All posts by John David Baldwin

Image of protagonists from Chikamatsu's Love in Osaka

Tomu Uchida: The Mystery Master

Tomu Uchida (1898 – 1970) was one of Japan’s very greatest filmmakers, but it would not be at all surprising if many regular readers of this site – dedicated movie fans by definition – had never even heard his name. At the recently-concluded Uchida series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the most complete retrospective of the filmmaker ever mounted in the English-speaking world, I saw seventeen of his movies, and the experience was magical. The films, only two of which I had seen before, almost all generated enthusiastic applause from audiences at the MOMA screenings I attended.

I began to wonder if the situation with this director’s reputation might be analogous to the case of Jean-Pierre Melville, in the period prior to the re-release in New York, in the early 1980s, of his 1956 classic Bob le Flambeur, when American critics suddenly realized that Melville was a very important moviemaker. Could a similar belated discovery be awaiting Uchida? (And are you reading this, Criterion Collection?) In the meantime, his obscurity allows me to do the one thing I love most as a cinema buff: finding a new filmmaker to love and spreading the news to anyone who will listen.

We can speculate as to the reasons why Uchida is so little known in the West. His career can be divided very neatly into two halves: a pre-Pacific War period (1922-1940) and a postwar period (1955-1970), with an awkward 15-year gap between them, during which he continually tried but failed, due to the political turmoil of the time, to make even more films. Very little of his prewar work seems to have survived intact and during the postwar period, he was a contract director at Toei, the least prestigious of the six major film studios in the Japan of that era. So it’s not that surprising that Uchida’s films received virtually no international exposure during his lifetime.

I suspect, though, that a big reason why his work remains so infrequently seen outside of Japan is that he’s a very tough director to get a handle on, and would thus pose a major challenge for any distributor trying to market his work internationally. Throughout his career, his films swung between two stylistic poles: a sort of gritty yet Romantic realism and a highly theatrical expressionism. His impressive range as an artist thus derives not just from the wide variety of genres and subjects he tackled, but from extreme variations in tone between different works and, sometimes, within the same work. So defining Uchida’s cinema is problematic in a way that’s not true of, say, Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi, artists with distinctive and consistent stylistic signatures

Uchida’s reputation – or lack of it – in Europe and America contrasts dramatically with the profound respect he enjoys among other moviemakers in his native land. Akira Kurosawa, in his list of his 100 favorite films of all time (he had limited himself to only one film per director), singled out Earth (Tsuchi, 1939) for particular praise, and implied that he might easily have selected the earlier Unending Advance (Kagirinaki zenshin, 1937) instead. The founders of the famous anime production company, Studio Ghibli, particularly producer Toshio Suzuki, grew up as great fans of the master: Suzuki says that the first film he saw as a child that impressed him was Uchida’s Swords in the Moonlight. These animators, while they were still employed at Toei in the 1960s, made a brief but unsuccessful attempt to collaborate with Uchida on an animated version of Japan’s oldest literary folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. (In the 21st Century, Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata revived this aborted project, resulting in the wonderful recent anime, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013).)

Uchida was an exceptional film craftsman in an era in Japan in which very solid craftsmanship was almost a given. However, it has been maintained by some that, like many good Hollywood pros, Uchida was an impersonal artist, with no characteristic “personality.” This seems to me completely wrong. I can easily discern, across films of several decades, a number of recurring, indeed obsessive, themes, and his work feels to me very personal indeed. So my mission in this article is to trace these themes in the individual films, and to try to make sense of them in the larger context of his career.

Note: I could not see Uchida’s very rare Dotanba (1957) and, for reasons of space, I’ve decided to exclude from this article the following five Uchida films that I did see: A Hole of My Own Making (1955); The Koroda Affair (1956); The Horse Boy (1957) (a film so obscure it isn’t even listed in The Internet Movie Data Base); The Master Spearman (1960) (which contains a hilarious and subversive harakiri scene); and Uchida’s penultimate film, Hishakaku and Kiratsune: A Tale of Two Yakuza (1968). I am indebted for biographical information on Uchida to Craig Watts’ online article, published for Bright Lights Film Journal, which, despite its brevity, constitutes the most thorough summary of the filmmaker’s life and career I’ve yet read.

 

Police Officer
(
Keisatsukan, 1933)
Kinema Junpo ranking: none*

(*The Kinema Junpo critics’ awards, presented annually by the venerable Japanese cinema publication Kinema Junpo, have been given to Japanese productions from 1926 to the present. They were long considered the top film prizes in Japan. The Best Film (#1) award – which Uchida won twice (see below) – was considered particularly prestigious.)

Police Officer is the most dynamic and viscerally exciting Japanese film of the 1930s that I’ve ever seen. Though it takes a while longer than your typical Hollywood film of the period for its plot to come to a boil, it is as advanced technically and in character development as any late silent movie from Hollywood. (For complex reasons, Japan was much slower than the West in fully adopting sound pictures, and silent films continued to be released, though with decreasing frequency, throughout the 1930s.)

The story concerns the relationship between intelligent, sensitive Officer Itami and his former friend from his student days, Tetsuo, who now confront each other from opposite sides of the law. Kurosawa may very well have gotten script ideas for his classic detective film, Stray Dog (1949) from this picture: the sympathetic “villain” who is a kind of mirror image of the hero; the character of the protagonist’s beloved mentor, who is shot by a unknown criminal who then escapes; the alienating atmosphere of the big, anonymous city; the dramatic chase scene at the end.

Expressionistic elements are interestingly mixed with the overall gritty realism: a chain-link fence superimposed upon a map symbolizes the police “net” tightening on the criminal gang, and the final chase through the night city is thrillingly abstract, equal to anything Fritz Lang, say, was doing at the time. This work reveals a filmmaker who was already a major craftsman, though Uchida as yet lacks the emotional depth characteristic of an artist in the full sense.

