The first thought that comes to mind when recalling domestic interiors in Yasujirô Ozu’s films is how clean, orderly, and steeped in Japanese tradition they are. A look into his prolific early career, however, reveals production design of a radically different sort. In 1930’s That’s Night Wife, one of three silent crime films included in a new Eclipse Series from the Criterion Collection, the urban apartment where much of the film takes place is part impromptu museum space, part cluttered hoarder’s den, its diagonal ceiling beams and proliferation of oversized screen prints leaning up against walls creating a dwelling without clear borders. Posters for two late-’20s American screen comedies (Broadway Scandals and Broadway Daddies) and a Walter Huston vehicle take up prominent wall space, and handwritten etchings (one phrase, “two is company, three is a crowd,” mirrors the central drama) fill in the remaining real estate. That Ozu’s narrative doesn’t bother to dwell on justifications for this eccentric décor makes it easy to think of it as a reflection of the director’s own curatorial persona at this relatively experimental, impressionable juncture in his career.
The movies represented on the walls are key, but not because of any particular one-to-one meta-cinematic associations. In 1930’s That Night’s Wife, Walk Cheerfully and 1933’s Dragnet Girl, Hollywood genre films in general stick out like product placement, albeit with an appreciative rather than mercenary function. It’s a significant running detail, as Ozu’s filmmaking in these early capers is unmistakably, spiritually indebted to American genre cinema without necessarily incorporating any specific references. Beyond their pulpy plots, which all more or less take the form of crime-doesn’t-pay parables, there are visual flourishes that Ozu would largely dispose of as his career progressed: cropped views—of hands, feet, clocks, and other objects—that can be traced to the economy of the studio B movie; a restless camera that keeps up pace with the films’ on-the-go hoodlums; and a lively mingling of different camera heights, with Ozu’s more familiar low-angle shots juxtaposed in montage against higher viewpoints that gently undercut his characters’ larger-than-life self-images. In perhaps the most Americanized touch, Ozu’s gangsters spontaneously, and without warning, move in rhythmic synchronicity, indicating that the director’s reference points were as much silent comedy and early achievements in the musical genre as they were pre-code crime dramas.
Forecasting the domestic focus of his career to come, Ozu’s three crime films each announce extensive action and conflict before gradually resolving to emotional introspection. The two 1930 films begin in media res toward the tail end of plot-inciting chase scenes. In Walk Cheerfully, two petty thieves are fresh off a robbery; in That Night’s Wife, a nervous father has broken into an office at night searching for money to fund medical care for his baby daughter’s illness. Kenji the Knife (Minoru Takada), the protagonist of the former, has sustained a calculated ruffian’s lifestyle with his accomplices for quite some time, but after a series of unexpected encounters with the endearingly ladylike Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki), questions of self-respect arise. For Shuji (Okada Tokihiko), the lower-class artist in the latter, police capture is fated from the beginning, but a stroke of luck finds him with an understanding cop who allows the one-time crook a night to care for his son. Serendipity, a concept that’s part and parcel with Ozu’s Zen worldview, plays a crucial role in the trajectory of each narrative; it’s no throwaway embellishment that the intertitles of Walk Cheerfully are shown against a backdrop of illustrated dice and playing cards.
Alongside Walk Cheerfully’s gangsters-going-straight yarn and That Night’s Wife’s melancholic chamber drama, Dragnet Girl emerges as the plottiest of the three. The central drama revolves around Joji (Joji Oka), a hoodlum boxer trying to ward off his manipulative girlfriend (Kinuyo Tanaka, in an early role before Mizoguchi brought her to relative fame) while pursuing another Yasue-like paragon of girlish purity (played by Sumiko Mizukubo), but this straightforward conflict summary does little to account for the amount of incident covered, which here spreads out across pool halls, boxing gyms, news rooms, jazz clubs, and apartments. Ozu’s treatment of this gangster underworld as something dispersed throughout contemporary society contrasts the more withdrawn presentation of criminal activity in the prior two films, and yet, even with the uptick in macho rottenness (one sudden, manic fistfight at a pool hall is so ugly that Ozu has a pair of onlookers enter frame at one point to block our view), empathy reigns. Dragnet Girl features an array of seemingly debased molls and violent loners who blow off steam with punching bags in between petty wrongdoings, but it never outright vilifies any of them. The film concludes with images of tortuous reconciliation—close-ups of hands clasping onto others and faces under emotional duress—even as the characters are facing their now-inescapable sentences.
Ozu’s visions of societal transgression are informed by a belief that human understanding and commiseration can emerge under the unlikeliest of circumstances (That Night’s Wife), that redemption from crooked ways is never far from view if one actively looks (Walk Cheerfully’s first act hinges on a moment when Kenji could either safely ignore or assist Yasue), and that the threat of punishment by law need not be the seal of one’s fate. The open-minded generosity in this outlook is a quintessentially Ozu tweak on the largely Westernized patina of these films, as pre-code American crime movies often presented a far more caustic network of relationships. Look closely enough and one can even spot Ozu’s patented pillow shots lurking within these fleet genre exercises. During a poignant scene in Walk Cheerfully as Kenji and Yasue pile into a fast-moving car, Ozu saves space in his action montage for sideways glances of a train running adjacent and backward views of the road behind them, a reminder that, in Ozu’s cinema, renewed hope always comes with a joint acknowledgment of the irrevocable changes wrought by time’s passing.
It’s hard to quibble with the sparkling presentation of the films in this new Eclipse package, which look bright, sharp, and contrasty without any sacrifice in celluloid texture. Not that there was any major reconstruction or "improvement" work to do anyway (the lighting in each film is extraordinarily expressive, with traces of Sternberg), but Criterion has nonetheless done full justice to the already pristine surfaces of these works. New piano scores by Neil Brand, on the other hand, feel rather generic and intrusive; busy melodies, constant soft/loud dynamics, and an unflatteringly bright tone that feels more appropriate for a Harold Lloyd film had this viewer reaching for the mute button.
Each disc jacket here is presented with a typically erudite piece from Criterion staff writer Michael Koresky, who puts the films in helpful historical context and dwells on both the anomalies and telling auteurist touches in the films with respect to Ozu’s oeuvre as a whole.
Walk Cheerfully, That Night’s Wife, and Dragnet Girl are utterly fascinating snapshots of Ozu’s early fetishization of American cinema as well as truly singular entries in his body of work, and Criterion has yet again delivered a curatorial package to be cherished.