DVD Review: Ozu Collection – The Gangster Films
Much like The Student Comedies collection which I reviewed last year, this continuation of the BFI’s Ozu Collection takes a look at some of the director’s early work which seems to go against the grain of what he became famous for. Often thought of as a highly ‘Japanese’ director that only made very sedate family melodramas, his early work is actually highly influenced by Hollywood films of the era and his style reflects this, with more dynamic camerawork and editing styles. Three films are included in the set, Walk Cheerfully (Hogaraka ni ayume), That Night’s Wife (Sono yo no tsuma) and Dragnet Girl (Hijosen no onna). Below I give my thoughts on all of them individually and the DVD set as a whole.
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Tadao Ikeda
Based on a Story by: Hiroshi Shimizu
Starring: Minoru Takada, Satoko Date, Hiroko Kawasaki, Hisao Yoshitani
Running Time: 92 min
Walk Cheerfully follows Kenji ‘the Knife’ Koyama (Minoru Takada), the leader of a small-time gang of hoodlums. He falls in love with the sweet and innocent Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki), but when she finds out about his life and crimes she leaves him, saying that she won’t let him back unless he has become an ‘honest person’. He tries his best to do so, but his past (and jealous ex-girlfriend in particular) makes it very difficult to do so. Luckily, his good friend and partner in crime Senko (Hisao Yoshitani) agrees to go straight too and the pair face the consequences together.
Those familiar with Ozu’s better known films from the 50′s and early 60′s will be quite surprised with this and the other films in the set. Where his more famous works have quite minimal plot, these are fairly dense considering the shorter running times. There are very few of his low angle wides either or rule-breaking, almost straight to camera close-ups. Walk Cheerfully and the other films in this set feel much more like early gangster films from Hollywood with the costumes most clearly reflecting this as well as some low key shadowy lighting and moments of violence (which never appear in the likes of Tokyo Story or Late Spring).
That’s not to say this is a pale imitation of work produced in the US though. Ozu still makes his mark, he’s just experimenting in his youth and paying tribute to his influences (despite being known overseas as a very ‘Japanese’ director, in his home country he was thought of as quite the opposite). His meticulous eye for framing is still present, with some beautiful cinematography. It’s especially nice in fact to see his usual approach mixed with a moodier noir-ish palette. As with the other early films of his I’ve seen there are many examples of his love of close-ups of hands and feet to tell the story or show a character’s emotional state. An example of this is set in a lift as Kenji’s mischievous ex tries to persuade Yasue’s enamoured boss to take part in a cruel plot to win her over. We see trepidation through his feet pointing away from her, then they hesitantly turn in to face her’s, showing his eventual agreement. Little moments like this are what I love about the visual storytelling grown from the silent age.
The film isn’t perfect though. It’s very moralistic and sappy, especially in the last third, and lacks the emotive power of Ozu’s subtler work. It’s finely crafted as to be expected though and is a fine example of the director’s skills being put to work in an unexpected genre.
That Night’s Wife
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kôgo Noda
Based on a Novel by: Oscar Shisgall
Starring: Tokihiko Okada, Emiko Yagumo, Togo Yamamoto, Mitsuko Ichimura
Running Time: 63 min
The shortest film of the set, That Night’s Wife has quite a simple set-up. Shuji (Tokihiko Okada) turns to crime as he can find no other way of paying the medical bills for his seriously ill daughter (Mitsuko Ichimura). After a robbery alerts the authorities to his presence he should hide out for the night, but when he discovers that his daughter is in a critical stage of her illness, he decides to risk going back home. Detective Kagawa (Togo Yamamoto) is hot on his trail though and arrives at his house, only to be caught in a stand-off with Shuji’s wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo).
All of this happens within the first 20 minutes or so, meaning most of the film consists of a tense wait to see if Shuji will get away, if their daughter will live and what Kagawa will do about the whole situation. It’s an exciting affair for a director most known for rather slow moving family dramas. Of course, with the daughter’s illness and everything, this is kind of a family drama as much as it is a gangster film (as are all of these films in their own ways), but it has a very different approach than his more famous work.
