Three Films by Yasujiro Ozu: Dragnet Girl, Record of a Tenement Gentleman and A Hen in the Wind.
2 Disc Blu Ray Set (BFI).
For anyone familiar with the work of Yasujiro Ozu, especially his magisterial Tokyo Story (1953) this set will prove to be fascinating. Dragnet Girl (1933) is a silent gangster film. Whilst Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) and A Hen in the Wind (1948) are post WW2 dramas when Japan was still under American occupation.
Ozu’s visual trademarks – his symbolic use of objects, filming interiors at floor level, domestic intimacy, the passing of time and inserted exterior shots to convey city or country atmospherics are already apparent. But here Ozu flirts with his great love for the American gangster genre (Especially the late twenties cinema of Josef Von Sternberg) and introduces a note of violence into his world (all the more ‘shocking’ for although in Ozu’s world characters may experience great disappointments they typically find their emotional release in less demonstrative forms of anger, acceptance and pacification). Yet the distancing of Ozu’s camera viewpoint means that any obvious signs of Western melodrama are kept at bay.
Dragnet Girl’s story is simple. Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) works as a typist by day. But at night she’s a gangster’s moll. Yet things get too dangerous when her boyfriend’s behaviour gets violently out of hand. She wants to hand herself and Joji (Joji Oka) over to the police. They’re both a million miles away from Bonnie and Clyde celebrities, more two errant youngsters who eventually renounce a gangster lifestyle. The complexity of feeling in their situation is strongly conveyed by the tender, and yet assertively forthright, characterisation of Tokiko. Her ambivalence about delinquency is beautifully realised through Kinuyo Tanaka’s acting and Ozu’s immensely sympathetic direction. Ozu may be having personal escapist fun with his crime drama escapade but, without ever moralising, he shifts the emphasis towards a better life for the couple.
I decided to watch the film without the new soundtrack provided by Ed Hughes. Its string music was heavily formal and serious: working against the romance of Dragnet Girl. But that was my personal preference for a film which has controlled pathos, charm, humour and visual vitality. I particular loved the film’s opening tracking shot of women at their typewriters followed by Tokiko in her boss’s office where she resists his chatting up.
If ever a film had an inappropriate title then it’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman. Even allowing for the mis-translation (Apparently it should be “A Who’s Who of the Backstreets”) it fails to describe this touching story.
Kohei (Hohi Aoki) is a young boy who has been temporally abandoned or just lost, whilst travelling, by his father. Tane (Choki Iida) a selfish widow initially resents being forced to look after the boy that Tane’s neighbour has delivered to her door. But gradually she begins to feel affection for him and Tane’s need for motherhood resurfaces.
Both the film’s scripting and the sensitive pitch-perfect performances of ‘Auntie’ and her new ‘son’ prevent the film from falling into sentimentality. Much of the power of Records of a Tenement Gentleman is in the strained tension of their relationship.
Finally we have the irony of Kohei’s supposedly irresponsible father coming to dutifully collect Kohei within two weeks of him gone missing. Tane’s impressed by his genuine concern and kindness, though this means she loses her chance to care for his son. But the urge to foster a child (one of the many war orphans) has been ignited in Tane to positively check her former self-centredness. Records of a Tenement Gentleman is an optimistic film about the need to remain open for change in the face of unexpected circumstances thrown up in the post war world.
A Hen in the Wind is remarkable for its discreet depiction of a rape, physical abuse by a spouse and a brutally abrupt moment when Tokiko (Kinuyu Tanaka) – a young wife with a child – is shoved down a staircase (When her husband Shuichi (Suji Sano) returns home from the war he discovers that Tokiko, because of financial hardship, been forced into a night of prostitution in order to pay a medical bill for their son).
I felt very unsympathetic to the husband. Shuichi is simply so unforgiving for so long in the film. This was a time of a woman’s submission to a man’s rigid marital code of behaviour and duties. Tokiko was desperate for money. At that time temporarily selling her body was her only option (There’s a wonderful scene where Ozu films Tokiko looking at herself in a mirror whilst she contemplates what’s to be done, Ozu lights her mirror image to be subtly different from the real Tokiko so that we glimpse her dark intention and how crushing will be the resultant shame). Kinuyo Tanaka delivers a superb heart rendering performance full of anguish, regret and yet resilience as she struggles with her husband to be forgiven.
The sadness of A Hen in the Wind lingers long after its ending. Like Record of a Tenement Gentleman the poverty of the Japanese, immediately after the war forced people to make extraordinary decisions to economically survive.
None of these three earlier Ozu films is a masterpiece. But that’s unimportant. All contain his recognisable style and have marvellous moments. They are good, important and need to be better known. Not necessarily to film critics but to a public that was moved, through videos and film seasons, by the humane and stoic vision of Ozu’s great achievements of the 1950 / 60s.