‘The Ozu Collection: The Student Comedies’ Makes Us Nostalgic of Modernity

There are certain DVD publishers whose work does not simply fulfill our desire for entertainment, but satisfy our desire for education and for learning from the great auteurs of the past, whose work is rarely shown on television and is very hard to access outside the small festival circle. Among these publishers is BFI, which is about to publish all the 32 surviving films of one of the greatest poets of cinema, that is, the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.

In this specific 2-disk DVD set, the BFI has compiled four rare films by Ozu, plus a surviving fragment. The films belong to the genre of ‘The Student Comedies’, a genre which Ozu picked up from imported American films. David Bordwell observes that Ozu was very much influenced by the films of Charlie Chaplin, ‘the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch and the gag comedies of Harold Lloyd’.

As Tony Rayns explains in the very informative booklet that accompanies the DVD-set, Ozu’s references to the American cinema of the ’20s reflects the impact that Hollywood movies had on Japan’s early Showa period (during the time that Emperor Hirohito ascended to power). In Rayans’ words, the characters in these student comedies ‘embody the hunger for Western ideas and lifestyles that gripped much of Japan’s urban population’. This is the main reason why the portrayal of students as carefree, sexually liberated and alcohol-consuming is more in line with Western, rather than Japanese, characters.

The first film, Days of Youth (1929), tells the story of two students, Watanabe and Yamamoto as they compete for the same woman, Chieko. The characters are very much influenced by the vaudeville comedies and they are defined by certain formulaic characteristics which define them throughout. Watanabe is a very confident young man, while his friend is very shy and diligent student. After finishing with their University exams, they follow Chieko to a holiday resort and a series of tragicomic gags are in order.

The second film, I Flunked, But… (1930) tells the story of Takahashi and his flatmates. Having failed the final exams, Takahashi has to repeat the final year at University, while his friend who recently graduated come to realise that a degree does not necessarily guarantee them a job in the recession ravaged economy.

The Lady and the Beard (1931) is the story of Kiichi, a University Kendo champion whose old-fashioned appearance, that is, his bushy beard along with his love for martial arts make him a comic anachronism in the modernised Japan. Kiichi will listen to the advice of a girl and he will engage himself in a process of self-transformation.

Where Now are the dreams of Youth? (1931) combines elements of tragedy and comedy and tells the story of Horino who takes sits an exams with his friends when he learns that his father has died. Being from a wealthy background, Horino will inherit his father’s property and business and will enter the professional world with minimum effort as opposed to his former pals, who are forced to come to ask him for work. The film brilliantly draws to our attention class issues and the ways that class divisions affect human relationships and social prestige.

Using minimal camera movements, Ozu’s camera draws equal attention to the dramatic action enacted by the characters and the environment they are placed in equally balancing social awareness and a self-reflexive poetic modernist style. What is the most impressive aspect of all these films is this modernist utopian feeling that society is changeable. Thus, despite all the bitterness that permeates them, one senses the director’s fascination with the new cinematic technology and its ability to capture and deconstruct aspects of social life which are considered to be self-evident. Despite the fact that each film has a concrete story-line, the director’s modus operandi allows a certain degree of poetic formal abstraction to enter the mise-en-scène. Then again, it’s this abstraction, this refusal to subordinate all the parts to the whole, which brings to the fore the comic aspects of the socially ‘obvious’.

The films are accompanied by newly commissioned scores by Ed Hughes, who keeps up with the films’ formal combination of dramaturgy and poetic abstraction. Hughes’s work does not intend to force feeling on the images we see, but reinforces the director’s modernism allowing the spectator to become co-producer in the narrative and not simply a consumer. All in all, this is a brilliant collection by the BFI which includes a 20 minutes documentary where Tony Rayns discusses Ozu’s influence in the world cinema. Included in the box-set is a 38 pages illustrated booklet with essays on Ozu by Asian cinema experts. It’s certainly a must have box-set for libraries and the educational institutions.

RATING 9 / 10