The Criterion Collection has just released three silent films by Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu as the 42nd edition of the Eclipse series for lesser-known or forgotten films. The titles not only illuminate the emerging themes and style of a filmmaker known for his postwar sound pictures, but also stand on their own as excellent works of the late silent era.
Walk Cheerfully (1930), That Night’s Wife (1930), and Dragnet Girl (1933) all explore a relationship set in the world of small-time criminals. In the first, Kenji (Minoru Takada) tries to give up his larcenous ways for the virtuous Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki). That Night’s Wife follows the consequences that ensue when desperate father Shuji (Tokihiko Okada) resorts to robbery to save his sick daughter. Dragnet Girl presents a love triangle involving crime boss Joji (Joji Oka), his crafty girlfriend Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), and good girl Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo).
The films borrow much of their plot devices (like the going straight trope, which also figures in Dragnet Girl) and mise-en-scène from the American crime films that Ozu loved — part of the fascination with the West that gripped Japan in the ’30s, according to Michael Koresky, who contributed an essay for each title. Indeed, except for a few glimpses of Japanese-language signs (and of course, the intertitles), you’d assume the films were made in the U.S. with actors of Japanese descent.
This isn’t to say the works are simply derivative. Like Jean-Luc Godard and other French directors who were later influenced by the American crime film tradition, Ozu made the genre his own. Short on violence and plot intricacies, his crime films focus on character, with an eye toward delineating competing models of masculinity and femininity, and exploring the pull of conformity.
That Night’s Wife (1930)
The simple prop store of the crime drama — fedoras, pistols, cigarettes, and booze — offers a vocabulary ready-made to track character development. Ozu is fond of shady characters trying to go straight, or wholesome ones who want to be bad, and you can mark the milestones on that uneven path by what the characters wear on their heads. A white hat signals the intention of Kenji’s buddy Senko (Hisao Yoshitani) to make an honest man of himself in Walk Cheerfully.
In That Night’s Wife, when Suji’s wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo) pulls two pistols on the detective who has come to their apartment, the act underscores the desperation of the woman Ozu has carefully established as mild and respectful of authority.
The genre allows the filmmaker to explore deviations from conformity, perhaps a primary concern of Japanese cinema at a time when the nation struggled with Westernization and empire. Tracking shots of rows of typewriters and hats on pegs point to the challenge faced by characters trying to assert their individuality and independence in a culture that pushes them to adhere to norms.
Perhaps the American crime film appealed to Ozu because the idiom brings with it the promise of self-fashioning and reinvention, as well as the cautionary reminder of how difficult this is. The potential for transformation overshadows the crime-doesn’t-pay message. Kenji and Joji both willingly turn themselves in to the authorities with the intention of starting anew as law-abiding citizens after serving their sentences.
Dragnet Girl (1933)
Lively, thoughtful, and inventive camerawork and editing characterize the films, all shot by Hideo Mohara. Cars often figure as markers of plot trajectory. There’s a striking view of a car receding in the distance shot from inside a tunnel. A camera mounted on the side of a car, behind the fender, captures the road ahead, but also a distorted view to the rear, reflected in the shiny back of the headlight.
The repetition of a shot of a screen descending over a window shows the regimentation and diminished range of Kenji’s new life as a window washer.
It’s easy to fall into the oversimplification that 1927 marks a rigid before-and-after in the transition to sound. In fact, the film industry in different countries moved at different speeds, based on production capabilities and the rate at which exhibition spaces could be updated to accommodate sound.
Ozu, like Hitchcock, provides a fascinating case study of how established silent film conventions coexisted alongside emerging sound ones for directors working during the transition period, and of how directors’ coalescing signature themes play in both silent and sound formats.
All three films are presented with new piano scores by Neil Brand.