Written by: David Brook
Ozu – Three Melodramas is, you guessed it, a DVD collection containing three fine examples of Yasujiro Ozu’s work within the genre he was most synonymous with, melodrama. I use that term lightly, as his subtle touch doesn’t seem to fit the mould, more just the subject matter of much of his work. Included in the set is an early silent film, Woman of Tokyo (1933), and the two films he made after Tokyo Story, Early Spring (1956) and Tokyo Twilight (1957). Below I give brief reviews of each feature and look at the set as a whole.
Woman of Tokyo
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda & Tadao Ikeda
Starring: Yoshiko Okada, Ureo Egawa and Kinuyo Tanaka
Running Time: 45 min
Produced not long after Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth, Woman of Tokyo is one of Ozu’s later silent films and, like the former, isn’t quite as refined and perfect as his later, more popular work, but is nonetheless beautifully made and can be recommended to fans of the director.
Woman of Tokyo tells the story of Ryoichi (Ureo Egawa) and Chikako (Yoshiko Okada) who are brother and sister and share an apartment in Tokyo. Ryoichi is a student and relies on Chikako to pay his way with her office job. Ryoichi’s girlfriend Harue (Kinuyo Tanaka) however, hears a rumour through her policeman brother that Chikako actually moonlights at night as a prostitute to make ends meet. When Ryoichi finds out he doesn’t know how to react to this shocking revelation.
Being a short ‘semi-feature’ at only 45 minutes and having actually been produced very quickly (in 8 days), Woman of Tokyo does feel quite rushed when compared to Ozu’s more well known work. It has many early examples of his great use of cutaways, but here they are often used over scenes playing out rather than to break things up. There are some wonderful match cuts though, such as when a scene of Chikako heading off on her latest ‘job’ ends on a street lamp then cuts to Ryoichi’s room light to signify that he’s been waiting up all night for her. Of course it looks fantastic too as Ozu had settled into his signature style by this point.
Although Ozu’s directorial style was fairly matured by this point, I didn’t find the content or writing as strong as in his later work (or even in Where Now…). This felt much more like a standard melodrama in terms of how the story plays out. Little of the subtlety Ozu is famous for can be found here. Also the situations and reactions to these are rather dated and don’t ring quite as true these days, meaning the final ‘twist’ seems extreme and is dealt with in quite an unusual fashion.
Woman of Tokyo remains a beautifully made film though and still packs an emotional punch at times. It just pales a little in comparison to his true masterworks.
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda & Yasujiro Ozu
Starring: Chikage Awashima, Ryô Ikebe, Teiji Takahashi
Running Time: 144 min
Early Spring feels very much like the typical Ozu film from the relatively little experience I have with the director’s work (I’ve only seen two of his other films on top of the silent films I reviewed previously). This is by no means meant as a derogatory statement though, a ‘typical Ozu film’ merely means that it shares the tropes that people attribute to his being considered one of the greatest directors of all time. For instance, the film is largely made up of scenes of people chatting over dinner or doing menial household chores. The drama comes through in these interactions under the surface for the most part. Ozu’s distinctive low angled, meticulously framed shots are prevalent too as well as his use of seemingly innocuous cutaways to add symbolism or simply to give the film a bit of breathing space.
Early Spring tells the story of Suji, a man in his 30′s who is stuck in a loveless marriage and dull white-collar job, both of which come under pressure after he starts seeing another woman. The film opens as a number of Ozu’s do with factory/cityscapes and a train running through them (which also closes the film, but in a different setting). The core theme of the film, brought up in various forms, is of the dangers of being caught up in the crowd, living life how you’re told or feel you should rather than following your heart. The idea of being caught up in the ‘rat race’ as a ‘salaryman’ is referenced regularly and mirrors the entrapment of the central marriage that feels more of a social obligation than anything to do with love. This theme is established with a visual motif running through these early scenes of the film. We see crowds of people, dressed in a similar fashion, following the herd onto trains and through the city. Throughout the film, whenever a cutaway of Suji’s office introduces a scene it focuses on the regimented rows of black windows which often fill the frame, adding to this claustrophobic, ‘lost in the crowd’ feel.
