Hollywood Gangsters, Japanese Sensibilities: 'Yasujiro Ozu: The Gangster Films'
There's plenty to enjoy in this BFI collection of Yasujiro Ozu's three silent gangster films, not least the director’s entertaining take on the mythology of American crime cinema.
Dragnet GirlDirector: Yasujiro Ozu
Cast: Tokihiko Okada, Joji Oka, Kinuyo Tanaka
UK Release date: 2013-03-18
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)
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)
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.