I somehow contrived to put off watching this film for years, despite my deep love for the other films in the so-called “Noriko trilogy” which comprises this, Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953). The radiant Setsuko Hara, of course, plays the Noriko in each of these films (a different character in each, though), and remains best known for her work with Ozu. She retired from film acting the year he died, and herself lived until the age of 95 (she would have been 100 in June this year).
However, I needn’t have worried, because both this film and Hara’s performance are both exceptional, though made in what would become Ozu’s signature style, which is to say contemplative, almost meditative, with a still camera and sequences broken up little still lifes from nature or detail from the environment the characters are in (like the empty railway station that begins the film). That’s not to say the film is without humour — there are these moments of comedy between characters, as when Noriko denies her professor father (Chishu Ryu) a game with his friends, so he huffily grumps about having no tea, or when the professor’s sister Masa (Haruko Sugimura) finds a purse and he keeps urging her to hand it in. These moments would probably not make much impact in most films, but each finds a distinctive place in Ozu’s world, making up a complex movement of emotions. For while I used the adjective “contemplative” above, I’d probably avoid one like “gentle”, given that, for all its deliberate pacing and quietly observant nature, much of the film is essentially roiling with bitterness between the characters (for all her winning smiles, Hara even glares a few times at her father). This all leads in the end to a sort of heartbreak, albeit one prompted by the father doing what he feels is best for his daughter’s long-term happiness. And at the same time, there’s a critique of occupied Japan in a sub rosa way, with these glimpses of English-language signs alongside an affirmation of traditional Japanese culture. It’s a complex film in many ways, and an emotional one, but it’s very easy to watch.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Yumeji Tsukioka 月丘夢路; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 4 July 2020.
I’m finishing off my week dedicated to Mikio Naruse with this 1956 drama, though he kept making films for another decade after this. One of them (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, from 1960) is in the Criterion Collection so will eventually get reviewed here when I get to it in my regular Criterion Sunday feature.
I love Mikio Naruse’s films but I’m also very conscious that I don’t really have the language to describe them, but this was an era when (because there were essentially no women directing films, aside from rare examples like Kinuyo Tanaka, who stars in this film, and Park Nam-ok in Korea) you’d get a whole cadre of venerated older men anointed as being excellent at ‘women’s pictures’. There are barely any men in this film, but there’s still a strong sense that the women we see — from the woman who runs the business (Isuzu Yamada), to her geisha employees, her maid, her daughter (Hideko Takamine), her sister and mentor — are all essentially still powerless in a society that esteems the money of men most highly. Even a drunken family member of a former employee seems to get his way, while the woman who owns the business is having trouble keeping it going. The story is largely told from the new maid’s point-of-view, and Kinuyo Tanaka is just wonderful at giving depth to this middle-aged woman fallen on hard times, but who still has enormous empathy and a remarkable grace in dealing with all the backstabbing and various fallings out. And yet for all this behind-the-scenes drama of the geisha house, it’s still a rather gentle and sweet film — the title suggests the gentle movement of a river, but also its inevitability and unchanging nature — about events which are not particularly gentle or sweet.
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Toshiro Ide 井手俊郎 and Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Aya Koda 幸田文); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Isuzu Yamada 山田五十鈴, Mariko Okada 岡田茉莉子, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 February 2019.
This film by Mikio Naruse is a beautifully understated piece of work, one of the great achievements in post-war Japanese cinema. Usually I reserve Wednesdays each week for films directed by women; as my theme this week is the films of a male director I cannot do that. However, this film focuses solely on the lives of four women, and is written by women.
Another of Naruse’s lovely quiet films about people just living their lives, though it’s a few decades on from his first works, so it doesn’t start with an automobile accident (as many of those seemed to do). This tells of the lives of four former geishas, one of whom is a moneylender (Haruko Sugimura), with the others variously in debt to her. A couple of them have adult children, and lovers pass through town too, but it really does keep its focus very much on the women’s lives. Nothing melodramatic really happens: life passes; the kids move away; the lovers disappoint. But it is exquisite in its simplicity, which like many of Naruse’s films of this era was written by women (specifically Sumie Tanaka. based on writing by Fumiko Hayashi).
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on short stories by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Chikako Hosokawa 細川ちか子, Yuko Mochizuki 望月優子, Sadako Sawamura 沢村貞子; Length 101 minutes.
Seen on train from London to Brussels (DVD), Friday 1 June 2018.