 

Unending Advance
(
Kagirinaki Zenshin, 1937)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #1

Image for Tomu Uchida's Unending Advance (1937)

Hisako Takihana (left) and Yukiko Todoroki in Unending Advance/Kagirinaki zenshin. 1937. Japan. Directed by Tomu Uchida. Courtesy National Film Center, Tokyo

This film left me feeling profoundly uncomfortable. An educated young man, Kato (Ureo Egawa), who should be well advanced in his career, plays with the neighborhood children all day because he can’t get a job, and cheerfully calls himself a bum. A young woman (Yukiko Todoroki), the daughter of the film’s middle-aged hero, salaryman Tokumaru (Isamu Kosugi), is mockingly called “95 sen” by the local kids because her daily wage is, indeed, only 95 sen – that is, just short of one yen: not a lot of money, even for 1937. For the new house he’s having built, Tokumaru is asked by the contractor to fork over 500 yen (that is, more than his daughter makes in a year) over and above the price originally agreed to, because the costs of building materials have gone up. Worst of all, Tokumaru, who’s been making plans on the assumption that he’ll keep working until age 65, has been hearing rumors at his company that the retirement age will soon be changed to 55… a milestone he’s already reached.

The reason I felt uncomfortable was because all this economic misery and corporate chicanery suggests 2016 America as much as Depression-era Japan. Without many changes, this could easily be adapted into a contemporary American movie… if Hollywood would ever have the guts to make a picture this downbeat about a modern “salaryman.” The film also made me uncomfortable in another sense, because it now exists only in very fragmentary form, and is thus impossible to evaluate properly.

The mostly intact first half of the tale (based on a story by Ozu), depicting the salaryman’s daily life and modest ambitions, reminded me of the easygoing charm of Yasujiro Shimazu’s earlier comedy, My Neighbor, Miss Yae (1934), but with a bitter undercurrent. There’s even a nice bit of office satire when the company president, at the office meeting, coldly announces that management is firing Tokumaru and his elderly co-worker “through our tears.”

But then the narrative takes an even darker turn. During a thunderstorm, Tokumaru collapses and loses consciousness. In his dreams, he’s not been fired at all, but promoted, and all his desires for himself and his family have come true. After he wakes up, Tokumaru believes the dream to be real, and when he goes to the office, he sits in his boss’ chair and invites all his co-workers out to lunch to celebrate. The situation becomes so embarrassing that his daughter has to be called to come to the restaurant and bring him home.

The film suffered a fate as demeaning as that of its protagonist. Re-released after the war, it was edited in such a way that the dream sequence was presented unironically as real, and the movie’s tragic ending was thus transformed into a happy one. (Think of Murnau’s The Last Laugh.) Uchida was, of course, furious at the changes, and refused afterwards to allow this mutilated version to be shown, though the original version, apparently, no longer exists. As a compromise, it was edited yet again, with printed intertitles describing the events of the original film’s deleted sections, and the director approved this version.

The pathos of Tokumaru’s mad delusion is thus completely excluded, except for one brief scene. Missing, too, is the climactic scene at the restaurant, in which the unemployed young man, Kato, gives a bizarre speech condemning the sick old man as a relic of a dying age. (This passage has only been preserved in the published screenplay.) Peter B. High, author of The Imperial Screen – the definitive book about the militarization of Japanese cinema during this troubled era – describes this monologue as exhibiting “the lurking spirit of Nazism.” This part, too, I would very much like to have seen and evaluated for its contemporary resonances… if the movie had not been, like its hero, broken.

 

Earth
(
Tsuchi, 1939)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #1

Image from Tomu Uchida's Earth (1939)

Isamu Kosugi (left) and Akiko Kazami in Earth/Tsuchi. 1939. Japan. Directed by Tomu Uchida. Courtesy National Film Center, Tokyo

Earth has an origin story that is – as one of the series’ curators, Alexander Jacoby, remarked when he introduced the film at its MOMA screening –nearly too good to be true. Nikkatsu, the studio to which Uchida was under contract at the time, turned down his idea to adapt Takashi Nagatsuka’s 1913 novel. Thereafter, for a whole year, Uchida, while working on officially-sanctioned projects during the week, secretly filmed the unauthorized Earth on weekends, including location shooting in northern Japan. By the time Nikkatsu’s executives found out about the clandestine film, they couldn’t suppress it for fear of losing face with those studio employees who had worked on it, or indirectly assisted in its making. So the studio reluctantly released it and it became a big hit, later voted the best film of 1939 by critics.

Earth is, in fact, the ultimate expression of Uchida’s tendency toward hard realism, though even here, a certain Romantic stylization is apparent. It’s probably the darkest (literally) movie about farming I’ve ever seen: call it rural noir. The interior shots of the family’s house are very dim and hard to see, and many of the outdoor shots occur at dawn, dusk or night. The protagonist, Kanji (Isamu Kosugi), a prematurely aging tenant farmer, is also dark, as his face always seems to be covered in grime that he cannot wash off.

There is darkness in Kanji’s soul as well, as he harbors a bitter grudge towards his father-in-law. The old man, who lives with Kanji and his daughter (Akiko Kazami) and young son, is not only one more hungry mouth to feed, but is too proud and too senile to submit willingly to the authority of his distracted son-in-law. His increasingly unruly antics end with him accidentally burning down Kanji’s house. When Kanji refuses to forgive the old man for this blunder, he’s ostracized by the community (though if a relative of mine burned down my house, I’d be ticked off, too).

Some commentators have suggested that Kanji’s hostility towards the old man is actually misdirected rage, that he’s really angry at the owner of the land – or rather, the whole tenant-farming system – and taking it out on his father-in-law. This theory makes a lot of sense. Though seemingly benign (she accedes to every request Kanji makes), the landowner still takes most of his rice crop as rent, leaving him and his family with little.

It’s been written that Uchida’s narrative eliminates most of the original novel’s left-wing content, but I still sensed some strongly leftish sentiment. While Kanji’s hut is burning, for example, the villagers, at first trying to control the blaze, suddenly decide that the house is a lost cause and turn their attention to the landowner’s house, which is also in danger of burning down, as it is considered much more important. The scene says everything that need be said about the priorities of this still-feudal world.

