Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies Criterion Eclipse Series
Reviewed by Catherine Russell

The release of three of Ozu’s silent films on English subtitled discs is a landmark moment in film history, even if it means that most of his thirty-four silents, along with those of most of his Japanese colleagues, remain unavailable. These three films offer a glimpse of Ozu’s early career, and they also offer remarkable insight into the social milieu, the anxieties, and the challenges facing working- and middle-class families during a period of rapid modernization. All three titles in the Criterion Eclipse set placed highly in the annual Kinema Jumpo top-ten polls, indicating that they were very likely popular as well as critical successes in Japanese theaters. Tokyo Chorus placed third in 1931, while both I Was Born But... (1932) and Passing Fancy (1933) took top prizes in their production years, and were followed by another first prize in 1934 for A Story of Floating Weeds, which Criterion released on DVD a few years ago packaged together with Ozu’s 1959 remake Floating Weeds.

Ozu continued to work in the silent medium well after the introduction of talkies in Japan in 1931, making him one of the last global silent directors. Inspired by American comic directors such as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, his cutting style in this period is generally far more continuous and “invisible” than in the postwar films for which he tends to be better known. These films make it plain that he learned and mastered the “rules” of narrative cinema, even while he demonstrates a perpetual playfulness with all the conventions of space, time, framing, and montage. The fluidity of the silent films is quite unlike the pictorial rigour of the late films, and yet many keys to his auteurist signature are already readily apparent: the low camera angles, the inserts of objects and locations, the “piecemeal” style of constructing conversations, and the playful undermining of spatial expectations.

David Bordwell has of course meticulously detailed the formal and technical traits of these films.[1] He especially underlines the clever ways in which Ozu’s silent films are frequently organized around gag structures that are developed into larger narrative patterns. Often these turn on repeated gestures, but they also turn on certain spaces and objects that gain layers of significance through repetition and return. Recurring thematic patterns also run through these films, which are organized around the family, the workplace and the suburban locations around Shochiku’s Kamata studios where the films were shot. Behind the auteurist idiosyncrasies, these films were produced within a studio system that was consolidated precisely during the early 1930s.

In fact Ozu’s silent film style was very central to the establishment of the genre system that underscored the Japanese industry through to the 1960s. It was at Kamata studio, under the supervision of producer Kido Shiro, that the basic contours of the shoshimin-eiga (a.k.a. shomin-geki) were laid out. Films about “ordinary people” or the emergent middle class were very central to the project of the construction of Japanese modernity. As this was also the target audience of the film industry, the success of the genre involved the translation of everyday life into the new “modern” medium of cinema, enabling Japanese audiences to visualize themselves as part of global modernity. In her new book on this period, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano shows how Ozu and his colleagues in the industry during these crucial years developed a visual language for the representation of a new modern Japanese culture. Kamata studios became “the center of modern film production and the cultural hub of Japanese modernity itself.”[2]

The three films in this collection are especially interesting for their depiction of fatherhood and the challenges faced by working men attempting to support their families in a depressed economy. The depression hit Japan along with competing discourses of nationalism and modernization, leaving a new class of white-collar workers somewhat stranded in their newly established nuclear families, quite removed from traditional familial support structures. These three films feature three very different male protagonists who are caught up within a vast network of social hierarchies and pecking-orders, economic crises, and family responsibilities. And yet, all three films could also be described as satirical comedies, as Ozu gently mocks the institutions in which his characters are so caught up.

In Tokyo Chorus, Shinji (Tokihiko Okada) is a father of three, working for an insurance company. On the day he and his wife expect a big bonus, he gets fired instead for trying to defend an elderly colleague who has been unjustly fired himself. Shinji’s confrontation of the boss as a hilarious Chaplinesque scene and quite an unusual challenge of authority. The slapstick display of pushing and shoving is indicative of just how outrageous such insubordination would be in the Japanese workplace. Despite his college education, Shinji cannot find another job until he runs into his former teacher Omura (Tatsuo Saito) distributing flyers on the street. The teacher runs a small restaurant and convinces Shinji to swallow his pride and work with him promoting the restaurant with flyers and banners (like a “sandwichman” in Depression-era America). Shinji’s wife, Sugako, is also persuaded to accept their new situation, and she helps to ladle out chicken curry. The plot resolves with a school reunion of Shinji’s classmates all toasting their former teacher, and during the meal Omura receives a letter announcing a new job he has found for Shinji teaching English in Toshigi prefecture. Paternal authority is restored, as has the class status of the protagonist.

