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Ozu's "Tokyo no Onna" (Women of Tokyo) is a short film that delivers alot of tragic import for its length, timing and execution. It is a simple tale, concerning the lives of a Japanese college student and his sister. Things go awry when he finds out that his sister is actually a "hostess"/prostitute at a local bar, and that she is actually financing his college education by means of that career. There are a series of fine indoor shots, perfectly lighted and composed in a dark, (pre-film noir) mood. There is one great outdoor shot I remember, and that is when the sister looks outside, seeing the steam coming from a nearby chimney, and hanging clothes/socks out to dry. The scene where the student/main character walks in the dismal street is also nicely done. Overall, the film is a great example of a strong short film narrative, and has a slightly (unexpected) tragic twist at the end.
Seeing this a second time in a healthy restored print, I still can't say I'm entirely won over by this early melodrama involving a woman who is scandalized when her brother's girlfriend learns of her prostitution to help cover his student expenses. The chief interest of this film lies in its unusual structure: as J. Hoberman notes, the film is "a subtle riot of discordant formal devices -- two- character crosscutting is complicated by weird eye-line matches and bizarre special jumps, inexplicable interpolations, and exreme close-ups." (There's also some interesting non-matching of dialogue intertitles with the characters speaking them, which David Bordwell discusses in his study on Ozu.) Hoberman concludes that "inadvertant or not, it's a masterpiece," though I think one would have to appraise the film on strictly formalist experimental grounds to come to that evaluation (Hoberman was probably thinking of his favorite cut- and-paste classic ROSE HOBART as he wrote this). There certainly is plenty to baffle over, such as the sudden wild digression to two journalists bantering happily at the end of the film, which seems to suggest Ozu's contempt at public indifference to a private tragedy, a theme that gets a real workout in the much later masterpiece TOKYO TWILIGHT.
When I watched "Woman of Tokyo", I was struck by the theme which
reminded me of Mizoguchi's works which were often on prostitution and
its effects. With this film, Ozu also shares Mizoguchi's compassion for
self-sacrificing women. See for yourself : in a poor working-class
district of Tokyo, a woman named Chikako (Yoshiko Okada) shares a
modest apartment with her brother Ryoichi (Ureo Egawa). Chikako works
every day as an office typist and every evening on commissioned
translations for a university professor, so Ryoichi can devote himself
completely to his studies. However, Chikako comes under scrutiny when a
police inspector pays an unexpected visit to her office one day. The
nebulous and undisclosed nature of the investigation leads to
speculation, and rumors begin to surface about Chikako's disreputable
conduct by working as a cabaret hostess. In an attempt to mitigate the
embarrassment of the brewing scandal, the well-intentioned Harue
(Kinuyo Tanaka), Ryoichi's girlfriend, decides to alert Chikako of the
gossip, but instead, reveals the information to Ryoichi. Outraged and
ashamed by his sister's behavior, Ryoichi rejects Chikako and leaves
There are many things to enjoy in "Woman of Tokyo" (the plot and the acting, to start with), but first of all it is an interesting film for all those who would like to see en early elaboration of Ozu's style, especially in his use of domestic setting and confined, interior shots. There is also an overt tribute to Ernst Lubitsch (much admired by Ozu) with a full-frame excerpt from Lubitsch's short film entitled "The Clerk" taken from "If I Had a Million". Ozu will get only better and better after this "Woman of Tokyo".
There were tremendously interesting things afoot in the early days of
Japanese film, as I've been recently finding out, all pertaining to
some appropriation of perspective from the West. Teinosuke Kinugasa was
the pioneer, early on, situating us inside the fractured mind as
explored at the time in Paris and Moscow. Another Ozu before this, more
mellow than Kinugasa, just as modern, moving in the tracks set down by
Josef Sternberg. Jirokichi the Rat above all, peeling most shrewdly an
idealized image to reveal a world only illuminated by a transient moon.
So there were all these things going on at the time, new things, challenging, a matter of taking risks with images. They demanded we train our eyes to see in novel ways. This is not among them.
It is a kammerspiel, as was called in Germany some ten years before, a chamber drama about a brother and sister in the lower reaches of society. The brother is studying hard, presumably to be able to lift himself out from his traditional attire and into a modern suit and hat, like the journalists finally surveying their home, but this effort is only possible because his sister is working nights at a club.
We are led to the shocking revelation through a seamless edit from an Ernst Lubitsch film the characters are watching in a movie theater. It's a moment that shines cinematically.
Since money is at the heart of this, beyond the tribute of admiration, it's telling why the Paramount extravaganza was used: the plot is about a dying billionaire who decides, right in the middle of the Depression, to randomly give million dollar checks to strangers picked through the phone book.
So we may be inclined to read from that point the whole thing as some deliberately histrionic hallucination on a big screen, and attach metaphysical connotations on both ends of the despondent relationship, but then it would be the mid-50's and we'd be writing for Cahiers. Still, it's a charming implication.
It is not a bad film overall, by any means, and was probably received well at the time, reflecting some contemporary social struggle into a modern world. But does it matter in the long run, that is to say would I advise you to take time out of your life to watch it? No, but you may as well for reasons mentioned above.
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