Earth, despite its current fragmentary state (its last reel is missing), is a flawed masterpiece. Though not a classic on the order of Ray’s Pather Panchali – which it resembles – the film is “the summation of all that the Japanese cinema had come to represent in the 1930s,” according to film scholar Donald Richie, one of whose books first brought Tomu Uchida to my attention.

(Incidentally, this was the very first film appearance of the prolific actress Akiko Kazami, who died just a few months ago at age 95, following a 74-year career in cinema and television. The screening I attended was dedicated by Jacoby to her memory.)

 

A Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji
(
Chiyari Fuji, 1955)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #8

Now considered a classic, A Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji was Uchida’s successful comeback following his decade-and-a-half absence from Japan, during which he had attempted in vain to make films in Manchuria for the wartime Japanese government, and then in China, as a kind of atonement, had tried, again unsuccessfully, to make films for the Communists. (The frequently-claimed reason for his long absence – that he was held for years as a prisoner of war by the Chinese – appears to be untrue.) Three of Uchida’s old buddies, directors Hiroshi Shimizu, Daisuke Ito and Yasujiro Ozu, were all credited as “advisors” to the production. Though they may well have had a hand in the script, the final work reflects Uchida’s characteristic themes and obsessions.

A young, naïve, but intelligent samurai with a weakness for alcohol, Sakawa (Eijirō Kataoka), goes on a journey to deliver a precious family heirloom, accompanied by his loyal retainer, Genta (Daisuke Kato), and his equally loyal, middle-aged spear carrier, Genpachi (Chiezō Kataoka). Along the way, the trio encounters a collection of colorful period-film types, through which the narrative cleverly accumulates a number of thematic doubles. A poor man suspected by a government spy of being a notorious thief is doubled by the real thief, who is disguised as a traveling priest. The poor man’s daughter, sold many years ago into sexual slavery (and whom he is attempting to buy back), is doubled by a beautiful female traveler who is being similarly sold by her father in the present. Even Genpachi is doubled by a little orphan boy tagging along with him who, aspiring to be a spear-carrier himself when he grows up, imitates the man’s gestures and walk.

Bloody Spear may be the most famous example in Uchida’s work of one of his most distinctive themes: the sudden eruption of chaos into a seemingly ordered world. This obsession of Uchida’s, according to Craig Watts, was influenced, by, of all things, Maoist theory. “In the Mao interpretation Tomu studied,” Watts writes, “small contradictions or irrationalities build gradually upon one another to reveal larger contradictions, which in turn lead to an explosive climax or revolution in which contradictions are resolved.”

Up until the last ten minutes, the film plays like a period-film version of one of Heinosuke Gosho’s gentle tragicomedies of the 1950s, such as An Inn at Osaka (1954). But then, with little warning, the movie suddenly goes all Kurosawa. A bunch of snobbish samurai at a roadside tavern find Sakawa sharing a drink with Genta and, disgusted at this breach of samurai decorum, launch an epic battle against them and Genpachi. The skill with which Uchida manages this unexpected shift in tone, and the clarity and precision with which he stages the final battle, are hallmarks of the director’s style.

Uchida was one of Japan’s finest action directors. (Perhaps only Kurosawa, among his countrymen, was his superior in this regard.) Yet, through all the mayhem in his films, as in this case, he always sought to elucidate the mysteries of human behavior within the context of an oppressive society – including how a gentle man like Genpachi could, under certain circumstances, become a raging, murderous beast.

 

Twilight Saloon
(
Tasogare sakaba, 1955)
Kinema Junpo ranking: none

Image from Tomu Uchida's Twilight Saloon (1955)

Daisuke Kato (left), Jun Tatara and Eijiro Tono in Twilight Saloon. Japan. 1955. Directed by Tomu Uchida.

This movie, which depicts, on a single, stage-like set, a seedy Tokyo tavern on a particularly eventful night in the early postwar era, has sometimes been compared to Casablanca . I think a more useful comparison would be to Robert Altman’s classic 1970s films. (In 1955, when this movie was released, Altman was still in the Midwest, churning out industrial films.) Like those later American films, Uchida here is interested in depicting a lively but closed community, with its own folkways and taboos.

I think it’s significant that this picture was completely shut out of the Kinema Junpo critics’ list of the Top 30 films for its year. I suspect that reviewers at the time thought it a failure because it didn’t have a strong main plot, but this lack of a solid narrative center seems to me its most charming quality. The film moves swiftly and seemingly randomly from one patron’s story to another, easily mixing melodrama, low comedy and satire. This is, in fact, one of Uchida’s most amusing films. From the “radicals,” who are more interested in singing and drinking than making revolution, to the ex-militarist (Eijirō Tōno) reminiscing with his old service buddies about the past “glories” of the war, the film pokes fun at the whole political spectrum of its time.

The most respected character in the place is the bohemian artist Umeda, played by Uchida regular Isamu Kosugi, in his final film for the director. This character introduces into Uchida’s films the recurring theme of guilt. Remorseful for having placed his art at the service of the military dictatorship during the war (as was Uchida himself for doing the same thing), Umeda no longer paints. He’s content to drink, observe the passing show and, occasionally, lend a helping hand, and money, to a young person in trouble. There’s a delightful scene, which feels ad-libbed, in which Umeda, for the whole tavern’s amusement, performs Bizet’s Toreador Song, using a cape and another patron in the role of the bull.

The drawback for filmmakers who are “ahead of their time,” as Uchida was with this work, is that they usually get neither box-office success nor critical respect when they most need them. But now that we’ve finally caught up, so to speak, with Uchida, we can enjoy this minor classic.

 

Swords in the Moonlight, Parts I-III (a.k.a., Killer Pass)
(
Daibosatsu tōge I-III, 1957-1959)
Kinema Junpo ranking: none

Image from Tomu Uchida's Swords in the Moonlight, Part II (1958)

Chiezō Kataoka in Swords in the Moonlight Part 2/Daibosatsu toge: Dainibu. 1958. Japan. Directed by Tomu Uchida. (C)TOEICOMPANY, LTD

If the concept of the “antihero” didn’t exist, it would have to be invented for the bizarre, deeply disturbing protagonist of this trilogy of films: the sociopathic samurai Ryunosuke Tsukue, feudal Japan’s equivalent of Dirty Harry. This figure was introduced in a series of 41 (yes, 41) novels composed over three decades by author Kaizan Nakazato, a pacifist who died in 1944 before he could complete the saga. (The best-known film adaptation of this material for Western viewers is Kihachi Okamoto’s highly-stylized 1966 version starring Tatsuya Nakadai as Ryunosuke, which was given the English title Sword of Doom.)