In I Was Born But... the father, Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito), far from confronting his boss, obsequiously sucks up to him. This is probably the most well known of Ozu’s silents, and it is in many ways the most stylistically and thematically tight of the three in this set. Yoshi’s two boys, new to the neighbourhood, play out their own scenarios of power and social maneuvering, but while they manage to supplant the local bully, they are ashamed at their father’s subordination. The film’s climactic scene, when the boys and the adults all watch home movies at the boss’s house, is a fascinating moment of reflexive filmmaking, with its multiple levels of spectatorship and cinematic representation.  I Was Born But... is a remarkable portrait of a salaryman who is made to feel inadequate by his own family. Order is restored in the end, as the boys come to understand the inevitability of social convention and they give their father “permission” to light the boss’s cigarette. They retain their power over the boss’s young son, however, with their fairy-tale rituals of “ninja” authority—signalling him to play dead on cue.

Passing Fancy features a single father played by Takeshi Sakamoto, who is not a salaried worker but a laborer in a brewery. Sakamoto’s character Kihachi actually became a recurring figure in Ozu’s cinema of the 1930s and is the prototype of Tora-san, Kiyoshi Atsumi’s character in the long-running Tora-san film series that sustained Shochiku studio from 1969 to 1995. Takeshi’s Kihachi, a widower with a young son, is a much more full-fledged comic character than the fathers in the other two films discussed here, although the narrative of Passing Fancy is less satirical. The film concerns the arrival of a homeless young woman into Kihachi’s neighbourhood. He finds the woman, Harue, a home in a café run by his lady friend Otome (Choko Iida) and a kind of love triangle develops between Kihachi, Harue, and Kihachi’s buddy Jiro—a younger man who also lives off Otome’s cooking. Eventually, after a series of melodramatic misunderstandings, Harue and Jiro get together.

Passing Fancy is brought to life by the antics of Kihachi’s son Tomio, played by Tomio Aoki, who also plays the younger son inI Was Born But... In the 1932 film, the two boys perform routines of doubleness and automatism, invoking the codes of the machine age into their very performance styles. In Passing Fancy, Tomio displays a similar repertoire of stylized poses and gestures, even while his character is one of studious responsibility. The child in this film also comes to realize that his father is not a great man, and accuses him of being an illiterate drunk. Father and son forgive each other, but the boy gorges himself on candy, almost dies, leaving his father with an impossible doctor’s bill. His friends pitch in, and even forgive the debt; but Kihachi insists on travelling to Hokkaido to pay it off. The film ends with him spontaneously jumping ship to return to his son in Tokyo.

Tokyo Chorus features a similar incident of a child getting sick from sweets, followed by a huge bill for her father to pay. In that film, Shinji sells his wife’s kimonos (without telling her), which are basically the signature of a class inheritance. The way that these films repeat such motifs is indicative of the way the generic formula of storytelling was implanted in the detail of everyday life. The so-called “middle class” was carved from a plethora of new and old social rituals. Children in these films are constantly coveting toys, and of course their parents can never provide enough and thus commodity capitalism is depicted as a kind eternally unfulfilled desire. Moreover, when Ozu enters the homes of the wealthy, decorated with Western furniture, his low-angle camera renders the furniture strangely monstrous. The overindulgence in sweets is symptomatic of the excesses of modern culture that are unevenly and unequally distributed; meanwhile the requisite hospital scenes underscore the science of modern medicine.

