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8/10
Hou the populist
4 March 2005
A chronicle of a city schoolteacher who sojourns in the southern countryside, this film amply demonstrates an early populist streak in Hou's work, marked especially by his remarkable handling of child actors and themes (to think that 1982 was the year when Hou and Steven "E.T." Spielberg were most aligned in their sensibilities). There's an incredibly Farrellian sequence devoted to how the kids handle their teacher's request to produce their own stool samples for tapeworm inspection, and a musical number about drinking cola that comes out of nowhere (right before the hero gets his *** kicked while attempting to stop a poacher from fishing illegally). Despite the wacky sequence of events, Hou's understanding of social milieu is already pronounced.
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Ozu's Taming of the Shrew
14 December 2003
Warning: Spoilers
An unassuming husband finds the nerve to employ non-violent resistance

against his contemptuous wife after hanging out for an evening with a rebellious niece who skipped her own interview with an arranged fiance. I really could

have cared less about the story as the characters were so lovingly drawn and

their interactions were a joy to listen to, and that's really where the action is in Ozu movies, the sounds and spaces between people as they repeatedly bump

into each other and modify each other's state of mind in ways both large and

small. Masterful as is almost always the case with Ozu, the film only let me down at the end when it seemed to side firmly with the henpecked husband, as if this were a wimp's rendition of TAMING OF THE SHREW.
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Early Summer (1951)
A masterpiece of household style
14 December 2003
Not only are no two Ozu movies the same, but each marks a notable

development along the continuum of one of the most formidable artistic visions in film. This mid-career masterpiece is no exception -- its unique qualities lie partly in its assiduous exploration of interior space in an ingenious opening sequence, beautifully capturing the rhythms and choreography of a family

household as they go about their morning routine. It's no wonder that this is the favorite Ozu movie of formalist film scholar than David Bordwell -- Ozu frames and re-frames his compositions, reinventing spaces with each cut and shot,

turning an ordinary house into a cinematic funhouse -- only PLAYTIME, IVAN

THE TERRIBLE and LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD have offered similar wonders

as far as I'm concerned. Neither is this style for style's sake: as we follow the story of how this family is pressured by social convention to marry off their daughter, the inevitable disintegration of this family makes the synchronicity and synergy of that marvelous opening sequence all the more poignant. In between, there is a rich variety of interactions between three generations of families and friends as they meet their fates, individually and collectively, one exquisite, fleeting moment at a time.
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searing social melodrama from Ozu
14 December 2003
This early great work from The Master is a sobering melodrama honed squarely on a single unemployed, homeless father struggling to feed and shelter his two sons. Ozu does a fine job capturing the dynamic between the two boys by themselves and with their father, but the film really gets interesting when two women enter the story: a young single mother, also homeless, and an old friend who finds the father a job. The maudlin climax seems to anticipate Ford's GRAPES OF WRATH and DeSican melodrama -- though in the wrong ways -- but prior to that Ozu comes up with an quirky expressionist sequence to reflect the father's unraveling moral state.
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one of the all-time greats
14 December 2003
Put in simple terms, this is one of the greatest silent movies ever made. Though the film was intended to be screened with live voice-over by a benshi narrator, this masterpiece works stunningly well without sound, because Ozu's

unparalleled sense of visual rhythm, choreographed movement, and humor

keep one's eyes dancing in delight. The story concerns two boys who fight their way to gain status and respect among the local bullies, only to realize that their father is a bottom-feeder among the adults. As such it's loaded with acute