This nearly five-and-a-half-hour epic may well be Uchida’s best showcase for his genius as a storyteller. It really has to be, because the narrative is preposterous in concept and ridiculous in its details, including all manner of unlikely coincidences and impossible escapes. But these seeming faults matter as little as would the ludicrous libretto of a great opera, and for the same reason. Although the rambling plot is carefully set within a recognizable historical era – the mid-19th Century, when the Tokugawa Shogunate was disintegrating – it functions not as a credible reflection of “real life,” but as a kind of crucible within which the dark fates of its strangely compelling characters, male and female, are combined and fused.

The narrative begins with Ryunosuke meeting by chance a religious pilgrim at the Great Bodhisattva Pass (the meaning of the film’s original Japanese title). The old man is on his knees, praying, and the warrior, without warning, unsheathes his sword and kills him. This first inexplicable action leads inevitably to a series of actions resulting in a vast pileup of corpses.

It would seem an impossible task for any actor to make such a mindlessly violent figure believable, never mind sympathetic, yet somehow Chiezō Kataoka, under Uchida’s direction, accomplishes both. Even more strikingly, Kataoka makes no attempt at a naturalistic performance. He provides the character with a slow, deep, growling voice, more bestial than human. The overall effect (particularly after he is blinded, in the second and third parts of the saga) is to suggest a wounded animal that longs for the termination of its pain in death. The great critic Tadao Sato wrote that the Ryunosuke character is not about “evil,” but the Buddhist conception of life as suffering, and Kataoka powerfully embodies this idea, portraying a man intolerably burdened by his inability to feel normal human emotions. (He can experience guilt and remorse only in his nightmares and hallucinations.)

This theme is made even more explicit via the character of his antagonist, the young swordsman Hyoma (Kinnosuke Nakamura). The brother of a man whom Ryunosuke kills early in the story, Hyoma is obsessed with revenge until, near the end of the narrative, he transcends his rage and achieves a kind of Enlightenment. He no longer hates Ryunosuke; he now seeks to kill him solely to put him out of his earthly misery. This change of heart may raise a smile from Western viewers, since Hyoma’s objective remains the same: Ryunosuke’s death. But to Japanese audiences, the “why” is often more important than the “what,” and Uchida makes Hyoma’s moral redemption both believable and meaningful.

This is not the greatest trilogy in Japanese cinema. That would be Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (Ningen no Joken, 1959-1961), which, by contrast, presents us with a hero who feels too much. But Uchida’s expert command of this incredibly complicated story and its complex themes, as well as of his enormous cast, is very impressive.

 

The Outsiders
(
Mori to Mizuumi no Matsuri, 1958)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #23

Image from The Outsiders by Tomu Uchida (1958)

Kyoko Kagawa (center) in The Outsiders/Mori to mizuumi no matsuri. 1958. Japan. Directed by Tomu Uchida. (C)TOEI COMPANY, LTD

This film’s widescreen color location cinematography (by Shōei Nishikawa) is so dazzling that it’s difficult to believe that it was released only three years after A Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji, whose visual style harkens back to the 1930s. But though the onscreen landscapes (shot on location in the northern island of Hokkaido) that Uchida presents are a feast for the eye, other aspects of the movie – plot and character, for example – are a bit problematic.

As Jasper Sharp has pointed out in his Midnight Eye review, this film – dealing with the discrimination and cultural destruction faced by the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido – strongly recalls, in its themes and even in its visuals, the liberal “anti-Westerns” Hollywood released in the 1950s and 1960s. Surely an analogy can be made between the situation of the Ainu, whose culture and economy have been steamrollered by the encroaching Japanese since at least the 19th Century, and the continuing travails of Native Americans. But the movie also exemplifies many of the flaws of the Hollywood subgenre it evokes, particularly the difficulty it seems to have in getting inside the minds and hearts of the people it is championing. (My experience of the film wasn’t helped by a print with unidiomatic English subtitles, such as “I have an information for you.”) One could almost accuse the movie, ironically, of Orientalism in its success in detailing the colorful customs and folkways of the Ainu – Festival of Lakes and Forests is the literal translation of the film’s Japanese title – and its (relative) failure to sufficiently explore their inner lives.

The film, it should be noted in fairness, has many fine things to recommend it besides beautiful photography. These include an all-too-brief performance by lovely Ineko Arima as the divorced Ainu wife of a Japanese anthropologist (who “collected” her like a native artifact), and a dynamic Brandoesque turn by future superstar Ken Takakura, as a rebellious Ainu Robin Hood figure.

Perhaps I need to see the movie again to judge it fairly. But this was the film in the entire Uchida series that I most looked forward to seeing, and it was almost the only one that left me hungry for more.

 

Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka
(Naniwa no Koi no Monogatari, 1959)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #7

Portraying the real-life story that the puppet theater playwright Chikamatsu adapted for his classic play, The Courier for Hell (Meido no hikyaku), this movie boasts vibrant, sumptuous color and brilliant camerawork: it’s a perfectly crafted piece. Yet the filmmaker’s real achievement here is in revealing the rottenness and cruelty behind the rich, glamorous world of 18th Century Osaka that he recreates.

Chubei (Kinnosuke Nakamura) is the young adopted son of a no-nonsense businesswoman (Kinuyo Tanaka) who runs a courier service. Employed by this woman as a humble courier – “a merchant’s money is a samurai’s sword,” she ominously tells him – he waits on the distant day when he can inherit the business and marry the woman’s daughter. Dragged, literally, to the city’s licensed pleasure quarters by his bullying friend Hachi (Kurosawa regular Minoru Chiaki), the virginal Chubei falls head-over-heels for the beautiful, compassionate courtesan Umegawa (Ineko Arima). He desperately wants to buy out her contract to the brothel, but lacks the cash to do so – except, of course, when he’s carrying other people’s money as a courier.