Like Tokyo Story, this is a film that takes its time to tell what, on the surface, is a simple and familiar story. It’s not in a rush to throw big dramatic scenes at its audience. As mentioned previously, although in essence films like this can be classed as melodrama for their stories of infidelity and life-struggles, Ozu’s films rarely seem melodramatic. We get few screeching or weepy confrontations or big revelations, the minutiae of the scene and minor reactions from characters give away the underlying emotions and meanings. A great example of his technique comes when there finally is a fairly heated confrontation between husband and wife. The scene only truly has power at the end, when both parties have gone into separate rooms and merely sit in silence in the darkness of the night. It’s an extremely poignant moment that lesser directors shooting a similar story might easily skip over as nothing really ‘happens’. A similarly touching moment comes in the last interaction between Suji and his ‘mistress’, a simple handshake and glance that plays out as those around them sing a Japanese version of Auld Lang Syne.
Early Spring is a stunningly assured film from a director that had truly mastered his craft. It is long and as such can feel rather slow for such a minimal and well-worn story (as I often find with Ozu’s films), but his skill is in letting these stories breathe and using the simple beauty of their construction to have the emotional depth and impact slowly build up to the inevitably moving conclusion.
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda & Yasujiro Ozu
Starring: Setsuko Hara, Ineko Arima, Chishu Ryu
Running Time: 140 min
Tokyo Twilight was Ozu’s final black and white feature. It shares many traits with the acclaimed films he made previously around this period, but in a sense carries the ‘melodrama’ tag more clearly than a lot of his work, including the other films in this set. That is not to say the film is any the lesser for this reason though. In fact it’s probably my favourite film in the set, if only by a narrow margin.
What makes Tokyo Twilight more melodramatic is the plot, as is to be expected I guess. A story about parenthood, the film observes the life of a broken family. Two adult sisters (one in her late teens perhaps) Takako (Setsuko Hara) and Akiko (Ineko Arima) live with their father Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) after their mother left them as children. The elder sister has taken her 2 year old daughter and moved away from her husband as their marriage is breaking down. This family seems to work fairly well as a unit other than the rebellious younger sister’s neglect of her education and frequenting of bars and mahjong cafes. When the girls’ mother is spotted looking for them though, at the same time that the younger sibling discovers she is pregnant, the family starts to fall apart.
With all the scandalous aspects the story brings up the film has the potential to be overwrought and hammy, but of course, being directed by Ozu the film is nothing of the sort. It’s still heart-wrenching stuff with a number of powerful scenes, but as ever, the Japanese master handles them with grace and restraint. There are more clear confrontations and scenes of teary breakdowns than say Tokyo Story perhaps, but these are still light years apart from the soap operatics of mainstream Hollywood melodramas.
What added another edge to this for me, on top of the strong characteristics I expect from an Ozu film, was the slightly noirish feel it had at times. The scenes following the Akiko and her exploits are often set at night in seedy bars and with the beautiful black and white cinematography it occasionally reminded me of Hollywood’s grimy 40′s noir classics.
What I also liked about Tokyo Twilight was the fact that it’s an easier watch than a lot of Ozu’s other dramas. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved most of his work that I’ve seen, other than one or two of his early comedies, but his slow restrained style can be difficult to sit through in one go. This however is much more story-led and has more going on on the surface which makes it easier to swallow. It’s still rather long and takes its time compared to most films, but feels like a blockbuster in terms of pace when up against something like Tokyo Story. I also liked the way this played a lot of its cards close to its chest for the first half an hour or so, creating a great sense of intrigue as to what was happening in these people’s lives.
I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly as a couple of Ozu’s other films, as its melodrama does very slightly rub off the subtlety and finesse at times but Tokyo Twilight remains highly recommended as is to be expected from most films by the director.
The DVD Set Itself
The Ozu – Three Melodramas DVD collection is out on 18th June, released by the BFI. The three films are spread over two discs (Woman of Tokyo is very short so squeezes on a disc with one of the others very easily). The quality of the picture and sound on the films is great. Woman of Tokyo has some noticeable print damage at times, but being the oldest film in the set by quite a while this is to be expected. You also get the option to watch this film with or without the new score. Why you wouldn’t is beyond me though as it’s great and I think watching a film in total silence would just feel odd. In those early days they would always have an accompanist.
Rather than any video interviews or commentaries we get an equally welcome booklet which contains essays and thoughts on Ozu’s work, particularly his melodramas and the films present in the set. This is a very interesting read and helps to better appreciate the films and Ozu’s work at the time.