By Wheeler Winston Dixon.

Yasujiro Ozu is no longer a name unknown in the Western world; for a long time, this “most Japanese” of directors was overshadowed on the international scene by Akira Kurosawa, whose flashier, more action oriented style translated much more easily to 1950s American culture, and paved the way for a series of remakes of his films – even now, almost 15 years after his death, Kurosawa’s estate is overseeing Hollywood remakes of many of his original films.

By contrast, Ozu was almost unknown outside Japan until the 1960s. When his sublime later films, such as Tokyo Story (1953), finally became publicly available in 16mm prints for university and museum screenings, Ozu’s reputation soared to new heights, easily eclipsing Kurosawa’s dwindling critical reputation. Now, at last, we have this superb collection of three of his earlier, formative films, “The Gangster Films” in a 2-DVD set from the British Film Institute (as their new motto notes, “Film Forever,” a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree), and it’s a must for cineastes, collectors, and all lovers of cinema.

Dragnet Girl

Ozu’s calm, contemplative, unhurried visual style, designed for the most part as a series of low-level tatami mat shots without camera movement, intercut with what Noël Burch famously christened “pillow shots” or “cutaway still-lifes” intended to establish mood and location, and mark the movement from one sequence to the next, is on display in the vast majority of Ozu’s work, from There Was A Father (1942), Ozu’s meditative World War II family narrative, through his final films, including his very last work, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), as well as The End of Summer (1961), Late Autumn (1960), Tokyo Twilight (1957) and numerous other films.

In all, Ozu directed more than fifty films in his all too short life span, which famously lasted precisely sixty years; born December 12, 1903 in Tokyo, Ozu died on December 12, 1963 in the same city, having remained resolutely in the forefront of Japanese cinema since the 1930s, and constantly refining his style down to its absolute essence as his career progressed.

Dragnet Girl

But in the early 1930s, before sound came to Japan (roughly in 1936), Ozu was cranking out films at a furious pace. During this period he directed three “gangster” films; Walk Cheerfully and That Night’s Wife (both 1930) and Dragnet Girl (1933), perhaps the most kinetic of the trio. Now, these films have been released by the British Film Institute in a typically immaculate two disc set, with superb transfers, and they present a very different side of Ozu’s work to the public. For some, it may come as a shock that the “most Japanese” of all Japanese directors so enthusiastically embraces American culture; in Dragnet Girl, for example, the actors dress in Western clothing, speak in typically American underworld slang, affect tough guy poses reminiscent of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, and seem for all the world to be working in an early 1930s Warner Bros. gangster film – almost.

All three films are silent, of course, and although there are musical scores composed for each of the films by Ed Hughes, all of them quite effective in their intent and execution, I personally found them ultimately distracting, and soon switched them off to contemplate the film as a separate entity. To be fair, I should point out that I am not really fond of contemporary scores for silent films as a general rule. I usually shut them off, the better to concentrate on the film itself. Of course, as many critics and historians have pointed out over the years, there were never any real “silent” films anyway; musical accompaniment of some sort, from an upright piano to a full orchestra, depending on the venue, almost invariably accompanied the screening of pre-sound films.

In Japan, there was also the added factor of the Benshi, professional narrators who talked audiences through both Japanese and foreign films, providing running commentary on the characters and the plot. Indeed, Benshi were so popular with audiences that their presence delayed the coming of sound films to Japan; on numerous occasions in the early sound era, films would often be screened with the sound off, so that the Benshi could talk through the film. But the menu on the DVDs allows one to screen the film with or without sound at the flick of a button, and many people will probably welcome the added soundtrack; so whether or not one listens to it is simply a matter of personal preference.

Dragnet Girl’s main plot line – mild mannered typist Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) has a secret double life as the girlfriend of washed-up-boxer-turned-hoodlum Jyoji (Joji Oka) – is another typical narrative of the early gangster film era, and even the matter of fact, highly exploitable title – Dragnet Girl – promises something altogether different from the family dramas which Ozu would soon become inextricably associated with. There are also a surprising number of tracking shots in the film, absolutely atypical of Ozu’s later work, and touches throughout that effectively use off-screen space in a rather unusual fashion. Early on in Dragnet Girl, for example, there’s a fight sequence that isn’t even shown on screen; we see the combatants squaring off in the backroom of a seedy nightclub, but Ozu then cuts to a series of surprised reaction shots, as patrons “overhear” the fight, which is only shown to us as an end result, with three of the thugs lying on the floor in the backroom, while the victor emerges victoriously without even a scratch.

Dragnet Girl

In another sequence from Dragnet Girl set in a boxing gym, a poster for King Vidor’s MGM fight film The Champ (1931) is prominently displayed in the background of the shot. Throughout the film, one gets a strong sense of the importance of Hollywood narrative lines and visual tropes for Ozu during this formative period, and it’s easy to see that the “most Japanese” tag is woefully misplaced when examining Ozu’s filmic output as a whole. Here was someone who enthusiastically embraced Hollywood’s genre output, and while Ozu’s own more domestic concerns started to blossom simultaneously, with his justifiably famous family comedy I Was Born, But… (1932), at this point in his career, Ozu was soaking up as much cinema as he could, from as many different cultures as possible.

Walk Cheerfully

Walk Cheerfully’s plot line of underworld romance – tough guy Kenji “The Knife” Koyama (Minoru Takada) is smitten by the charms of the innocent Yasue Sugimoto (Hiroko Kawasaki), who tries to reform him – is another staple of Depression era American filmmaking, and the visual style is again rather atypical. Though static shots and atmospheric setups abound, Walk Cheerfully displays a cinematic style that is in its formative period, and Ozu employs a variety of utilitarian camera techniques to bring the story to the screen, without the contemplative certainty that marks his later films.

That Night's Wife

That Night’s Wife centers on a young man, Shuji Hashizume (Tokihiko Okada), who embarks upon a criminal career when his daughter Michiko (Mitsuko Ichimura) falls ill, eventually bringing him into a climactic conflict with his wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo), who understandably disapproves of her husband’s dalliance with the underworld. While both Walk Cheerfully and That Night’s Wife are interesting films, they’re somewhat less assured, at least in my view, than Dragnet Girl, which sees Ozu developing into a clearly individual talent, already in distinct and original command of his chosen medium.

These three genre films widen our appreciation of Ozu as an up and coming force in Japanese cinema, and if one looks carefully, one can see the seeds of what would eventually become his later signature style. But most importantly, it goes without saying that any Ozu film is worth watching, as a chance to see a master filmmaker at work, and the new availability of these films from the BFI in such an excellent edition is something to celebrate.

To accompany this DVD set, the BFI has commissioned an essay by the esteemed critic Tony Rayns on the films as a group, with individual essays by Bryony Dixon, curator of silent films at the BFI archive, and Pamela Hutchinson. There’s also a 13-minute fragment of Ozu’s 1929 film A Straightforward Boy, and a 10-minute video extract from a 2010 lecture by Rayns, entitled Ozu: Emotion and Poetry to round out the set. This is a real find, and a set to treasure; you should buy this immediately, not only for its own value as an indispensible historical document, but also for the added insight the set afford on the early years of one of the most important and deeply influential directors in the history of cinema.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; reprinted 6 times through 2012, with a new edition in 2013). His blog, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here. His newest projects include the just completed Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky in May 2013.

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