Bringing together two films by Ozu, his first made towards the tail-end of the silent era of cinema in Japan, and the later one a remake in colour towards the end of his career, this allows for a compare-and-contrast approach between the two, and for me Ozu has grown significantly as a filmmaker, such that the latter is the greater work. Ozu didn’t make many colour films (it took him long enough to get into sound films, after all), but the remake is lovely in many respects. The framing, the pacing and the use of colour is all expertly done. While it’s a drama about an elderly travelling player returning to the small town where he fathered a child — a son who only knows him as ‘Uncle’ — it’s also filled with moments of comedy, for the father (here played by Ganjiro Nakamura) is a rather bad actor and there’s plenty of fun at the expense of his hamminess. The drama with his son didn’t always connect with me on this viewing, but there’s a lot of pathos to the way his life has unfolded — even if he rather too often takes it out on the women around him. The earlier film (from 1934) follows the same melodramatic plot (with Takeshi Sakamoto as the father), but it never succumbs to anything mawkish or sentimental. Ozu expresses it all so clearly that I imagine I’d pick up on a lot more were I to watch it again (which, given for technical reasons I had to watch it all completely silent, I feel I should probably do).
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
浮草物語 Ukikusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934)
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄 and Ozu; Cinematographer Hideo Shigehara 茂原英朗; Starring Takeshi Sakamoto 坂本武, Choko Iida 飯田蝶子, Rieko Yagumo 八雲理恵子; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 30 September 2018.
浮草 Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959)
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Ganjiro Nakamura 中村鴈治郎, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 October 2018 (and originally on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, October 1997).
A late film by Yasujiro Ozu which is set amongst a small group of neighbours in a Tokyo suburb and treats childhood with a light, comic touch. The plot, such as it is, has the kids of one family refusing to speak after being scolded by their father (Chishu Ryu) for going round to a neighbour’s home to watch sumo wrestling on TV. In a fit of pique after being refused this modern convenience — their father inveighs against its stupefying effect — the kids reject the language of their parents and what they see as all the stupid meaningless banalities of conversation like “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” and of course “good morning”. Meanwhile, gossip spreads amongst the neighbours when the local residents’ association dues haven’t been paid, as first one and the another member of this tight-knit community is suspected of having absconded with the cash. It may depict a long-vanished world in which doors are always open and people can pop round to one another’s home to chat, but at the heart is the tension brought about by the modern consumerist world and its increasing technologisation. The gossip centres largely on the purchase of a washing machine, while the TV also seems to divide the families. Things never get too dark –- everyone converses with a fixed and ready smile, even when you suspect they’re pretty angry, and indeed entire conversations proceed with a surface level of the kind of banality that the kids hate, even as other feelings are being expressed. The comedy is provided by the kids, and for all Ozu’s austere reputation, there’s a recurring farting game that consistently goes wrong for one of the kids.
- The original DVD release of this (which I watched when first reviewing this film) has a very basic edition, with only the written notes and nothing on the disc, though it’s as fine a transfer as ever of this rare Ozu colour film.
- The updated Blu-ray release, however, has plenty of extras, chief among which is Ozu’s 1932 film I Was Born, But…, a silent picture which shares some superficial similarities, in that it also focuses on young kids and their parents. Ostensibly this is a sweet comedic film about two young kids and the trouble they get up to, but like the greatest films it operates on plenty of other levels. Not least among them is its dissection of the operation of class in Japanese society — these two kids are from quite a humble family, and respect their father, but slowly get a sense of how subservient he is in his work and with his boss, whose son they are friends with. There’s a quiet bleakness to it all, of wanting your kids to have a better life and do better in life than you do, that you can see the quandary from both the parents’ and the kids’ sides and it can at times be quietly heartbreaking. Nevertheless, it sustains its jaunty and unassuming comic tone, in vignettes with the kids playing with their friends, fighting with their enemies, getting up to nonsense and just generally being kids, and for all the sadness at its core, it remains a sweet and light watch.
- There’s also an illuminating 18-minute extra “Ozuland”, in which David Bordwell highlights a few key visual touches that Ozu brings to the film — both in the filming style, the cutting, the motifs — and contrasting it with the silent film too.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at my mother’s flat (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 15 March 2015.
大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど Otona no Miru Ehon – Umarete wa Mita Keredo (I Was Born, But…, 1932)
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Cinematographer Hideo Shigehara 茂原英雄; Starring Tatsuo Saito 斎藤達雄, Tomio Aoki 青木富夫, Hideo Sugawara 菅原秀雄; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 1 June 2020.