Tag Archives: Yasujiro Ozu

Good Morning

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Yasujiro Ozu, Allan Dwan, Georges Franju & more!

Good MorningGood Morning (ohayo, 1959)
Criterion Collection

How many films directed by your favorite arthouse auteur feature multiple pants-shitting jokes?

Of all the remarkable qualities about Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning — a feature generally considered a minor-ish work, but one that gets better every time I see it — perhaps the most remarkable is the way these gags slot in so perfectly next to the director’s typically bittersweet depictions of imperfect interpersonal connections.

Obviously, Good Morning is a comedy (in the essay included here, Jonathan Rosenbaum compares the film’s interlocking scenarios about ritual greetings, technology envy, financial suspicions and more to a sitcom), but the film isn’t glib, and its jokes are underpinned by an understanding of the fallibility and foibles of humanity, destined to be repeated over and over with each new generation.

The film’s centerpiece story thread concerns two brothers, 13-year-old Minoru (Koji Shidara) and 7-year-old Isamu (an impossibly adorable Masahiko Shimazu), and their quest to convince their parents (Kuniko Miyake and Chishu Ryu) to buy them a television set so they can watch sumo wrestling and baseball. When they refuse, the boys take on a shakily resolute vow of silence, an act that bemuses their family but sets off a chain reaction of perceived snubs throughout the neighborhood.

While the boys see themselves rebelling against their elders’ penchant for meaningless niceties, they have their own set ways of communicating with their peers — a farting game made all the funnier by its feigned solemnity, except for one poor kid with less-than-adequate bowel control — and Ozu gently pulls in reminders that there is also comfort in the familiarity of social routine.

Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade rescues one of their worst transfers in the entire catalog, replacing the early DVD’s sickly colored, fuzzily rendered image with a 4K-restoration-sourced 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer that looks phenomenal — richly textured, impressively detailed and exceptionally film-like. Reds, like the stripe on the boys’ matching sweaters, are rich and vibrant, while the film’s overall color palette is a bit more subdued and almost burnished-looking in places. Damage has been completely eradicated. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is perfectly clean and stable throughout.

This new disc also represents a healthy upgrade on the extras front, going from a barebones release to one that has an overview of Ozu’s style from David Bordwell, a video essay on Ozu’s comedic aims by David Cairns and a 1080p presentation of Ozu’s 1932 silent I Was Born, But …, the loose inspiration for Good Morning, and slightly improved here over Criterion’s DVD transfer on an Eclipse set release. Rounding out the supplements are fragments of Ozu’s 1929 film A Straightforward Boy and an insert with the Rosenbaum essay.

Criterion Collection / 1959 / Color / 1.37:1 / 94 min / $39.95

The Son of JosephThe Son of Joseph (Le fils de Joseph, 2016)
Kino Lorber

Formalist filmmakers aren’t often thought of as possessing extraordinary amounts of emotional generosity — how many times have we heard Bresson or Kubrick films pronounced “cold”? — but the films of American-born French director Eugène Green offer a distinct counterpoint to that canard, and that’s especially true with his latest, The Son of Joseph.

A wry reconfiguration of the notion of a “virgin birth,” Green’s film touches on issues of familial bonds and the intersection of art and commerce, framed with his usual precision, suffused distinct love of Baroque art and performed with the usual Bressonian distance.

The performances here are measured, but instead of suppressing emotions, these monotonic depictions have a way of clarifying them. Green has a secret weapon in that regard: Natacha Régnier, the star of Green’s 2004 film Le pont des Arts, who plays Marie, the longsuffering mother of Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), a sullen teenager determined to find out the identity of his father. Régnier’s performance is an empathy machine, her piercing eyes and carefully deployed expressions of sorrow and joy giving the entire film a lift to another emotional plane. It’s an incredible example of making every movement and gesture in a performance count.

Elsewhere, The Son of Joseph can feel a touch insubstantial, particularly in its depiction of pompous aesthetes more concerned with status and money than artistic expression. Among them is book publisher Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric, who adheres least to Green’s house style, but who’s damn funny for it), Vincent’s biological father.

When Vincent goes to confront Oscar, he has a chance encounter with Oscar’s brother Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione, perfectly adherent to Green’s style), which blossoms into a friendship, and eventually, the paternal guidance that Vincent so craves.

If The Son of Joseph doesn’t quite reach the transcendent heights of Green’s previous film, La Sapienza, that’s only because it seems to be working in a more deliberately earthbound key. In La Sapienza, Green’s camera would swoop up to the heavens, reveling in the beauty and majesty of famed works of Baroque architecture. In The Son of Joseph, the camera keeps its gaze more affixed on earthly creatures — and in this sort of retelling of a fundamentally religious tale, he finds something truly affecting.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is excellent, with uniformly clear and sharp images. Fine details are strong, and color reproduction is stable. There’s no evidence of undue digital manipulation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack features sparingly deployed music and effects, but is clean throughout.