Uchida’s brilliant strategy is to introduce Chikamatsu (Chiezō Kataoka) as a character in the narrative. As a celebrity playwright respected by all, he is very much in “the floating world” but not quite of it. He’s scornful of the greed and exploitation he sees, yet for the sake of his art, he himself exploits, through drama, the suffering these vices cause. And the character is sometimes used wittily by Uchida. Just after the lovers have fled Osaka, a serving maid asks Chikamatsu if they have, as she’s heard, committed double suicide, and he chides the woman for getting ahead of the plot.

The final scene in the movie is thrilling. The shot begins with a closeup of Chikamatsu sitting at the rear of a theater. Then the camera pulls back to show the audience rapturously watching his new play (The Courier for Hell, of course), until we finally reach the stage, on which we see, in closeup, a remarkable puppet performance, movingly evoking a scene in the lovers’ tragedy that never actually happened in real life. Then there’s a great, final closeup in which Kataoka as Chikamatsu looks straight into the camera and at us, his eyes seeming to burn with indignation at our sinful world, as the image fades.

Uchida portrays Chikamatsu as a god-like figure, unable to protect humans from their folly, but fully capable of redeeming their lives through art.

 

Killing in Yoshiwara (aka, Hero of the Red-Light District)
(
Yōtō monogatari: hana no Yoshiwara hyakunin-giri, 1960)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #12

One of Uchida’s very greatest works, Killing in Yoshiwara is compelling but extremely painful viewing, for we watch helplessly as a good but naïve man destroys himself. The plot suggests Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens crossed with Jean Renoir’s La Chienne. But as masterly as Renoir’s film was, he failed to summon as much audience empathy for his hero as Uchida does for his.

The narrative begins with a great origin story, like a tragic version of Moses. An abandoned infant with a hideous purple birthmark on his cheek is discovered by a childless couple, a short sword and a brief document the only evidence of his samurai origins. Jiro (Chiezō Kataoka) grows up to be a wealthy but humble silk manufacturer. All his employees love him, despite the grotesque birthmark. The only thing missing from Jiro’s life is a wife to bear him an heir to carry on the business… and to relieve his loneliness.

One of Jiro’s business associates, acting as a go-between, arranges his offer of marriage to a prospective bride – a homely, aging, but respectable woman. Before she can give a definite answer, though, the businessman offers to treat Jiro (who’s almost certainly a virgin) to an evening at Tokyo’s licensed pleasure quarter, Yoshiwara.

There he meets the attractive but terrifying empty Tsuru (Yoshie Mizutani), a common streetwalker working in the brothel as a serving maid, and the only woman in the place willing to entertain him. When they are left alone together, she actually kisses the awful birthmark, saying “I’ve kissed it all away.” No wonder the poor guy is hooked! But Tsuru is incapable of love. Her only motivation for seducing the rich man is to exact revenge on the real courtesans and on her employers, all of whom despise and humiliate her.

What makes the story a tragedy rather than a mere melodrama is that even though Jiro foolishly spends a fortune from his savings to advance his new mistress’ career, he never loses his basic decency. When a natural disaster wipes out the supply of silk upon which his business depends, he spends a second fortune to keep his suppliers from starvation.

This film was written by Yoshikada Yoda, Kenji Mizoguchi’s great scriptwriter, but there are many masterful touches Uchida employs that were almost certainly not part of Yoda’s script, good as it is. For example, there’s a marvelous scene when Tsuru, under Jiro’s sponsorship, parades through the town as the newest courtesan. She is haughty and smiling and he, walking beside her, looks proud and pleased. But in the lower right-hand corner of the frame, a little girl is walking along, staring up at them, utterly amazed at the behavior of these foolish adults.

I have a confession to make here. I usually strongly disdain what I call the “one-man army” swordfighting scenes so frequent in Japanese period films. This is when a lone swordsman holds off a whole city’s worth (or so it seems) of adversaries – even when they’re surrounding him – and slices and dices them efficiently, like so many slabs of prime rib.

But the climax of this film is an outstanding exception to this cliché. The action is weirdly plausible because Jiro, now crazed, is acting out the rage and pain that had been building up in him long before he’d had the misfortune of meeting Tsuru, giving him almost superhuman strength. But the beauty that Uchida evokes – cherry blossoms are gently falling as the merchant attacks his enemies – is just about the only thing that makes it bearable.

Killing in Yoshiwara is a singularly cruel masterpiece.

 

The Mad Fox (a.k.a., Love, Thy Name Be Sorrow)
(Koi ya koi nasuna koi, 1962)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #18

Image from The Mad Fox (1962) by Tomu Uchida

Hashizō Ōkawa (seated) in The Mad Fox/Koi ya koi nasuna koi. 1962. Directed by Tomu Uchida. (C)TOEI COMPANY, LTD

This grim fairy tale represents the polar opposite from the stylized realism that Uchida mastered in the 1930s with Police Officer and Earth, and continued to explore in his 1950s movies, like Bloody Spear and The Outsiders. In ancient Japan, Yasuna (Hashizo Okawa) is a disciple of the elderly astronomer, Yasunori. The astronomer’s adopted daughter, Sakaki (Michiko Saga), has fallen in love with Yasuna. Yasunori, however, is murdered by order of his wicked wife (Sumiko Hidaka) and her ambitious lover. The imperial court demands that Yasunori’s prophetic scroll be produced, but it has vanished, and Sakaki is falsely accused of having stolen it. She and Yasuna are imprisoned by Yasunori’s widow (the real thief) and brutally tortured, and Sakaki dies of her injuries. Poor Yasuna goes mad, accidentally sets the place on fire, killing the evil widow, and vanishes into the night.