observations of Japanese society, and not without Ozu's penchant for subtle but potent criticism. For people who are used to the "slow" Ozu of the 50s, this film will be a revelation, inspiring speculation as to how and why he changed a style that already was exceptional.
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Ozu's lone existing documentary
13 December 2003
This short documentary by Ozu was intended to present the artistry ofkabuki dancer Kikugoro Onoe IV to both Japanese and foreign audiences. A voice-over narration introduces Kikugoro as well as the dance he performs in the film's second half, in which a young girl is transformed into a resplendent lion (the imagery of which apparently inspired Jean Cocteau as he conceived his own BEAUTY AND THE BEAST). Watching Kikugoro imitate the gestures of a demure maiden you see how he deserved his fame. Ozu shoots the performance in three simple set-ups: a roving frontal shot of the performers on stage, an angled shot from the side of the stage, and an angled longshot that acknowledges the presence of the audience in a way that is unmistakably Ozu.
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Ozu's darkest hour, a masterpiece
13 December 2003
A deeply, uncharacteristically dark film, even among other "dark" Ozu films (i.e. A HEN IN THE WIND, EARLY SPRING) that may require a theatrical setting for the viewer to be fully absorbed in the strange, dark textures of the world Ozu presents. I myself was pretty alienated for the first 1/2 hour or so until the wintry chill of the mise-en-scene (brilliantly suggested in the slightly hunched-over postures of the characters) found its way into me instead of keeping me at arm's length. And from there this story builds in unwavering intensity as it follows a family on a slow slide into dissolution: a passive, judgmental patriarch (played by Chisyu Ryu, subverting his gently accepting persona in a way that is shocking), his elder daughter, a divorcee with a single child (Setsuko Hara, playing brilliantly against type -- who'd have thought the sweetest lady in '50s Japan had such an evil scowl?), and his younger daughter (Ineko Arima, a revelation), secretly pregnant and searching for her boyfriend, get a major shakeup when their absent mother, who the father had told them was long dead, re-enters their lives. Ozu's vision of post-war Japan and how the sins of one generation get passed on to the next, illustrated brilliantly by a series of parallels drawn sensitively between characters, manages to be both compassionate and scathing -- even a seemingly cop-out happy denouement is embedded with a poison pill. A masterpiece, without question, one that throws all of Ozu's depictions of modern society in a beautifully devastating new light.
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self-conscious Ozu?
13 December 2003
From what I've heard, this is one of the least revered Ozu films, but after first glance I find it to be one of the most fascinating. A naive but zealous girl (Hideko Takamine) proposes marriage to a man who is in love with her sister (Kinuyo Tanaka) who is trapped in a loveless marriage; this is the girl's way of showing concern for her sister, by keeping the man she really loves but cannot have close at hand. It's an odd mix of high comedy and stark social commentary on the social boundaries that define women's roles, and for me it shows as much tonal range as anything I've seen in other Ozu films -- frivolous flirtatious interludes, sincere and tender romantic exchanges, and stark moments of violent rage are held in precarious balance thanks to Ozu's rock solid powers of observation. It's worth seeing this film as Ozu playing as self-consciously and inventively with genres as he did in the 30s -- the girl in some scenes narrates the action like a benshi. I definitely see this as a reworking of WHAT DID THE LADY FORGET?, revisiting the setup of the liberated meddling gamine overturning the fragile co-existence between a hapless housewife and the helpless husband; this time the scene of domestic violence is given the full measure of subtext and consequence that was lacking in the earlier film, adding resonance to what otherwise might be misjudged as straight melodrama. A difficult film to pin down, but no less alluring for it.
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Sober, unflinching examination of Japan's moral legacy post-WWII
13 December 2003
A sensitive and powerful examination of the moral compromises made during World War II and the toll they take on families. Kinuyo Tanaka gives another of her sensitive and compelling performances as a woman forced into prostitution to care for her sick child, and is unable to keep her secret when her husband returns from the front. Ozu takes on the topic of prostitution while steering well clear of its potential for sordidness (something I find both a virtue and a limitation... in some ways it's *too* tactful). The scenes between the two exceptional leads contribute to a film blessed with some of the most uncomortable scenes Ozu has filmed, delving deep into raw unresolved emotions of guilt, honor and devotion.
