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Which Animal Are You?

In the 1950s, the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin published a very influential essay titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” in which he posited the existence of two opposing categories of human being, into one or the other of which he proceeded to divide many of the major figures of Western culture. Taking as his starting point a cryptic quote by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus – “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” – Berlin identified those Western writers and thinkers whom he considered hedgehogs (that is, those whose work can be defined by a single idea or conception of the world) and those whom he considered foxes (the ones who refused to champion a single point-of-view to the exclusion of others). Among poets, for example, he cited Dante as an example of the “hedgehog” type of artist and Shakespeare as an example of the “fox” type of artist. (Berlin’s essay is so famous that Woody Allen alluded to it with a very funny sex joke involving Judy Davis in his 1992 film Husbands and Wives.)

While pondering this concept, I recently realized that it could be used to explicate a major distinction between two great generations of Japanese filmmakers: the prewar directors, who started out in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the subsequent generation, whose careers kicked into high gear only after the Second World War. Although oversimplification can be dangerous, it does seem plausible to assert that for the younger masters, like Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Kon Ichikawa – influenced as they were by Hollywood genre filmmakers and versatile European artists like Jean Renoir – range and breadth were as every bit as important as depth. In other words, they were foxes by temperament and aspiration. For them, the ideal director could execute successfully nearly any conceivable type of movie, and in a style uniquely appropriate to each.

The goals of the great masters of the prewar generation – particularly Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu – seem to me completely opposite. After an early period of experimentation, sometimes turning out half-a-dozen movies or more in a single year, each of the three gradually settled down to a unitary worldview and a single stylistic approach, and each spent the rest of his career refining these. Think Mizoguchi’s iconic female martyrs, ultra-long takes and floating camera. Think Naruse’s money-obsessed characters, judicious use of close-ups and devastating accumulation of tiny details. And of course, there is Ozu, with his families disturbed or destroyed by change, low camera angles, head-to-head dialogue shots and general absence of camera movement. If these directors, particularly Ozu, are not hedgehogs, who would be worthy of the name?

Yet here we are, confronted by the seemingly contradictory evidence, with this unusual Criterion Eclipse Series box set, of three silent Ozu crime melodramas. The set contains two movies from 1930 – Walk Cheerfully and That Night’s Wife – and one from 1933, Dragnet Girl. In these films, we glimpse, instead of bars full of mild-mannered salarymen, wild nightclubs; instead of virginal daughters, gun-toting gangster’s girls; instead of comfortable middle-class homes, mobster hangouts.

So was the young Ozu a kind of fox after all?

Walk Cheerfully (Hogaraka ni ayume)

This is the earliest and slightest of the three films, but it is still most charming. (It was one of seven Ozu films released in 1930.) Our anti-hero is a spiffily-dressed con man named (shades of Brecht) “Ken the Knife” (Minoru Takada). His right-hand man, Senko (Hisao Yoshitani), is a good-natured, fireplug-shaped ruffian (or yotomoto, to use the popular term of the day), and Ken’s moll, Chieko (Satoko Date), who wears a Louise Brooks-style bob, works as a typist by day.

WALK CHEERFULLY

Are those pennies from heaven? Hiroko Kawasaki, Nobuko Matsuzono and Minoru Takada in Yasujiro Ozu’s Walk Cheerfully (1930). Credit: Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

None of these crooks appears remotely threatening – it’s almost as if crime is a pastime for them – and the impression of harmlessness is only enhanced by the gang’s ritualized greeting, which suggests a very funny musical-comedy routine. Senko seems to spend more time memorizing the lyrics to “A Gay Caballero” (by the American singer of novelty songs, Frank Crumit), which are written in English on a wall of the gang’s hangout, than planning or committing crimes. Chieko, for her part, seems much more comfortable scheming to break up Ken’s budding romance with a law-abiding young lady, Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki), than she is packing heat.

Yet the breakup of this gang when Ken decides to leave the criminal life is far more emotionally involving than Ken’s romance with Yasue. Senko even bursts into tears when Ken informs him of his decision. How dare he be so inconsiderate as to go straight without him? A criminal gang is, after all, a kind of family, and Ken’s decision to defect is as destructive to this family as, in Ozu’s much later Early Summer (1951), the heroine’s decision to marry is for her family.

At this point in his career, the director’s famous visual style had not quite jelled. We see surprising high-angle shots as well as the usual low-angled ones, and the objects competing with the actors for the camera’s attention – Senko’s hat, a broken doll, clothespins – seem almost fetishized, not as fully integrated into the narrative as such details would be in the later work of this filmmaker. But his smooth handling of narrative reveals the filmmaker’s increasing sophistication.

