Yasujiro Ozu has a reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers in history. His legacy was forged almost exclusively from a series of films he made in the years between Japan’s defeat in World War II and the director’s death in 1963, at age 60. Fifteen films in as many years, virtually all minimalist contemplations of domestic life: Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Early Spring (1956), Tokyo Twilight (1957), Good Morning (1959), Late Autumn (1960), and The End of Summer (1961), among them. His 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story, was rated by critics third in the most recent British Film Institute poll of the greatest films of all time.
Reverential supporters declare Ozu the “most Japanese” of directors, a notion predicated on his penchant for placing the camera in a perfectly chosen spot—typically at a level simulating the eyeline of someone kneeling on a tatami mat—and photographing the scripted scenes with virtually no “technique.” Paul Schrader once notably called the result “transcendental style,” a meditative, nonintrusive approach to storytelling that was Ozu’s artistic signature. His commitment to it was so profound his gravestone is marked with the single Japanese character representing “nothingness.”
Dragnet Girl, made in 1933, was not unearthed until the mid-1970s—after the critical establishment had anointed Ozu the most sincere and serene of cinema artists, elevating him above his fellow countrymen Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa. Dragnet Girl is a movie filled with unexpected pleasures and inspired thrills—perhaps the greatest (for me) being the slack-jawed incredulity it induces when you discover that Ozu—His Serene Highness—once directed a Warner Bros. gangster picture.
Of course, Dragnet Girl wasn’t made in Hollywood. It was made at the Shochiku studios in Tokyo, where ten years earlier Ozu had begun his movie career as an assistant cameraman. He’d spent most of the days and nights of his childhood watching American movies in local Japanese cinemas—something evident in the silent films (35 in all, mostly comedies and melodramas) that he directed for Shochiku. His love of Hollywood culminated in the creation of this peculiar Japanese-American netherworld, one that could only blossom within a darkened movie theater. We’re familiar with the trans-Atlantic variety of this Hollywood love affair, having seen it manifested in Godard, Truffaut, and Melville … but to see it appear 25 years before the nouvelle vague—in an Ozu film? This film is truly revelatory.
Joji, a former boxer who’s now a gang leader, played by stunningly handsome Joji Oka, is a role that would have fit Cagney like a snappy fedora. His devoted moll Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a feisty working girl Joan Blondell would have played to a fare-thee-well. The seedy demimonde of cramped tenements, smoky pool halls, and sweaty boxing gyms is recognizable from dozens of Depression-era potboilers made on the Warner lot. To create his own trans-Pacific gangland fantasia, Ozu went so far as to dress the sets with imported American signage. (Who knew that Jack Dempsey was boxing in Japan!)
The material may feel familiar, but Ozu handles it in his unique fashion. Considering that long, static takes later became his trademark, it’s a kick to witness the delight he takes in moving the camera. It studiously swirls around inanimate objects, floats surreptitiously down hallways, prowls like a cat after striding feet, gazes at a street streaking past in the reflection of a speeding roadster’s headlamp. Ozu’s devotion to cinematic possibility is palpable, at times even delirious—and to contemporary eyes, remarkably progressive.
Ozu’s innovations weren’t limited to camerawork. He made provocative use of sound—even though Japan hadn’t fully transitioned to talkies. Characters react to offscreen sounds and Ozu occasionally uses dialogue as a transition between scenes—in a silent film! The man was clearly anxious for the technical aspects of filmmaking to catch up with his creativity.
Some of the director’s notions could be off-putting, such as his disregard for the spatial logic of eyelines. Keeping the camera on one side of the action, not breaking the sacrosanct 180-degree barrier—it’s a basic rule of moviemaking. Ozu often blithely ignored it. Such weirdness is evident in the scene between Joji and “good girl” Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo)—they talk to each other, looking into each other’s eyes—while both face the same direction! To dismiss this as a young director “learning his craft” would be wrong—it’s a stylistic quirk that persisted through all Ozu’s films.
Something equally revelatory about Dragnet Girl is its unmistakable homosexual subtext. When Tokiko confronts Kazuko in a classic “stay away from my man” showdown—Ozu throws a twist by suggesting—in his typically elliptical manner—that the meeting ends not with a bang, but with a kiss. In subsequent scenes, Tokiko giddily reveals that she now shares Joji’s infatuation with Kazuko.
Hanging heavily over this otherwise lightweight melodrama is the story of Hiroshi (Koji Mitsui), Kazuko’s brother, who longs to be a boxer and yakuza—because he’s in thrall to the dashing Joji. Ozu comes daringly close to abandoning his usual obliqueness when depicting Hiroshi’s ardor for male companionship and camaraderie. It’s clear Kazuko isn’t trying to save her brother from a criminal life, but from a different “deviant” lifestyle.
In this regard, Ozu was himself a mystery. Speculation that he was gay is largely based on his being a lifelong bachelor who spent his entire civilian life with his mother (other than military service, where he suffered six months in a British POW camp). In his teens, he reportedly was expelled from school for writing a love letter to a male student. What significance, if any, Ozu’s sexual orientation had on his art is debatable—but it’s fascinating to find, among the artifice of this early genre film, the director’s most thinly veiled depiction of homosexuality.
But wait … this film is not all about Yasujiro Ozu. Praise is also due the Dragnet Girl herself, Kinuyo Tanaka. The easiest way to explain her place in history is to call her “the Japanese Ida Lupino”—she was performing in musicals and light opera by the age of 11, working as a film actress by 14, became one of the biggest stars in Japan—adept at musicals, comedies, or dramas—in her early 20s. As she matured, Tanaka became the essential actress for Japan’s greatest directors. Besides performing in ten films for Ozu, she worked dozens of times with Hiroshi Shimizu, Yasujiro Shimazu, Heinosuke Gosho, Mikio Naruse, and Keisuke Kinoshita. She made 15 films with Kenji Mizoguchi, including three masterpieces in a row—The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954).
That would be enough for any career, but Tanaka had much more to offer, making her directorial debut in 1953 with the film Love Letters. Her next, The Moon Has Risen (1955), was coscripted by Ozu himself. She went on to direct four more features, while maintaining her status as one of the nation’s most esteemed actresses, working up until her death in 1977, at age 66. The unpredictably expressive young woman we see in Dragnet Girl was already on her way to becoming the leading lady of Japanese cinema.
Presented at SFSFF 2014 with live music by Guenter Buchwald