Early silent films by Yasujiro Ozu are the topic of our film club this August. More specifically, we will be looking at three silent comedies, all from the early 1930s, some four years (and more than 20 films) after Ozu’s debut in 1927. These films came during a period which many consider as the beginning of Ozu’s career as a real film auteur, and while he may not quite have the comic timing of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, Ozu’s mixture of comedy and drama in these films does remind one of those two American masters.
Tokyo Chorus (1931) is a bittersweet depression era comedy about a man who is doing his best to support his family while trying to maintain his dignity. In his seminal work Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, David Bordwell famously suggested that the film marks the point in Ozu’s career when he truly graduated: “from this point on, Ozu is a major director” (p. 222).
I Was Born, But… (1932) is a very socially conscious film about two young brothers and perhaps the best known of the three films in our this month’s selection. Subtitled “An Adult’s Picture Book View”, Donald Richie called it Ozu’s first masterpiece (Japanese Film, p. 275), but I will be calling it a gangster film with kids. I will also be calling it a definite masterpiece, and probably the greatest film that I have seen with children in leading roles. Ozu himself liked it so much that he decided to revisit the story later with his 1959 work Good Morning. A restored print seems to be circulating in US cinemas, recently playing at New York’s IFC Center, so those of you in the US may wish to keep your eyes open for a chance to see the film on the big screen. In any case, if you only have time for one film this month, make it I Was Born, But…, and while you do so, thank Coco for insisting that we must include it in our film club schedule!
Finally, Passing Fancy (1933) is a film about a father-son relationship and the first of Ozu’s works featuring Kihachi, a character played by Takeshi Sakamoto and somewhat resembling Chaplin’s Little Tramp, who would go on to make an appearance in three later Ozu films. It shares many themes with the other two films, while further exploring Ozu’s favourite topic, family, and more specifically the complex relationship between a father and his offspring, which is at the very heart of all three of our this month’s works.
These three films, which we will be discussing simultaneously, are conveniently available from a Criterion’s Eclipse box set. Please note, however, that the discs are in region 1, and at least to the best of my knowledge unavailable in other regions with English subtitles. Apologies to those who cannot join the discussion because of this. Do note, however, that there may be ways to make your player region free — ask, if you would like to know more.
For background reading, I would definitely recommend David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, which is available as a free download from the University of Michigan. The PDF file is quite big, but definitely worth a look. If you want to read more, another book often recommended for those interested in Ozu is Donald Richie’s Ozu: His Life and Films, although I have not read it.
Ozu’s Wikipedia page is also a fairly competent introduction, and while there don’t forget to check out the individual pages for our three films and the link sections on those pages. Finally, to the best of my knowledge Ozu-san.com is the most comprehensive English website dedicated to Ozu and his works. Let me know if you know other sources which you would like to recommend! I have also listed some resources to Japanese cinema in this forum thread.
Please note that there will be no new film on August 15, as Ozu’s three films take our entire month (Humanity and Paper Balloons is still on, however, so feel free to join the discussion). On September 1, we will restart the Kurosawa part of our film club with Sanshiro Sugata and Sanshiro Sugata Part II. For information about the availability of those films, please see the Kurosawa DVDs section. For our full schedule, see the film club page.
On a personal note, I will be travelling for the first half of August, during which time I will most probably not be able to contribute much to the discussion. Comment moderation may also take slightly longer than usual. That, of course, is no reason for you to stay silent!