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Film Club: Silent Ozu month

Silent OzuEarly 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!


Discussion

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Longstone

Hi
not 100% on topic but as your talking Ozu ,I was wondering if anyone else had picked up the new BFI Bluray releases? and what you thought of them ?
I have really enjoyed them , I’m certainly not an expert on hi def transfers and to be fair am often baffled by some of the technical stuff talked about in Bluray reviews , to me the three main films ( Tokyo Story , Early Summer and Late Spring) all look the best I have seen them .
The pictures seem very detailed and clear. they still look like old films with scratches etc. and Tokyo Story seems to have slightly worse source material but to me they all looked amazing and being able to see Setsuko Hara’s acting and facial expressions in HD was wonderful.
I already have the Criterion versions of these films and I understand Criterion provided the prints to the BFI for these releases so they have the same amount of damage but the BFI have done their own PAL transfers and to me they seem a reasonable upgrade to the already good Criterion DVDs .
Having said that the best thing about the sets were the three bonus movies ( all on DVD with ” The Only Son” appearing on Bluray too) as I have never seen these three films before .
They are “The Only Son”, “What did the Lady Forget” and “Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family” . Although they are sometimes in quite poor condition especially the soundtracks they were wonderful films and I thought for me they bridged the gap between the silent movies from the set your talking about and the more famous later movies .
I’ll certainly try and watch the silents again this month . I haven’t been able to join in with the early Kurosawa’s as I need to wait for the upcoming Criterion set to get my hands on them .
I did manage to squeeze in one viewing of Humanity and Paper Balloons between my Ozu overdose but I was tired so need to see it again.
thanks
Mike

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lawless

I have the three Ozus on order with Netflix, with I Was Born, But… at the top of the queue, to be shipped as soon as I return the DVD I currently have. Netflix lists Sanshiro Sugata, which has been on my list for awhile, as available August 3rd. I assume that’s when the Criterion box set is being released.

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Daniel

Just discovered this club, and it is right up my alley. I got my Silent Ozu box off the shelf and finally watched the first film: Tokyo Chorus.

Despite being a comedy, it was so sad it was hard to watch at times. I think this is a perfect example of the fallacious concept that Ozu was too Japanese to be appreciated by westerners (us). In this down economy I identified and empathised with the struggles of the small Japanese family depicted in the film. I was an American child in the 1950’s, and the selfishness of the little boy is not too far from my memories of those days. The sacrifices made by all the family, (including the look of pain on the mother’s face when she realizes her husband has sold her treasured kimonos) bring home the univerality of Ozu. We get it.

I need to maybe run the film with no sound a few times to analyse the visuals. I noted the characteristic low camera angles, and the scarcity of camera movement, a few tracking shots notwithstanding. The recurring shots of the industrial smokestacks are similar to Ozu’s landmark shots in later films, but maybe with a different point. They seemed to be making a statement about the “new” industrial age and how it was contributing to the isolation of the nuclear family.

I will continue through the Ozu box and look forward to starting my Early Kurosawa box in a few weeks.

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cocoskyavitch

Welcome to the forum, Daniel. I look forward to your insights into Ozu…!

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Vili Maunula

Indeed, welcome to the club Daniel! I don’t remember who it was (probably Bordwell) who wrote something along the lines of Ozu still experimenting with camera heights in these early 1930s films, looking for the height that he would later settle to (not exclusively, of course). Especially I Was Born, But… is shot from a somewhat unconventionally low angle, and apparently not only because of the protagonists happen to be children.

I also thought that I noticed a repetition of diagonal angles in both I Was Born, But… and Tokyo Chorus, something that we see in a few Kurosawa films as well, I think most notably in Rashomon.

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lawless

Argh! I finally finished watching Tokyo Chorus, which I started watching a couple of weeks ago, but which was interrupted by vacation and other matters.

I had some interesting visceral reactions to it. At first, I was bewildered by the lengthy school scene, which had a payoff at the end. I found the section set in the father’s office, during which he stands up for the wrongfully discharged long-term employee and is himself fired, moving and interesting, although given that it meant he lost the bonus, I wondered if the cost of his principled stand was perhaps too high.

I expected, as I would in a contemporary film, his wife to berate him for getting fired. That would be how the conflict occurred in a modern movie: the pull of principle and conscience vs. taking care of one’s family. I guess her failure to make such an objection is an indication of the differences in culture and period.

What I had a visceral reaction to was the contrast and inconsistency between the father’s feeling of humiliation helping promote his former teacher’s restaurant and his earlier statement to the man whose firing provoked his own dismissal , “At least you have a job,” and his wife’s feeling of humiliation at seeing him. Eventually, she gets over it, and in fact his ex-teacher comes through with a job in the end as he’d promised, so it all works out, but the idea that honest work is humiliating is rather eye-opening for me. .

One question and one observation: I initially thought his ex-teacher was paying him for the work holding the banners, but it later seemed more like he was doing it in exchange for the lead on a job. The feeling of humiliation both husband and wife experience seemed class-based, as if helping to pass out flyers was beneath him. It wouldn’t be my first choice of work, but work is work, so I found this a little bewildering.

I was also struck by the father’s failure to discuss, or even warn, his wife that he paid for their daughter’s hospitalization by selling her kimonos. In a modern marriage, at least in the West, that would be expected to discussed first. It would be more honest, and what loving mother – which she was depicted as – would place keeping nice clothes above her child’s health? He knew that she’d understand and agree in the end, but he would have saved himself a lot of icy glares for that. That portion of the movie made me wince.

As for the children, the son came across as rather spoiled and selfish, and I didn’t quite understand the father’s reasoning for giving in on the bicycle. On a lighter note, the baby looked almost exactly like I do in my baby photos (yes, I was that rotund, with that round a face), which is surprising, seeing as I’m half Korean, not half Japanese.

The movie was beautifully composed and wonderfully acted. With the exception of some of the cultural and period hiccups mentioned above and the reason for the school scene, which became apparent later, I thought the script was excellent, the two leads wonderful and expressive, and the children totally believable. I watched the film with the included soundtrack; when I tried to watch it without sound, it was missing something, and I found it hard to concentrate on the film. I can understand why Bordwell called this movie a turning point in Ozu’s career.

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cocoskyavitch

Nothing seems as effective as shutting up a discussion than an investigation of Ozu’s cinema. The folks over at the Ozu site have been quiet for eons…and here, wel, it’s pretty quiet, too.
Funny that-when Ozu’s films really are so very interesting, layered, rich and evocative. Why y’a suppose there’s so little traction in the forum these days?

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Vili Maunula

Why y’a suppose there’s so little traction in the forum these days?

It’s probably a combination of things. It’s probably partly my fault, as I haven’t really had as much time for this website (or any website) as I would like to have. A couple of our core members are also missing, Ugetsu for a shorter time, Jeremy for a somewhat longer time period. There also haven’t been many news, while the film club films may not have been something that interests everyone, or everyone can get hold of. And summers also tend to be more quiet anyway.

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Longstone

I’m an Ozu fan too , but I confess I was distracted from the Silent Ozu box by the arrival of the BFI Ozu sets .. I just had to see what they looked like in HD .. plus the lure of three films I hadn’t seen before was too much . I did squeeze in a watch of Tokyo Chorus again , which I love , ( as an aside I also recently watched Tokyo Sonata and couldn’t help wondering if that was using themes from Tokyo Chorus ? ) .
I have the “First films of Kurosawa ” box on order from the U.S. so when that arrives I’ll try to catch up on those as they are the only Kurosawa’s I’ve never seen.
cheers
Mike

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