Again you get some great cinematography, with especially strong use of shadows this time seeing as most of the film is set at night. It’s an interesting take of the gangster character too as the hero is forced into the situation and is doing it purely for his daughter’s health rather than for personal gain. For this reason it’s more difficult to second guess the outcome, whereas in the other two titles here there’s not much doubt that the protagonists must pay for their lives of crime.
Again the film is a bit too sentimental perhaps and as short and tense as much of it is, towards the end in particular a few of the scenes are rather drawn out, over-baking the sentimentality. Nevertheless this is still probably the most touching film in the set and remains a beautifully made and suitably sparse thriller/drama.
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda & Yasujiro Ozu
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Joji Oka, Sumiko Mizukubo, Kôji Mitsui
Running Time: 96 min
The plot to Dragnet Girl is a little more complicated than in the other two titles. The core of it is fairly similar to Walk Cheerfully with gang-boss and ex-boxer Joji (Joji Oka) falling for Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo), a good-natured young girl that tries to encourage Joji to go straight. However, here you have more characters in the mix, with Joji’s current girl Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) proving determined to keep Joji, trying everything from threatening to kill Kazuko to trying to go straight herself. We also have Hiroshi (Kôji Mitsui) as a key character, the brother of Kazuko. He is a young man that greatly looks up to Joji and joins his gang (which is what spurs Kazuko on to approach Joji).
Dragnet Girl is described as one of Ozu’s most popular and acclaimed silent films and it’s easy to see why. The film is full of wonderfully constructed moments. One includes great use of ‘sound’ in a silent film when the intensity of an off-screen fight is demonstrated by having a nightclub full of revellers stop and turn their heads towards the violence, then one of the heavies shouts to the band to start playing again to drown out the sound of the fighting.
It looks gorgeous too. I’d be tempted to say it’s one of Ozu’s most visually impressive films (of the silent era for certain). He makes great use of a more shallow depth of field here, filling the frame with his wonderful compositions, adding numerous layers to each shot. It’s a perfect demonstration of film’s strength in adding visual dimensions without the need for gimmicky and uncomfortable 3D technology.
Like the other films in this set it has a moralistic and sentimental core, but it doesn’t feel as laboured in this aspect as the others do. The shift in dramatic focus between characters, although making for a richer story, can make the film difficult to fully engage with though and the mid-section in particular is quite slow. It is still the strongest film in the set though and among the best silent films Ozu produced (that I’ve seen at least, although I’m also a fan of Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth?).
The DVD Set Itself
The Ozu Collection: The Gangster Films is out on DVD in the UK on 18th March, released by the BFI. The three films are spread over two discs – That Night’s Wife is only an hour long so squeezes onto a disc with Dragnet Girl without having to compress the films too much. The picture quality on Walk Cheerfully and That Night’s Wife is a little rough with print damage proving a little distracting. Dragnet Girl fares better although the print looks a bit soft around the edges. Given the age of the films and the fact that many other films from the era have been lost altogether they stand up very well though. For audio you can choose to play the film with or without musical accompaniment. The newly commissioned scores from Ed Hughes are decent, if a little busy and complicated at times.
For features, you get the remaining 13 minutes of A Straightforward Boy (mainly the start of the film and a short segment of the finale), another of Ozu’s early silent films set in the criminal underworld. This has some very dark subject matter with the story following a child kidnapper that sweet talks a young boy into his ‘care’. However, the film handles things comedically by having the boy be quite a handful, with his constant goofing around proving too much for the kidnapper and his accomplice.
Also in the set is a 10 minute excerpt of a lecture from Tony Rayns on Ozu’s early work, particularly the films in the set. This, as with all of Rayns’ pieces, which show up on many of the BFI and Eureka’s releases, is highly informative, well presented and a wonderful addition to the set, even in such a brief form.
Included is the customary booklet too, which is packed with background information on the films and includes an essay on Ozu’s work of the period from Rayns.