Criterion Sunday 331: 晩春 Banshun (Late Spring, 1949)

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.

Criterion Sunday 240: 麦秋 Bakushu (Early Summer, 1951)

Setsuko Hara always has a way to just smile and smile and smile and break your heart, but maybe that’s also innate in Ozu’s filmmaking too, the way he picks apart these delicate domestic stories to find the hurt and conflict within. She’s being pestered by her family to marry as she’s reaching the grand old age of 28, and there’s a sense in which you wonder whether she’s just settling for someone, or reacting to them, or whether even all this talk isn’t out of step with the times. After all, there’s a lot of play around the generational gaps, about post-war Japan’s youth not adopting the same values as their parents and grandparents’ generations, and that all seems to play out here. For me, it’s one of Ozu’s very finest films, and Hara is just such a watchable actor.


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; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 February 2019.

Criterion Sunday 232: A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and Floating Weeds (1959)

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).

Criterion Sunday 217: 東京物語 Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953)

Oh sure, yes, it is deliberately paced, as so many Ozu films are, but for all its acclaim (it used to regularly show up on best-ever lists, and I think it still does), it is one of those films that really does deliver. I’m not even personally very good at communicating with my family sometimes, but I still get all up in my feelings whenever I see the way all these grown children act atrociously towards their elderly parents, who are visiting Tokyo from the countryside. Obviously Ozu is, to an extent, commenting on modern society, and we get interstitial shots of trains and built-up urban areas, but none of that is particularly forced, and this works very well too on simply an emotional level — what it means to get older, the responsibilities you continue to have to family, showing respect for the elderly. Only Setsuko Hara’s character (the daughter-in-law) seems to make much of an effort, and the way she radiantly smiles at the camera even when she’s clearly upset just seems to make it all the more poignant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu; Writers Ozu and Kogo Noda 野田高梧; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Chieko Higashiyama 東山千栄子, Setsuko Hara 原節子; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at Victoria University, Wellington, Monday 27 April 1998 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 May 2018).

Criterion Sunday 84: お早よう Ohayo (Good Morning, 1959)

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.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • 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.

朗かに歩め Hogaraka Ni Ayume (Walk Cheerfully, 1930)

Reviewing a silent film screening is not just about the film, but also about the unique aspects of the live performance, for of course (as is now I hope a widely-understood truism) silent films were never silent. This screening featured music from the duo Sylvia Hallett and Clive Bell, and (rather more unusually) a benshi narration by Tomoko Komura. The latter is a traditional form of accompaniment which is largely confined to Japanese cinema, as it derives originally from kabuki theatre. As Tony Rayns explained in his introduction to this screening, silent cinema held out as the dominant form of film production in Japan until the mid-1930s due in part to the unionised power of the benshi, who resisted the coming of sound film technology. Their role was to narrate the film (and translate foreign films’ intertitles), often doing different voices for the different characters, and this indeed is how Ms Komura accompanied Walk Cheerfully, all the time nattily dressed in a hat and suit similar to that of lead character Kenji ‘The Knife’ (played by Minoru Takada).

The story of the film is fairly simple and centres on Kenji, an understated and sullen gangster who reforms himself and finds greater happiness in pursuit of the ingenuous Yasue (played by Hiroko Kawasaki), a girl he’s fallen for in the course of scoping out potential targets for his small gang of petty criminals. If this seems a slender set-up for a feature film, it is worth remembering these are still early years for the gangster film genre; Walk Cheerfully predates even The Public Enemy (1931, a film I reviewed only a few days ago), both following closely on from Josef von Sternberg’s foundational masterpiece Underworld (1927). In some ways, it is the Japanese film which is the more faithful to its antecedent, but this is no bad thing, and it benefits from consistently good acting (particularly from his frequently comedic gangster sidekicks) and gliding camerawork unencumbered by the need to record sound directly.

Most striking of all, this is a film that embraces its filmic origins, which shouldn’t be surprising if we are aware there was little of this type of gangsterism in Japan of the period. What social realism that does exist is around the edges, in the passing references to the difficulty of finding a job, or in the outdoor filming on the real streets of contemporary Tokyo. No, this is entertainment every bit as self-conscious as any of Godard’s mid-1960s films, nowhere more so than in the musical-inflected entrance of the gangsters and the way they use little dance moves to greet each other, and it’s no surprise to see American film posters and English language song lyrics (“I am the gay caballero…”) adorning the walls. There are still early signs of what would later be recognised as Ozu’s distinctive stylistic tropes — the “pillow shots” (the use of seemingly unconnected still-life images in between scenes) and “tatami shots” (a low-height shot from the level of the tatami mats found in Japanese domestic spaces) — but mostly the film is just suffused with a joyful spirit of cinematic pastiche.

As this is a silent film screening, it is important to mention the musical accompaniment, which wonderfully complemented the film and gave space for the benshi narration. Given the prominent Western influences on display in the film itself, the musicians skilfully blended the traditional Japanese instruments (played by Bell) with violin and electronic accompaniment (by Hallett). I only hope that the BFI and other cinemas are able to present more screenings of this nature, especially with the benshi alongside, as they offer a quite different way of appreciating better the early history of Japanese cinema.


ADDENDUM: The BFI has posted a video online (link to the video) featuring interviews with the benshi narrator and one of the musicians at this screening, explaining their respective crafts.


CREDITS
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄 and Hiroshi Shimizu 清水宏; Cinematographer Hideo Mohara 茂原英雄; Starring Minoru Takada 高田稔, Hiroko Kawasaki 川崎弘子; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Monday 22 April 2013.