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subversive sadness cracks through wartime propaganda
13 December 2003
Another sober wartime drama, this time a sort of reworking of THE ONLY SON as a widower schoolteacher decides to send his boy to a boarding school to give him the best education possible and seek a higher paying position to afford tuition. The film takes a sudden leap forward in time as the grown son desires to take care of his aging father, but the father forbids the son to compromise his own career. The war is barely mentioned but the film can easily be read as a propagandistic statement about self-sacrifice and devotion to duty, even at the cost of family unity. However, the pensive, tentative mood Ozu captures at the end, embodied in the son's distant, troubled look as he thinks about his father, hints at Ozu's own reservations with the moral message being issued. The scenes of father and son together in both halves of the story have a gentle perfection that gives the film all the beauty it requires, thanks to great performances by Shuji Sano as the grown son and Chishyu Ryo as the father. Amazingly, Ryu was only 38 when he gave this totally believable performance as an aging patriarch -- in fact he barely looks any different than he does in AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON twenty years later!
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Ozu's wartime solution to family dysfunction: let's all go to China!
13 December 2003
Ozu enters William Wyler terrain with a somber upscale family drama about a mother and daughter who are shuttled in unwelcome fashion from one family member's home to another following the death of the family patriarch. The thematic elements of displacement within a family unit anticipate TOKYO STORY -- there's even a bedtime scene between the mother and daughter that echoes one in the later film. There's a startling lack of music in this film, esp. during Ozu's normally music-filled transitional shots, that contribute to an overall sense of tense unease that touches on what might have been the general wartime state of mind among Japanese at that time. The war makes a subtle appearance in the form of the youngest son who offers to take the unwanted family members with him to settle in China -- a moment which might be aligned with Imperialist propaganda, though in a fascinating way: the Chinese "frontier" seems presented as a place where Japanese society can escape its social hypocrisies and begin anew.
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Ha ha, and then a slap
13 December 2003
One of Ozu's most delightful comedies involves the minor household upheaval caused by a freewheeling Japanese debutante's visit to her henpecked professor uncle and his fussy wife. This film is blessed with a surfeit of small, droll gestures that amply demonstrate both the whimsicality and the sharpness of Ozu's observations of human behavior: the clucking communion of housewives, clever games played by singing schoolboys and the subtle, playful banter of relatives who know each others' foibles all too well. The schoolgirl character is of particular interest as a prototypical "liberated woman" who gets her uncle to take her to a geisha house and isn't afraid of letting her leg show under her skirt (here I wonder how much of this was influenced by the '30s Hollywood screwball comedies Ozu loved, or if it was truly indicative of emerging behavioral trends among Japanese women). Things come to a head though as the girl and her uncle conspire for a night away from her aunt, only to be confronted for their deception, leading to an unsettling moment when the aunt gets slapped. I'm not entirely satisfied with how Ozu's characters later shrug off this instance of domestic abuse as just another quirky behavior that can be turned on its ear. Nonetheless the film stands as a provocative exploration of male-female relationships amidst the shifting mores of modern society.
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as interesting as the remake, and almost as good
13 December 2003
