Hollywood Gangsters, Japanese Sensibilities: ‘Yasujiro Ozu: The Gangster Films’

Back in mid-2012, the BFI released a DVD collection of works by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Drawn from what is referred to collectively as the “melodrama” portion of his filmography, the box set contains several of Ozu’s brilliantly oblique and mesmerizingly somnambulant films, each containing elements of traditional Hollywood narrative but each also resolutely the product of a non-American abstract filmmaker.

By the time Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight was released in 1957, the director had largely jettisoned the common stylistic language of conventional Western cinema. Although certain elements of standard melodrama still remained in Ozu’s films, the unconventional, gentle and deliciously abstruse style of his Japanese familial sagas was borne of an altogether different cinematic ideology to that of Hollywood productions – imagine a conspicuous and emotionally extravagant Douglas Sirk drama reconstructed as a slow and tender lament on relationships and loss, and you’ll be close.

Indeed, Ozu’s unique style — and his reinterpretation of such a staunchly American pop-cultural artefact as film melodrama — is one of the reasons he was an enigmatic filmmaker; he both embraced and rejected elements of classical cinematic language during his career, always producing very distinct work in the process.

Following on from the previous Three Melodramas release, this latest BFI offering features some of the director’s striking black and white gangster movies. Made at a time when Ozu was unashamedly fascinated and openly influenced by American cinema (unlike his peers, Ozu dressed in Western clothing and famously decorated his sets with posters of the hottest Hollywood flicks of the period), each of these films – whilst adhering more closely to American cinematic convention than his subsequent melodramas — still embody that curious Ozu-esque mix of generic Hollywood drama, Japanese morality and social commentary and abstract storytelling.

If Ozu appropriates the aesthetics of American crime drama as a template for each of his gangster films, he still applies his own authorial stamp onto the genre. Certainly, the presence of an American influence is more keenly felt in Ozu’s gangster movies purely because Japan never had quite the same cinematic criminal iconography as the USA. Indeed, in the ‘30s, Japan’s own Yakuza gangs were nothing at all like the pleasantly ersatz Chicagoan and New York-style mobsters featured in the films of this collection: Walk Cheerfully (1930), That Night’s Wife (1930) and Dragnet Girl (1933). All three productions are silent, and all are accompanied by a newly commissioned string quartet score by composer and film academic Ed Hughes.

Walk Cheerfully (1930)

Walk Cheerfully concerns itself with the standard generic trope of young, well-dressed hoodlums and their preoccupation with acquiring money, women and cars. Semi-comic in tone, this tale may revel in its depiction of sharp-suited ne’er-do-wells in thrall to Capone, but presaging his later work, Ozu lifts the material beyond the glitz and superficiality of gangsterism by examining the morality of crime and its effects on the family dynamic. (Additionally, the film displays some bold technical proficiency too; Ozu may have been guided by the spirit of Hollywood at the time, but there are still signifiers of the experimental and virtuosic boldness that would punctuate his ‘50s melodramas: in the first two minutes alone, there’s a glorious and self-reflexively long tracking shot past a line of cars parked at a harbourside; it’s a striking, bravura camera move that’ll please the most ardent Scorsese fan, and very remarkable for the time).

Although the nocturnal That Night’s Wife also nods its fedora to Hollywood (particularly in its use of costumes) and is a far cry from the narrative and visual complexity of Ozu’s more intellectually rigourous films, it’s still an unusual film. Essentially a hybrid police procedural/family melodrama, That Night’s Wife lacks the light-hearted frivolity of Walk Cheerfully, and focuses more on family rather than on the breezy lives of buddies/criminal partners. That Night’s Wife tells the story of Shuji (Tokihiko Okada), a young father who learns that his daughter is gravely ill. Drawn to crime in order to support his wife and meet his child’s medical bills, Ozu uses Shuji’s actions to examine the moral conflict that arises when robbery is committed for purely altruistic and selfless reasons; this is particularly pertinent for the policeman tasked with pursuing the desperate young man and enforcing the law.

Dragnet Girl (1933)

The final film in the collection — and indeed the final gangster film of Ozu’s career — is Dragnet Girl (and if that title isn’t influenced by fast-and-easy American pulp fiction, I don’t know what is). The film once again displays Ozu’s admiration for the aesthetics of Western gangster cinema, and is set in Yokahama (although the film’s flashy and seamy locations — nightclubs, casinos, boxing clubs- could have been transposed from any dynamic city in ‘30s urban America). A story of romance, it features Joji (Joji Oka), a small-time mobster and former boxer, and his girlfriend Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), an intelligent bad girl whose existence is one of contrast: at night she associates with Joji and his criminal fraternity, and during the day she holds down a respectable job as a typist for a big corporation. However, when Joji’s affections stray, Tokiko takes it upon herself to win back his heart.

Although Tokiko inhabits the interesting and morally conflictual position of straight-laced office worker/gangster’s moll, it’s Joji who is the most ambiguous and intriguing figure. In Ozu’s gangster films, criminals are rarely simplistic “bad guys” (just as Shuji in That Night’s Wife is not a stereotypical criminal either); at the end of Dragnet Girl, Joji plans one last job, but not for personal gain. Instead, it’s his sense of responsibility towards a young underling’s predicament that prompts him to consider committing the crime; such complicated characters typify Ozu’s approach. (Joji’s motivations are similar to those of the titular character in De Palma’s Carlito’s Way; Carlito also indulges in some final criminal dealings, but only as a way to acquire the financial security to lay the foundations of an honest and law-abiding future; just as for Joji, crime in itself is not the sole motivational factor).

Overall, this is an excellent collection, and nicely compliments the previous BFI releases of Ozu’s impressive work. All Ozu films stand repeated viewing, and although these gangster films may lack the challenging complexity of some of his familial dramas, there is still a great deal to enjoy here, not least the director’s entertaining take on the mythology of American crime cinema.

The extras are good, and include a 12-minute surviving fragment of Ozu’s 40-minute drama A Straightforward Boy (1929), and an extract from a 2010 lecture on the director by the Asian-cinema expert Tony Raynes. Additionally, each film has been digitally remastered, and there is a fully illustrated booklet with newly commissioned essays.

RATING 8 / 10