Ozu’s silent films are versions of the Japanese home drama, although his female characters tend to be far less developed than the men. In both Tokyo Chorus andI Was Born But... the wives are passive, inexpressive women. Only Choko Iida’s Otome, the café-owner in Passing Fancy, is a strong female character, and Iida continued to play supporting and lead roles in Ozu’s films into the 1940s. The recurrence of actors in these films and through the entire Japanese industry links them into a larger über-text of mothers, fathers, widows, bosses, teachers, barkeepers, and bar patrons, and vast networks of family members that grew up on screen, playing different generations. Seven-year-old Takamine Hideko, who became a huge star in the 1950s, appears in her first screen role in Tokyo Chorus.

One of the recurring sights in these three films is the suburban landscape crossed by telephone poles. The families in both Tokyo Chorus andI Was Born But... live out in desolate new developments where the houses appear to be cramped yet widely scattered across the empty fields on the outskirts of Tokyo. The empty lots are the terrain where gangs of young boys roam and fathers trudge back and forth from train stations. Factory chimneys mark the horizon and commuter trains slice across the screen. Passing Fancy is set in a warren of back alleys, probably close to a suburban train station, and the children in that film also spill out into the empty telephone-pole-studded lots. This is in many ways an emblematic landscape of Japanese modernity, a landscape that seems to be waiting for something to happen. But all that happens in these films is that problems are overcome, forgotten or reconciled, and life goes on under sunny skies.

In Ozu’s cinematic language, the homes and public spaces take on an aspect of familiarity through repetition, and through his pictorialist framing. Among the most distinctive features of his style in this period are lateral pans over people and objects. In the opening scene of Passing Fancy, the camera pans over an audience watching a show, fanning themselves in the heat. Later in the film, a scene opens with a pan over an array of household objects, which we learn Kihachi is hoping to pawn. Tokyo Chorus opens with rows of college students performing drills badly, and the clowning around is punctuated by a tracking shot over the line of men. Because Ozu rarely moves the camera, the occasional pans and tracking shots tend to stand out. Moving slowly over the empty desks in Shinji’s office in a subsequent scene in Tokyo Chorus, the camera movement echoes the previous line of men; now they are lined up for their bonuses outside the boss’s door.

The introduction to the insurance office in Tokyo Chorus moves over an array of objects—fans, typewriters, messy desks—and is then broken down into discrete close-ups of less businesslike objects: a soda with a straw, a pair of shoes on a desk. These collections of objects, featured in camera pans or in series of shots, exaggerate the everydayness of Ozu’s cinema. They underline the way that the characters in these films are constructed through their mise-en-scène: the spaces and objects around them. In each film only one or two actors are more expressive than the décor. The others, including wives, children, and fellow workers, are little more than props. Ozu’s world is by and large a friendly one, in which the detritus of material culture speaks plainly and openly. His father figures struggle within this world of things to sustain their sense of paternal authority, even while that authority is relentlessly given over to the systems of modernity that lie beyond their grasp.

The Criterion releases are all scored by Donald Sosin, and I Was Born But... features a particularly fun ragtime score that compliments the nansensu (nonsense) elements of Ozu’s comedy. The print quality of Passing Fancy and I Was Born But... is fair, but Tokyo Chorus is somewhat damaged, although the patina of decay is not terribly obtrusive. Passing Fancy is the most burdened of the three films by a plethora of intertitles, almost as if it had been written as a talkie. Nevertheless, Ozu plays with these as well, often leaving the viewer in doubt as to who is speaking—starting with the opening stage performance. All three films open with lovely sequences of stylish flourishes which have tangential bearing on the subsequent stories. In these prologues—a moving truck in I Was Born But..., a naniwa-bushi variety show in Passing Fancy, and the phys-ed college scene in Tokyo Chorus—Ozu establishes a comic tone that is embedded in the idiosyncratic detail of everyday life. These prologues with minimal dialog are each also, in their own way, tributes to the language of silent film which Ozu undoubtedly recognized as a medium on the verge of disappearance.

  1. David Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).
  2. Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008), 5.