That Night’s Wife (Sono yo no tsuma)

The first big scene of That Night’s Wife (which was scripted by Ozu’s favorite co-screenwriter, Kogo Noda, based on a translated American crime story) depicts a nighttime office robbery. It is the most thrilling action sequence in all the director’s extant films. The details are worthy of Hitchcock: a cord being pulled out of a telephone, a tied-up clerk’s legs dangling over a desk, a single telltale handprint on the office door’s frosted glass window. Especially Hitchcockian is a later scene in which the robber, Shuji (played by Tokihiko Okada, father of future Ozu actress Mariko Okada), calls a doctor from a phone booth, while trying to crouch down low enough in the booth so as not to be caught by the neighborhood police, who are on his trail. At this point, one might easily think, “At last, here’s a real Ozu crime movie!”

THAT NIGHT'S WIFE

Pistol-packin’ mama! Emiko Yagumo and Tokihiko Okada in Yasujiro Ozu’s That Night’s Wife (1930). Credit: Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

But the filmmaker has something quite different in mind. Shuji, it turns out, is merely a pitiful, unemployed father who only steals to pay for medicine to cure his sick daughter, Michiko (Mitsuko Ichimura). He even heads straight home following the crime. But when an undercover policeman (Togo Yamamoto) follows Shuji home, determined to arrest him, the filmmaker throws a narrative curve ball at the viewer: Shuji’s loyal wife, Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo), turns the tables on the cop and holds him at double gunpoint, with Shuji’s gun and his own. He can arrest her husband, Mayumi tells him, but not until morning, when Michiko, who needs her father’s presence to recover, will be out of danger. The plot thus introduces a peculiar role-reversal: the wife becomes the outlaw, while her “criminal” husband plays the mothering parent.

Except for those very un-Ozu-like opening scenes, the narrative plays out almost entirely within the couple’s cluttered apartment, and the director presents a memorable and poignant vision of Depression-era poverty, Japanese-style. Shuji is an artist by profession, and there are paint cans everywhere, as well as brushes, empty bottles, and lots and lots of pottery. We see (as was typical of the décor of Ozu’s sets throughout his career) movie posters on the walls – including the 1929 musical Broadway Scandals and a Walter Huston talkie from the same year, Gentlemen of the Press – but these do not enliven the atmosphere, but only make the place look more depressing. (David Bordwell in his Ozu book accurately calls this apartment set “a cubistic assemblage out of the detritus of Western culture.”)

Without belaboring the Hitchcock parallel, one should note that Ozu tries something in these one-set scenes very similar to what the Hollywood master attempted in Rope (1948): to create drama in a confined space without succumbing to visual monotony. The apartment scenes contain more dissolves and tracking shots than any other Ozu movie I’ve ever seen, and tension is impressively built up, only to be resolved in a sentimental but satisfying ending.

Ozu’s success at this challenge so pleased his boss at Shochiku Studios, Shiro Kido, that the filmmaker was finally allowed to take a vacation at a hot spring… as long as he came back with yet another finished film.

Dragnet Girl (Hijosen no onna)

The giant leap in confidence and skill that Ozu displays in Dragnet Girl, only three years after That Night’s Wife, is truly impressive. Here he uses the full iconography of the gangster genre – the fedoras, the jazz bands, the shadowy interiors and eerily-lit nighttime streets – to stunning effect. (According to Bordwell, this movie is tied with I Was Born, But… (1932) as the director’s fastest film, with a shot-length average of only four seconds, as opposed to 10.2 average seconds per shot for Tokyo Story (1953).) This is a film that, in stylistic bravado, can stand comparison with anything Joseph von Sternberg (a major influence on Japanese film in general) made during the period, and it looks gorgeous, despite the many flaws in the unrestored print used for the DVD.

DRAGNET GIRL

On the lam. Kinuyo Tanaka and Joji Oka in Yasujiro Ozu’s Dragnet Girl (1933). Credit: Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

The antihero, Joji (Joji Oka), is a somewhat less pathetic figure than the protagonists of Walk Cheerfully and That Night’s Wife, but not by much. He’s a failed boxer, and goes out of his way to point out to the foolish young punk, Hiroshi (Hideo Mitsui, a.k.a. Koji Mitsui), who idolizes him, that he’s only a small-time hood, not one of the big bosses. Instead of falling for a tough, glamorous, Jean Harlowesque dame like his Hollywood counterparts, he develops a platonic crush on Hiroshi’s pretty, innocent sister Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo), while remaining involved in a turbulent relationship with his “delinquent” girlfriend Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka).