Other than a trailer, the disc’s lone extra is a nice conversation between Green and Régnier about his work, and with an elaborate opening and head-on, shot-reverse-shot interview style, it’s made to look like a Green film.

Kino Lorber / 2016 / Color / 1.85:1 / 113 min / $34.95

SpotlightSpotlight on a Murderer (Pleins feux sur l’assassin, 1961)
Arrow Video

Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) is an atmospheric horror classic, but his follow-up, Spotlight on a Murderer, is totally obscure by comparison. Arrow’s new release of the film will certainly garner it some more eyeballs, though it seems unlikely it’s headed for any status as an unearthed classic.

Arrow’s packaging copy notes the film “is mischievously aware of the hoariest old murder-mystery clichés and gleefully exploits as many of them as possible.” I’ll buy the first part, but I’m not so sure how gleefully the film does much of anything, as its Agatha Christie-style plotting, in which members of a family of entitled brats start dropping like flies, is relentlessly creaky, no matter how self-aware it might be.

The set-up, adapted from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (“Diabolique”) is sound enough: A wealthy count (Pierre Brasseur) lobs one final “fuck you” at his squabbling heirs by hiding in his expansive castle just before dying. Because the body is missing, the lot of them (including Jean-Louis Trintignant in an early role) will have to wait five years to claim any inheritance. In the meantime, they must pay for the maintenance on the massive estate, which Franju is able to use to spooky effect occasionally.

There are a few choice scenes here, mostly involving the dispatching of various members of the family, and there are glimpses of Franju’s ability to evoke an enveloping feeling of dread, particularly in a couple scenes that take place on an inky body of water. But the plotting, which begins to involve mysterious footsteps and chairs rocking on their own, descends deep into cornball territory, and none of the deaths are gruesome enough to make up for how annoyingly indistinct all of these characters are. Who’s the murderer? Who cares.

It is nice to have this long-unavailable film in a solid Blu-ray presentation, and Arrow’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is commendable across the board. Fine detail is excellent, grayscale separation is quite good and damage is minimal. A few images have some creeping softness, but overall, the picture is quite sharp and clear. The uncompressed mono soundtrack handles music and dialogue well, with no obvious hiss or noise intrusions.

This is one of the increasingly rare Arrow discs that’s nearly barebones (apparently, no one felt strongly enough about the film to chip in some enthusiasm), but there is a vintage on-set featurette along with a trailer.

Arrow Video / 1961 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 95 min / $39.95

ZazaZaza (1923)
Kino Lorber

Fans of the cinephile favorite Allan Dwan, who could direct everything from western to melodrama to war movie across an incredibly prolific career, should be happy to see Kino put out Zaza, the first collaboration of many between Dwan and Gloria Swanson. (Stage Struck and Manhandled are also on their way.) Of course, the real attraction to this handsome, if schizophrenic, adaptation of an 1899 French play is Swanson, who commands the screen with a vigorous performance that requires a highly emotionally charged narrative to contain it.

And though it wends its way from backstage drama of betrayal to overwrought medical melodrama to three-hanky love triangle, the film does provide that framework, offering Swanson the chance to segue from a fit of rage over a misplaced costume to an emotive stay in a hospital bed to the puncturing realization that her affair with diplomat Bernard Dufresne (H.B. Warner) is not exactly what it seemed.

The pleasures here are elemental. Swanson’s expressive face fills the screen, generating maxed-out levels of annoyance, fear, anger and heartbreak, with the physicality to match. Dwan shifts easily from the raucous, spacious environs of the music hall where Zaza’s performances are adored to the living spaces where Swanson’s emotions become all the more pronounced.

Kino’s Blu-ray offers an adequate but unspectacular 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, which is sourced from elements with a fair share of dropped frames and damage. The transfer never really overcomes the inherent softness of the image (a number of scenes were shot through a silk stocking, notes Imogen Sara Smith in her essay), but fine detail is OK and the image is reasonably stable most of the time. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack features a jaunty piano score by Jeff Rapsis that’s adapted from the original 1923 cue sheet.

Aside from the aforementioned essay in an included booklet, the only extra is an audio commentary from Frederic Lombardi, author of a book on Allan Dwan and the studio system. It’s an information-packed track, with little biographical tidbits on many major and minor players, but its focus on the personal lives of the cast and crew rarely has much to do with what’s onscreen during the film itself.

Kino Lorber / 1923 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 84 min / $29.95


Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.


Dragnet featured

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


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.


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!”


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.


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.