Remakably similar in structure yet different in tonal effect to Ozu's more famous 1959 remake, this story of a travelling troupe's last days in a seaside village was one of Ozu's first forays into a quiet, rural background, though it still feels brisk compared to the more staid and sumptuous remake. The depictions of stage life are more slapstick-oriented than in the remake (most notably in Tokkan Kozo's hilarious turn in a full-sized dog costume), but are counterbalanced by sensitive portrayals of all the characters, especially the great, dignified lead performance by Takeshi Sakamoto. The romantic interludes are as powerful as in the remake, though without employing the overt sensuality of on-screen kissing; instead there appears to be the use of a filter or gauze to give the scenes between the young couple an otherworldly effect, which gives more emphasis of the idea of the actress employed to seduce the troupe leader's son enacting a "performance", an idea that I would have like to have seen developed even further. Even so, this is a marvellous work with a set of wonders distinguishable from that of the remake.
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'Tis a pity, my boyfriend's sister is a whore
13 December 2003
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.
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Dragnet Girl (1933)
Yasujiro von Sternberg
13 December 2003
Josef von Sternberg doesn't get as much mention as Frank Borzage or Ernst Lubitsch as an early Ozu influence, but those familiar with the dense arrangement of objects onscreen in Sternberg films may see the resemblance in both early and late Ozu films. This moody, expressionist pre-noir potboiler exhibits plenty of inspired clutter (most memorably the RCA Victor dog) and stylistic fluorishes (tracking shots, pull shots, and memorable use of shadow) as it tells the story of a gangster and his good-girl-gone-bad moll (Kinuyo Tanaka) as they experience an spiritual awakening through the good graces of an innocent girl. Redemption seems to be a recurring motif in Ozu's gangster movies (WALK CHEEFULLY, THAT NIGHT'S WIFE), and one wonders if bad guy heroes turning themselves in is a convention of the genre or indicative of Ozu's feelings about the criminal life he was assigned to depict. Whatever the case, the climax (involving the single gunshot fired in the entire existing Ozu canon) is as suspenseful and emotionally powerful as anything Ozu filmed.
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Passing Fancy (1933)
Ozu's transition to social realism
13 December 2003
Takeshi Sakamoto and Tokan Kozzo team up memorably yet again as an unemployed illiterate drunk and his resentful son, in this sentimental study of working class father-son relationships. As in I WAS BORN BUT... and TOKYO CHORUS, Ozu explores how children measure their self-esteem in their parents.
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Friendship vs. Class Power -- guess who wins?
13 December 2003
Ozu revisits the dichotomy between schoolboy idealism and working world realities, this time focusing on four college friends, one of whom (Tatsuo Saito) happens to be the son of a corporate executive; the son takes over upon his father's death, and his friends come seeking employment. Their friendship clearly isn't the same under this new working relationship, the subordinates become yes-men to the point that one of them says nothing when Saito casts an eye on his fiance. This leads to a climax even more violent than those of A HEN IN THE WIND or THE MUNEKATA SISTERS, a minute-long beating served by one friend to another that is all the more stunning in that the other two friends passively look on. Startlingly raw and deeply unresolved, this is perhaps Ozu's most disturbing exploration of social inequality and the damage it unleashes even among the most loyal friends.
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Tokyo Chorus (1931)
I Worked, But...
13 December 2003
A well-to-do employee of an insurance firm gets a handsome bonus only to get fired for standing up for a laid-off co-worker; his stay-at-home wife, son and daughter (a very young but no less adorable Hideko Takamine) all must contend with the effects of his unemployment. This could very well be re-titled I WORKED, BUT... as it has the same eclectic mix of tones found in that "trilogy", this time ranging from the wistfully ruminative to the starkly violent to the hilariously scatalogical. The film also continues the major theme that preoccupied Ozu at this time, employment as a determinant of social status and self-esteem, while also pointing to the dichotomy of home life vs. office life and how children view their parents which would be explored further in I WAS BORN BUT... It is wonderful to witness the sheer range of devices Ozu employs, from tracking shots to keyhole iris shots, generous helpings of physical slapstick and odd assorted throwaway moments that reveal characters in quirky, intimate ways. With its freewheeling technique examining the foibles and fissures of Japanese society from all angles, this is a major example of the young, robust Ozu at his best.
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One hairy comedy
13 December 2003