But as soon as Yasuna goes nuts, so does the movie. The young man, who thinks Sakaki’s still alive, meets Kuzunoha, her identical twin sister (also played by Ms. Saga) and when he starts calling her Sakaki, she goes along with the deception. Then a female fox (Ms. Saga again), who is actually not at all mad, falls in love with Yasuna. Since the magic fox is capable of assuming human form, she disguises herself as the deceased Sakaki (or the living Kuzunoha: it’s not clear which), and the couple bears a half-fox, half-human child together.

If you’re thoroughly confused by now, it doesn’t matter, because plot coherence and plausibility are totally beside the point here. Uchida has a field day mixing and matching various traditional Japanese cultural forms to tell his story – folk tales, Kabuki, Bunraku, Rakugo and Noh among them. In scene after scene, the director delights in creating anti-realistic imagery, theatrical-looking artifice and clever bits of business. If Michael Powell had seen this movie, he would have been green with envy.

But underneath the charming surface of the narrative, there’s a bleak subtext. Except for Yasunori’s widow, all the evil characters triumph, while the good ones are destroyed, damaged or powerless in the end. Beyond all the feverish fantasy, this, it appears, is Uchida’s “realism”: art, like a madman’s delusions, is only a palliative in a world that’s always been incorrigibly cruel and corrupt.

 

A Fugitive from the Past (a.k.a., The Hunger Straits)
(
Kiga Kaikyo, 1965)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #5
Kinema Junpo Best-of-All-Time ranking (1999): #3

I doubt if any single work could possibly have utilized all of Tomu Uchida’s diverse strengths as a moviemaker. But the very dark thriller, A Fugitive from the Past, probably comes closer to that ideal than any picture the director ever made. It was the most critically-esteemed film of Uchida’s postwar career, and in recent years it has become by far his most admired work, selected by critics in 1999 as the third-greatest Japanese film of all time.

The story of a man in postwar Japan whose involvement in a robbery-murder results in a complex web of crime and guilt, the work may be considered flawed by the near-total absence of the director’s customary humor and cinematic playfulness, replaced here by a dark, somber irony. For that reason, this very long movie is a bit tough to sit through at times. But it remains Uchida’s strongest variation on his recurring themes of Karmic guilt, retribution and redemption.

This was the director’s first black-and-white movie since 1957 – it was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm to achieve a gritty, “dirty” look – and the cinematography, by Hanjirō Nakazawa, is amazing to behold. As commentators have noted, Uchida, who was in his middle sixties when he made this movie, incorporates here the influence of Japanese New Wave filmmakers half his age, such as Nagisa Ōshima and Shōhei Imamura.

Having seen Police Officer, however, I now realize that, in going New Wave, he was merely updating the bold, kinetic, sometimes expressionistic techniques of his own 1930s films for a modern audience. For example, several times in the narrative, at moments of highest intensity, the cinematic image suddenly “goes negative” for several seconds – think of the thermographic photos on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ album, Emotional Rescue – a visual motif that could have seemed pretentious or odd, but which works beautifully.

The film contains two of the strongest performances in the history of Japanese Cinema: Rentarō Mikuni as the ambiguous yet sympathetic fugitive of the title, Inukai, and Sachiko Hidari as the truly strange and frightening innocent, Sugito Yae. Add to all this an interesting music score by future synthesizer king Isao Tomita, and several fine supporting performers, including character actor Junzaburo Ban and the young Ken Takakura (he became a superstar in Japan later that year, with Teruo Ishii’s Abashiri Prison), and you have what is surely one of the finest Japanese films ever made.

 

Overall, of all Japanese directors whose work I know at all well, I would now put Uchida in sixth place, just below the “big four” masters – Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse – and Masaki Kobayashi (The Human Condition, Harakiri, Kwaidan). If a ranking of “sixth best” doesn’t seem very impressive, keep in mind that I am rating him above literally dozens of wonderful directors, including contemporaries such as Yamanaka, Gosho, Kinoshita, Ichikawa, Imai, Shindo, Honda, Imamura and Teshigahara. For in the final analysis, the quality that puts Uchida in the same league as artists like, say, Kurosawa and Kobayashi – and which many of his worthy colleagues, however talented, didn’t possess – is a tragic sense of life, and an ability to communicate that vision cinematically.

The phenomenon of good people who do truly awful, destructive and self-destructive things is a mystery that sages and saints have been trying to fathom for millennia. It’s a mystery that obsessed Uchida, too, but few film artists in Japan – or anywhere – have managed to explore this dilemma with as much depth and passion as he.

 

Naked Featured

The Truthful Fakery of Kaneto Shindō: a Review of “The Naked Island”

Public domain island image

It’s a bit odd that Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (Hadaka no shima, a.k.a. The Island, 1960) has taken so long to receive the Criterion treatment on DVD and Blu-ray, for this Japanese movie has been praised all over the world since it first arrived on the international scene in the early 1960s. Filmed on the tiny island of Sukune in the Inland Sea, not far from Shindō’s native city, Hiroshima, the bare-bones plot concerns a family of four – a man, a woman and their two young boys – who must transport, with great difficulty, their daily supply of water from the mainland to the island to cultivate their sweet potato crop, which would die (as would they) without this obsessive attention. Its vision of poverty and struggle in an exotic setting won such enthusiasm from European art house audiences at the time that the French actually turned its melancholy theme tune, composed by Hikaru Hayashi, into a hit pop song.

Yet the film, considered a classic by many, has had its share of detractors and doubters. Pauline Kael, in her review, dismissed the movie as phony, even sneering at the undeniable pictorial beauty of its Inland Sea setting, photographed by Shindō’s excellent cameraman, Kiyomi Kuroda. (“It’s pictorial, all right,” she wrote.) The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther – who, in his much more favorable review, naively called the work a “documentary” – wondered why the couple failed to build structures, such as cisterns, for catching and storing rainwater, so as to spare themselves at least some of those long, laborious trips carrying buckets of water.

Oddly, one of the film’s most vocal skeptics has been the director himself, who once candidly pointed out that the sweet potato crop that the family is shown cultivating would not, in real life, have required such enormous quantities of water to thrive. He also noted on this video’s commentary track – recorded in 2000 – that not only was the island on which they shot the movie uninhabited, but farmers from the area, such as the ones depicted, would never have actually watered their crops in the heat of the noonday sun, as is done in the film, because the water would almost immediately have evaporated.

