love triangle provides some romantic tension in the film, but the true heart of the film lies in the relationship between Kihachi and his son Tomio.

This parent-child relationship is a typical love-hate one.  Kihachi is proud of his son and regularly boasts of his accomplishments in school.  Tomio, however, is somewhat ashamed of his father, who he views as an “illiterate dummy.”  This lowly opinion of his father only worsens as Kihachi increasingly skips out on work and shirks his responsibilities by drinking himself into a stupor, all while pining for the unobtainable Harue.  However, when Tomio is stricken by a sudden illness and his life lies in the balance, the true strengths of the father-son bond is revealed.  Petty arguments and romantic desires are forgotten as Kihachi demonstrates that even a man as poor as he can still make sacrifices when needed for the sake of his child.

Passing Fancy is notable today as the first Ozu film to introduce the character of Kihachi, a lovable if hapless bumpkin that was a composite of real people from Ozu’s childhood, including his own father.  Takeshi Sakamoto would portray Kihachi several more times throughout the 1930’s in other Ozu films.

The three early Ozu films provided in Silent Ozu reveal the director’s growing affinity for family dramas, a favorite theme for his later films.  These silent films represent a turning point in Ozu’s career as the director gradually moved away from the slapstick comedies of his early career.  Increasingly, Ozu would explore splice-of-life portraits of contemporary Japanese life that would define his niche in modern Japanese cinema and would eventually confirm Ozu as one of Japan’s greatest and most influential directors.

Video * ½

Aspect ratios for these three black & white films vary from 1.33:1 to 1.26:1.  These very old films are presented with little significant restorative efforts.

Tokyo Chorus suffers gravely from a tremendous amount of emulsion damage and a somewhat soft video quality.  Fortunately, contrast levels are decent, and the images remain clearly discernible and not washed-out.  Motion is mostly natural but does appear jittery at times, as was usually the case in hand-cranked silent films.

Passing Fancy looks a little better but still suffers from a moderate degree of emulsion damage including small tears and scratches.  Some scenes look just fine, while others appear as though they had been scoured by sandpaper.

I Was Born, But... fares the best of the three films.  Scratches and surface damage are minor.  Film texture is a bit grainy but image clarity is otherwise quite sharp and detailed.

In a couple of quick shots from Tokyo Chorus and Passing Fancy, a translucent-black bar briefly appears in the frame, the probable result of a non-standard alignment of the picture frame in relation to the position of the sprocket holes (a common “flaw” in many surviving silent film prints).  Cropping usually minimizes the intrusion of these black bars but does risk the loss of picture information; this then begs the question of whether any of these three Ozu films were significantly cropped?

Audio **

These three films can be experienced either in complete silence or with optional stereo scores.  These new solo piano scores, by regular silent screen composer Donald Sosin, create a great deal of the light-hearted ambiance in these otherwise bittersweet comedies.

Features zero (no stars)

Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies is the tenth installment in Criterion’s Eclipse Series, which is dedicated to retrospectives of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed early films by some of the world’s best directors.  These films are generally presented on bare-bones discs, and such is the case with Silent Ozu.  Aside from brief liner notes for each film, there are no further extras included within this box set.

Summary:

Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies is a collection of wonderful early silent films by one of the greats of Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu.

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