This eccentric comedy of manners follows a love quadrangle centered on a kendo master (Tokihiko Okada), whose chauvinistic upholding of Japanese culture screeches to a halt when he falls for a progressive (but not too progressive) office worker. He shaves his beard (after protesting memorably that "all great men have beards!" including Lincoln, Darwin and Marx), puts on a suit and learns the Western ways of wooing a woman, attracting a haughty aristocrat and a gangster floozy in the process. The three very different women seem to be presented as three feminine responses to the Western modernization of Japan, with the office girl being the ideal (conversant in Western ways while wrapped fetchingly in a kimono). Ozu's often hilarious depictions of Okada's romantic entanglements owe a good deal to Lubitsch, but his sensitivity to cultural disparity is uniquely his.
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proto-psychological noir from Ozu
13 December 2003
Ozu makes the best of what appears to be an uncharacteristic potboiler assignment involving a man (Tokihiko Okada) driven to crime to help his wife and ailing daughter, chased down by a cop (Fuyuki Yamamoto who looks like a Japanese Charles Bronson) who suddenly faces a moral dilemma. The characters are clearly played for genre type, but great performances make it special -- especially by Emiko Yagumo as the fiercely protective wife -- and Ozu achieves a feeling of moral resolve and atonement through personal sacrifice similar to what he did in WALK CHEERFULLY.
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Take it from 'Suji, you're better off staying in school
13 December 2003
Ozu's follow-up to I GRADUATED, BUT... actually plays somewhat like a prequel: a student fails when the shirt on which he wrote his exam cheat sheet gets mistakenly sent to the laundry. The student contemplates his outcast fate as his graduating dorm-mates all face the working world. The film is loaded with clever shifts in perspective (such as when a boy, misunderstanding the meaning of 'flunk' declares that he wants to flunk just like his big brother), and the film becomes a hilarious and touching reflection on college life and what it means to leave it.
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Ozu goes gangsta
13 December 2003
A genuine rarity, an Ozu gangster movie, in which a conman falls for one of his targets, achieving redemption through love in a way that is highly reminiscent of Frank Borzage's tales of romantic salvation. Ozu achieves a variety of moods, from the playful hand signals and spontaneous dance routines that gangsters use to greet each other, to the passion of not only romantic love but fraternal devotion between the conman and his best buddy, resulting in one of his most macho movies as well as one of his most tender. Incidentally, Ozu gives a lot of visual time in this film to close-up shots of people's feet, a motif I don't quite understand in its relation to the movie but is certainly striking.
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Days of Youth (1929)
Ozu's "Japanese Pie"
13 December 2003
This breezy student comedy about the misadventures of two slacker collegians (Ichiro Yuki and Tatsuo Saito, who does a great riff on Harold Lloyd) is Ozu's earliest existing film. The narrative is as incidental as ever but eventually locks into an extended sequence capturing the foibles of a romantic triangle that develops during an extended skiing sequence -- which in itself is a wonder as it's probably the longest exterior sequence Ozu ever filmed. Ozu's filmmaking is more "mainstream" than what he's known for, utilizing dissolves, handheld camerawork and clever point of view shots to capture the thrills and spills of the ski slopes. Ozu's characteristically lovely moments of human intimacy are in evidence, but they have yet to be as sharply composed, pared down to the graphic simplicity that is his hallmark. It seems evident that a younger, more carefree Ozu directed this -- it's relatively slight but extremely affable depiction of youth -- one wonders what wonders Ozu would have done with AMERICAN PIE.
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Introducing Japan's Dennis the Menace
13 December 2003
Takeshi Sakamoto and Tatsuo Saito are two bumbling child kidnappers (Sakamoto carries a butterfly net if that gives you an idea of his skill level) who abduct a boy (Tomio Aoki, Japan's Dennis the Menace) who turns out to be more than they bargained for. Pieces of this slapstick crime caper based on O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief" are missing throughout, but it still plays coherently and has its share of hilarious moments.
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11 minutes of scene fragments, but unmistakably Ozu
13 December 2003
A college graduate is unable to find a job but tries to hide his unemployment from his wife and fiancee. Though only 11 minutes of fragments is all that remains of Ozu's initial entry in the "I Verbed, But..." series, it still plays rather coherently.
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