So how has a movie of such dubious plausibility managed to evoke such a powerful response from audiences and critics for over fifty years? More than most films, The Naked Island is an overwhelmingly visual experience – except for one song by some schoolchildren, there is no spoken dialogue at all – with very little in the way of plot. So evoking its almost tactile beauty and primal power in a print review like this one is well-nigh impossible. A more profitable approach would be to examine why and how Shindō created it, beginning with some relevant background on the director’s difficult but very interesting early life.

***

Kaneto Shindō was born in 1912 in Hiroshima into a rich and respectable family. But while he was still a child, his father agreed to serve as guarantor for a loan on which the borrower apparently defaulted, leaving the family suddenly destitute. They lost all their land, and the boy’s mother had to go to work as a farm laborer to support the others, which seems to have drastically shortened her life.

The young Shindō, resolving to enter the film industry, worked at menial jobs for various film studios while writing scripts at night. He eventually drifted into the orbit of his idol, the great Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff), who kindly informed the young man that he had no talent as a screenwriter. Undaunted, he continued to work for Mizoguchi as an art director and assistant and kept on writing, with the loyal support of his common-law wife, Takako… until she perished from tuberculosis in 1943. Drafted into the Japanese navy, he was one of only six men of his 100-man unit who survived, and happened to be absent from his hometown when it was reduced to rubble by the first atomic bomb in August 1945.

After the war, he formed a scriptwriter-director partnership with the established filmmaker Kōzaburō Yoshimura. Their very first collaboration, the classic The Ball at the Anjo House, was voted the best film of 1947 by Japanese critics. But the movies that the partners wanted to make were too dark and daring for the mainstream studios of the day. So in 1950, at a time when independent cinema was virtually nonexistent in Japan, the two men, together with the colorful character actor Taiji Tonoyama, formed their own production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai (The Modern Film Association). It was for Kindai that Shindō directed, with the help of funds from the Japanese Teachers Union, his third film, the beautiful, moving Children of Hiroshima (Genbaku no Ko: literally, Atom-Bomb Children), which premiered in Japan on August 6, 1952 ‒ the seventh anniversary of the atomic explosion, and only months after the end of the American Occupation.

At the dawn of the 1960s, after making a number of other socially-conscious films for Kindai, with very little to show in the way of box-office success, Shindō and his young company were near ruin. As a last-ditch effort, he conceived of a simple story set on a remote island that would require only four actors – Tonoyama, Shindō’s favorite leading lady, Nobuko Otowa, and two children from the area – plus a skeleton crew, including Kuroda, on a miniscule budget. When he screened the film at the Moscow Film Festival, the audience received it warmly and it won the Grand Prix. The total lack of dialogue proved, ironically, to be an asset on the festival circuit: since virtually no subtitles were required, the picture could be marketed anywhere. Thus, both the film company and Shindō’s career were saved.

***

The Naked Island, which focuses particularly on its hard-working farmer heroine, is a prime example of what Japanese critic Tadao Sato called Shindō’s “feminism”… but the meaning of the word, in this context, must be clearly understood. Like that of his mentor, Mizoguchi, Shindō’s feminism is far removed from the common Western sense of the term, that is, support for the social and political emancipation of women. Rather, it implies a very personal love, even a kind of awe, for the capacity of Japanese women for sustained self-sacrifice, but it is also about the duty of Japanese men to accept the harsh burden of guilt such sacrifice imposes on them.

Where Shindō parts company from Mizoguchi, however, is in his frequent identification of female oppression with class oppression. Throughout his film career, he rejected solidarity with the social class his family was born into – the comfortable bourgeoisie – and embraced (often with ambivalence) the class his family fell into: the manual laborers, the dispossessed, the utterly marginalized. Many of the women in his films thus carry the double stigma of gender and class discrimination, and their heroism is the patience and grace with which they bear this yoke.

 

Nobuko Otowa in The Naked Island

A farm wife (Nobuko Otowa) labors in the fields in Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (1960). Credit: Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

This is why Shindō’s muse and mistress (and future wife), Nobuko Otowa, became so essential a part of his filmmaking team. Otowa worked with Shindō for over 40 years, from 1951 to 1994. To my knowledge, in all of Japanese cinema, the only director-actor collaboration that surpassed theirs in sheer output was that of Yasujirō Ozu and Chishū Ryū, though the Shindō-Otowa partnership, while not quite as prolific, lasted longer. (She also did fine work at the same time for other illustrious filmmakers, such as Heinosuke Gosho and Keisuke Kinoshita.)

Yet when the best actresses that Japanese cinema produced during its Golden Age are recalled – including such names as Setsuko Hara, Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada and Hideko Takamine – Otowa never seems to get name-checked. This is a shame, for she excelled at portraying Japanese women of every class and profession. For Shindō in the 1950s, she played, among other characters, a prim young schoolteacher (in Children of Hiroshima), a geisha who gets transformed into a mindless toy before our eyes (in the devastating Epitome, 1953) and, in what may have been her oddest role, a mentally-challenged (autistic?) homeless woman (The Ditch, 1954), whose bizarre behavior Otowa somehow makes relatable, even sympathetic.

A particularly striking example of her skill at getting to the essence of a character occurs in a powerful scene from Shindō’s very first film as director, the semi-autobiographical Story of a Beloved Wife (1951). The screenwriter hero’s common-law wife, who is named Takako (like the director’s own deceased wife), is ill with tuberculosis. In the middle of the night, she begins coughing up blood. The hero, with trembling hands, holds a porcelain basin in front of her to catch the blood. The couple’s eyes meet, and she grasps his hand as if to steady it. Then she takes a pen and paper from a nearby desk and, without speaking a word, writes “Don’t worry. I won’t die” (though the hero, and presumably the audience, by this time knows she will die). So when Shindō decided to make his movie about farmers consisting entirely of such scenes, in which deep emotions are conveyed completely nonverbally, he knew that Otowa was up to the job.

