Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Silent Ozu

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Silent Ozu

Eclipse Series 10: Silent Ozu - Three Family Comedies

I Was Born But... (click on the title to see my review)
Passing Fancy
Tokyo Chorus

Though this isn't necessarily the best place to note it - an analysis of the director's later work might be more fitting - Yasujiro Ozu has been somewhat misclassified. Namely, he has been grouped with Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson under the heading "transcendentalist cinema," by Paul Schrader and others following in his wake. Truth is, Ozu has probably authored some of the least transcendent films of all time. Don't get me wrong; he was one of the masters of the art form, even in his youth. And, on the other hand, I love transcendent film experiences - it's why I became a movie lover in the first place. So I'm not knocking Ozu or cinematic transcendence by saying that the two really don't have anything to do with each other.

Not having read Schrader's book, perhaps I'm misunderstanding its thesis; but as I see it Ozu does not offer transcendence in his studies of family life (whether in a comedic or tragic context). He offers stoicism, often through good humor, occasionally through sacrifice and repression - but always a sense of human beings, aware of their futility, coping with their situations. They savor the moments of happiness and often lash out in frustration when things don't go their way, but Ozu's conclusions usually find them making their peace with the realities of their lives. Call this philosophy what you will, but transcendence it ain't.

Perhaps where Ozu comes closest to transcendence is in the indelible, uncanny naturalism of his early style. These three films demonstrate that quality with remarkable aplomb.


In my earlier review of I Was Born But..., one of the three films released in this collection by Eclipse (the Criterion Collection's rarities arm), I noted that, "I have to remind myself the film was silent. It manifests none of the melodramatic exaggerations or overstylized cliches one associates with the era. The film feels like a talkie and while the lively, if initially distracting, piano plunking on the DVD certainly adds to the illusion, it's the naturalness of the performances and the spirited simplicity of the images that convey a kind of noise." (It feels weirdly narcissistic to quote oneself, but there you have it.)

Passing Fancy, released the following year, bears this out. Again, watching the scenes unfold, I had the uncanny sensation of watching a sound film, even one from a later era. Oddly enough, some of the cutting even seems to anticipate sound (and indeed, the new technology had taken hold almost everywhere outside of Japan by this point). Ozu will overlap title cards from an upcoming scene with the end of the previous scene; sometimes he'll show a character's reaction intercut with a title card displaying the other (unseen) character's lines; often he'll introduce a scene with a close-up of an object followed by a title card. Though the result can occasionally be confusing, it conveys a cinematic sense of sound and lends a fluidity to the proceedings. Though these editing decisions would seem to call out for actual sound recording, the movie feels purer - and oddly more realistic and natural - silent. There are no flubbed line readings, no artificiality to the speech - we get the essence of what they are saying, and the rest is conveyed by expression and physical behavior.

But, in both Passing Fancy and I Was Born But... we don't get the demonstrative pantomime that usually characterizes silent screen acting. Instead, life seems to unfold as it would if a home movie camera (sound equipment and all) was quietly set up to record the casual behavior of its subjects. There is hamminess to be sure, but it feels remarkably like the hamminess real people engage in - the sort of self-conscious performance that people enact every day to express their personality. The children in these films are always acting, but the way real kids act in front of one another and in front of their parents, mugging, full of deadpan, cooler-than-thou haughtiness, occasionally making goofy, cross-eyed faces to punctuate their bluster and show that they're in on the joke.

Tokyo Chorus, the earliest of the bunch, does feel more like a silent film than the others, though it is still remarkably naturalistic in comparison to most silent dramas or comedies. Some of the reasons for this extend beyond the intentional: though Criterion always puts an incredible effort into restoring their films, there was apparently little they could do with passages in Tokyo Chorus. With the poor quality of the image at times, it's not as easy to be absorbed; also the score feels more Keystone Cops on this DVD than on the others. But it's also clear that Ozu (only 28 when he directed Tokyo Chorus) was still refining his style. The photography is not as distinctive as in the two later films, the performances and staging are just slightly more contrived. The cutting is faster, and there are slightly exaggerated touches (like the teacher's crooked mustache) which would not be out of place in a Chaplin short. Interestingly, Ozu does not receive any writing credit for Tokyo Chorus, whereas he apparently provided the "idea" for Passing Fancy and I Was Born But...

Those two films share a simpler setting and scenario. Passing Fancy ends up suffering somewhat from a series of mildly soap operatic developments (a child's illness, a character's decision to leave his family) which are occasionally gripping but ultimately lend a piecemeal, meandering flavor to the movie. Yet the first forty-five minutes are thrilling in their sense of discovery, as domestic life unfolds at its own pace, concurrent with a middle-aged character's energetic infatuation with a lost girl who's arrived in town. Passing Fancy, along with I Was Born But..., mostly stays in one place and focuses the majority of its attention on family life in the home (as tokens of their simplicity, the central family of the former film consists only of a father and his son, while the latter almost exclusively focuses on the two brothers). Tokyo Chorus follows a young father from job to job, situation to situation, and gives him not only a wife and son but a daughter and an infant. Its focus is more diluted, its attention divided between the intelligent but indolent hero's quest for work and the family's home life; at times it reminded me of King Vidor's masterpiece The Crowd. However, Ozu seems to be at his best when filtering the outside world almost entirely through the prism of the family unit and so his ambition here tends to give the story a kind of shapelessness.

But all of these works are quite enjoyable at their best, full of little moments and attention to detail that showed where Ozu's heart really lay. His work with children is really astounding, but the adults (especially in Passing Fancy and Tokyo Chorus, where parents are the central figures) are treated with sensitivity and curiosity as well, and they open up before the camera. The father in Passing Fancy is getting older - he's a widower who is not well-educated but is full of good cheer. Tokyo Chorus's dad, despite his larger brood, is by all appearances barely out of childhood himself; he's intelligent, but his childlike brashness often gets him into trouble. Yet both of these troubled patriarchs find themselves challenged by a world which refuses to bend itself to their needs, and families who expect more from them than they can deliver. In all three films we see angry sons challenge the perceived weaknesses of their father, throwing temper tantrums, getting punished, but ultimately shaking the parent's faith in himself and his ability to stand tall in the eyes of his offspring.

At the end of these arguments, father and son are reconciled, however wounded by their discoveries of weakness, dishonesty, and distrust. And at the end of the films, we don't get transcendence but we do get dignity through acceptance. The children in I Was Born, But... know their father has to kowtow to his boss, but they recognize that he is what he is, and he might as well do his best at it. The parents in Tokyo Chorus may have to relocate to find work, but they will say goodbye to the world they know and love to provide for their family. And the father in Passing Fancy ultimately realizes that to be there for his son is more important than proving himself through the ability to work or repay his debts. Sacrificing your own needs for the happiness and stability of your family may not classify as transcendence, but it is something rarely seen or celebrated in movies - and in that, Ozu's stoicism is uniquely refreshing.

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