A major part of the appeal of this film is the opportunity to watch Tanaka, one of the major icons of the Japanese screen – she would later play Mizoguchi’s ultimate female martyrs and Naruse’s ideal self-sacrificing mother – portray a sexy, tough-talking gun moll. (It was the sixth of ten films she would make with Ozu.) Like Chieko in Walk Cheerfully, Tokiko works a day job as a typist. (Were underworld connections some kind of clerical qualification at that time?) Burning with jealousy because of Joji’s attraction to Kazuko, she seeks out her rival and threatens her, going so far as to hold her at gunpoint, only to suddenly develop her own quasi-lesbian attraction to the girl – a unique situation in my experience of Ozu. Overall, Tanaka in this film comes across as a charming but overly busy young actress; it would take some years before she would achieve her later gravitas.

In the end, Joji, under Tokiko’s influence, decides to go straight. But in order to fulfill his obligation to Hiroshi, he and Tokiko decide to carry out… ahem… one last job. (Once – just once – I would love to see the “one last job” that is a complete and glorious success and results in a happy ending for all, except the robbed party.) Since this crime is a singularly foolish one, the viewer may expect (or hope) that the plot will resolve itself with a Scarface-like end for Joji. But Ozu, once again, has other plans. However, it should be noted that the climax of Dragnet Girl contains the only gunshot – exactly one – in the director’s entire extant work.

Outlaw No More

If Tom Powers, the archetypical gangster played by Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy, viewed these films, he’d be driven to despair by the behavior of the protagonists. What a bunch of wimps, he would sneer, all these so-called thugs, dying to leave crime and go straight!

But that’s exactly the point. Hollywood gangster movies of the ‘Thirties were myths of rebellion and punishment, with the infamous Hays office guaranteeing the punishment and frustrated writers and directors, often chafing under the studio system, providing the (vicarious) rebelliousness. But Ozu’s crime melodramas are reintegration myths. In his world, there’s nothing romantic or even appealing about being a social rebel or outcast. To him, a man with any decency – which all three protagonists possess to varying degrees – would naturally yearn to reenter the social order, and all of them eventually yield to this impulse.

That they do so through the agency of the various women in their lives – good girl, spouse, delinquent girl – is, of course, a Hollywood cliché. But Ozu was never comfortable with the theme of romantic love. Family ties were always more important and vital to this director than erotic ones. This is why Ken’s relationship with his gangster “brother,” Senko, in Walk Cheerfully is so much more compelling than his love for Yasue, or why the sibling conflict between Hiroshi and Kazuko in Dragnet Girl is given nearly as much prominence as the main conflict between the lovers Joji and Tokiko. So even though stylistically these three films, with their snappy pacing and numerous American pop culture references – in Dragnet Girl, even Nipper, the RCA trademark dog, makes an appearance – may appear odd in the context of Ozu’s work as a whole, thematically they are not really dissonant with Tokyo Story or An Autumn Afternoon (1962). (Considered as a trilogy, this set might even be titled The Domestic Life of Thugs.)

In his humble way, Ozu liked to compare himself to a maker of tofu, as he insisted in later life on making the same kind of film (the intimate domestic drama) over and over, rather than the more extroverted movies of his peers, like Kurosawa. Speaking of Naruse, but in a way that suggests he could have been talking about himself, Ozu said, “You can’t tell a tofu maker to make meat sausage. It simply won’t work. A tofu maker can only make tofu. The only question is how tasty he can make tofu.”  And, somewhat more testily, he also said, “I just want to make a tray of good tofu. If people want something different, they should go to the restaurants and department stores.” I believe this can be roughly translated to: “As an artist, I’m a hedgehog… and dammit, I’m proud of it!”

The three DVDs (Criterion Eclipse Series 42) are stored in separate plastic keep cases within the simple but attractive cardboard packaging. (As of now, the individual films are not being sold separately.) As Eclipse is Criterion’s “budget” line, there are no commentaries or other frills on the DVDs, just chapter divisions and the option of removing the very readable English subtitles. The only “extras” in this set are the lively liner notes for each film by Michael Koresky, which appear on the inside of each keep case. The prints used are presumably the best available, with no attempt made at restoration. Thus, all three films contain scratches, dirt, fading and other flaws. These are most distracting in the case of Walk Cheerfully. However, the prints for That Night’s Wife and (particularly) Dragnet Girl are surprisingly good, considering that each of these movies is now as old as a human lifetime. Overall, this set is very strongly recommended not only to admirers of Yasujiro Ozu and Japanese cinema, but to fans of the gangster genre and of 1930s cinema in general.

 

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