 

Nobuko Otowa and Taiji Tonoyama in The Naked Island

A farm wife (Nobuko Otowa, left background) and her husband (Taiji Tonoyama, right) carrying water in Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (1960). Credit: Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

It has seldom, if ever, been noted that one of the reasons The Naked Island works so well is not only Otowa’s skill as an actress (according to Shindō, the Moscow audience believed she was an actual farmer), but her high comfort level with her unprepossessing co-star, Taiji Tonoyama, who plays the husband. With his bald head, bug eyes and stuck-out ears, Tonoyama strongly suggests to the modern viewer (or at least to this viewer) a depraved Yoda. But he was, at the time, a character actor much in demand whenever a lecherous, dissolute or generally unsavory middle-aged character was called for. And, as a full partner in Kindai Eiga Kyokai, Tonoyama had acted in many films with Otowa throughout the 1950s.

The extraordinary chemistry between the two stars of The Island can be witnessed in a scene that occurs almost exactly half an hour into the film. The heroine, as per her routine, is dragging two heavy buckets of water up a steep slope towards the crops at the top of a hill when she suddenly stumbles. As the husband, standing on the hill slightly above her, looks on impassively (apparently, this has happened before), one of her buckets tips over, spilling the precious water uselessly over the arid earth. The wife carefully secures the other bucket and looks up expectantly towards her husband. He stops what he’s doing and walks down the hill… probably, we suppose, to help her. He pauses in front of his wife and suddenly slaps her, hard, knocking her to the ground, an act to which she offers no protest or resistance. She then gets up, and only then does he help her carry the remaining bucket the rest of the way up the hill.

As USC film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit has noted (in an interview included as a supplement on this disk), there’s no rage or animosity in the husband’s sudden, shocking act of violence. In other words, the slap isn’t the equivalent of saying, “You’re a stupid, useless idiot.” Instead, the slap is an extreme way of telling her, “You’re my wife, but you can’t make mistakes like this if we’re going to survive,” and the fact that she makes no complaint proves that she grasps this fact. And all the complex, painful ambiguity of the scene is perfectly and silently conveyed by these two veteran actors.

It should be noted that the director, through such scenes, is not really calling for the liberation of such women from their hard lot in life. Rather, he is calling on viewers to bear witness to the almost superhuman sacrifices that the heroine, and women everywhere in Japan, particularly those of the lower classes, make every day on behalf of the men in their lives.

***

As Professor Lippit remarks in his interview, many of Shindō’s fellow filmmakers in Japan were not exactly over the moon about The Naked Island’s international success. “This is a film,” he says, “that for many of them played into an image of Japan that was too easily consumed by the rest of the world,” that is, an image of a country transitioning, very slowly and painfully, from a “backward” agrarian past to the technologically-driven present. Yet the film may have been seminal, for in the coming years, some younger filmmakers, particularly Shohei Imamura, would follow Shindō’s lead in exploring the legacy of “primitive” Japan.

When American film scholar Joan Mellen asked Shindō about this theme in The Naked Island, as well as in films by others, he gave a very interesting answer. “Yes,” he said, “that tendency has been rather popular among Japanese filmmakers for the past five or six years. The reason is that, since the latter half of the nineteenth century, we have been witnessing the weakening of the human mind. I think this is a universal problem. Consequently, modern men, and I for one, are in the process of reevaluating primitive man’s energy and identity.”

This belief of Shindō’s is probably the reason why The Naked Island, despite the hardscrabble, frustrating, grief-filled lives it depicts, does not really belong to the ever-expanding category of Miserabilist Cinema. The brief scenes of joy in the film – the father playing with one of his sons, the boys engaging in a fight with toy swords, the mother enjoying a bath alone – feel real and unforced. Unlike contemporary urbanites, these people of the land are not alienated from pleasure or from themselves. For Shindō, the eternally struggling “primitive” family in the film is to be respected and admired, not pitied, for its “energy” and “identity.”

***

Shindō’s remarkable longevity as a man and as an artist – his final film, Postcard (2010), directed from a wheelchair, was released when he was ninety-eight years old – must surely have come at the price of tremendous survivor’s guilt. He once said that he had “always had the souls of the 94 [men in his battle unit who died] with me and have made them the theme of my existence.” Indeed, because he passed away at age 100, he could be said to have lived exactly one year apiece for each man in his unlucky squad, including himself.

I suspect that the only way he could have survived so long the burden of the many dead souls haunting him – his mother, neighbors and friends killed at Hiroshima, his fellow servicemen, Mizoguchi, his amazing wives – was to make films. By creating the false-yet-true masterpiece, The Naked Island, as well as famous films like Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968), and many other excellent works, he bore that burden with the same stoic grace he so admired in his female protagonists.

Postscript: After she died in 1994, Otowa’s ashes were scattered, at her request, over the island, Sukune, featured in the film. When Shindō died nearly two decades later, his ashes joined hers on the same island… as if the couple had really grown sweet potatoes there, rather than a movie.

The DVD of The Naked Island (I have not viewed the Blu-ray) is a typically top-notch, full-scale Criterion release. The quality of the widescreen black-and-white images (and this movie, more than most, stands or falls by its visuals) is breathtaking, with literally pearly grays and wonderfully subtle gradations of tone in nearly every shot, and virtually no sign of scratches, dirt or other flaws, though the film is over half a century old. The commentary track (from 2000), provided by both the director and the film’s composer, Hikaru Hayashi, mixes technical details and personal reminiscences that are illuminating and sometimes moving, though at times the two men focus overly much on the film’s score to the detriment of other aspects of the production. There is also a brief but touching video introduction by Shindō himself from 2011 (he was 99 at the time), as well as a very casual but heartfelt tribute from the filmmaker’s number one fanboy, Hollywood actor Benicio Del Toro. Finally, an interview with film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit provides additional context, and a printed essay by Haden Guest makes a strong case for Shindō as a neglected Japanese master. All in all, an essential purchase for all J-Cinema fans.

 

Dragnet featured

Of Foxes and Hedgehogs: A Review of “Silent Ozu: Three Crime Dramas”

organized-crime-public-domain

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.