Few directors have a stronger trademark than Yasujiro Ozu, who developed one of the most original and distinctive filmmaking styles in cinema history. But viewers who know Ozu through his delicately heartbreaking Tokyo Story (1953) and his contemplative portraits of ordinary families may be astonished by his silent comedies and crime dramas. The man labeled the “most Japanese of Japanese directors” was deeply influenced by the Hollywood movies he grew up devouring, including Hal Roach slapstick and proto-noir gangster films. David Bordwell has called Ozu “almost certainly the most cinephiliac major director before the New Wave.” As Godard dropped allusions to Hollywood actors and genres into his films, Ozu hung American movie posters in his sets, acknowledging his own debt and also suggesting how his characters’ lives have been infiltrated by Western pop culture.
Born in 1903, Ozu came of age during the Taisho period (1912–1926), a time of rapid modernization and Westernization that was akin in many ways to Germany’s Weimar era: a turbulent and unstable but creatively dynamic interlude preceding the rise of militarism and nationalism that led up to the Second World War. The conflict between traditional Japanese values and imported mores (mirrored in clashing aesthetic influences) was a driving force in early Japanese cinema, nowhere more dazzlingly on display than in Ozu’s jazzy Dragnet Girl (1933).
Surprising at first glance, Ozu’s silent crime dramas reveal many links to his mature work. His sixteenth film, That Night’s Wife (Sono yo no tsuma,1930), adapted from a story by the American writer Oscar Schisgall, opens with a daring holdup and a chase through dark city streets, but the film soon becomes a family drama in a hushed, intimate key. Aside from the noirish opening sequence, That Night’s Wife confines itself almost entirely to the small apartment where Shuji Hashizume (Tokihiko Okada) lives with his wife and child. Ozu cross-cuts between Hashizume’s escape from the office he has robbed and his wife at home taking care of their sick child, Michiko (the adorable Mitsuko Ichimura). A detective, Kagawa (Togo Yamamoto), tracks the robber home but agrees to let him stay through the night because his daughter is in critical condition. It’s a suspenseful setup, but the texture of everyday life, of mundane objects and activities, is crucial to the story’s emotional power. Guns are important—early on, we see one in close-up pointed directly at the camera—but so is the ice pack that soothes the feverish child, a telephone receiver, a flower in a water glass, a child’s drawings.
Close-ups of objects, and of hands and feet, punctuate the film. Sometimes they are functional: a prominent shot of the robber’s hat, thrown down when he arrives home, foreshadows how it will later serve the plot. Sometimes close-ups fill in facts—the cans of paint and jars of brushes around the apartment tell us that Hashizume is an artist, and the half-loaf of bread and ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts that he picks through tell us he is poor. Sometimes the images have allegorical weight, like Michiko’s floppy doll on a toy swing signifying her fragility and innocence. And sometimes they are cryptic and lyrical, like the handprint left on a glass door after the robbery, the first of many expressive shots of hands, or the leaf-shadows fidgeting in a pool of lamplight. This is the crime thriller as haiku.
There has been a long-running debate about whether Ozu was essentially a formalist, an experimental filmmaker, as Bordwell argues, or whether, as Donald Richie contends, he was primarily interested in a singular narrative theme, the dissolution of the family. That Night’s Wife shows how these two impulses were integrated as one: to tell a story through purely cinematic means. Camera movements—deliberate lateral tracking shots, searching pans, and sudden dollies in or out convey as much about the characters’ feelings and reactions as the quietly restrained performances do. Ozu is also starting to depict sound visually, as he did with great flourish in Dragnet Girl. (The Japanese film industry was late in adapting to sound; the nation’s first talkie was made in 1931, and Ozu did not make his sound debut until 1936.) When an ominous knocking comes, the camera rushes toward the door and, with an almost invisible cut, continues the movement on the other side, a subtly magical effect that imitates the power of sound to travel through surfaces.
A long circular pan introduces the apartment, taking in the vertical lines of hanging laundry, dangling ropes, a ladder, the railings of the bed, and the crazy collage of posters and blackboards papering the walls. The snippets of English on these posters form a surreal background commentary throughout the drama: “Broadway Scandals,” “Walter Huston,” and the slyly fitting “Two’s Company – Three’s a Crowd.” There is a single overtly Japanese note in the film’s visual vocabulary, the kimono worn by Hashizume’s wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo). When we first see her, bowing to a doctor and presenting a bowl of water for him to wash his hands, she is an image of classic Japanese femininity, nurturing and self-effacing. But when the detective comes to arrest her husband, she picks up a gun (which she has hidden in her child’s bed) and calmly trains it on him.
Endangered by external forces rather than internal tensions, this family is one of the most loyal and demonstratively loving that Ozu portrayed. The heart of the movie is about people watching each other, and about how observation develops into empathy. The wife watches for her husband to come home, the parents watch over their daughter as she struggles with fever, the wife watches the detective, and the detective, in turn, watches the husband, softening as he witnesses the criminal hugging and kissing his adoring child. Ozu’s own father was mostly absent when he was growing up and, while the director remained very close to his mother into adulthood, his films obsess over relationships between fathers and children, from early works like Passing Fancy (1933), about a widower with a young son, through his last film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), about a widower trying to marry off his grown daughter.
Ozu directed his first film in 1927 and churned out a series of short comedies for Shochiku in the late twenties, most now lost. With That Night’s Wife he was on the cusp between his emergence and his recognition for early masterpieces like I Was Born, But… (1932). Yet much of Ozu’s signature style is already recognizable, though the film’s frequent tracking shots largely vanished from his mature work. The trademark “tatami shots” are already present, as the camera kneels to be on a level with the characters, and the use of static close-ups of objects or settings for transitions became a key element of his unique approach to continuity.
At a pivotal moment in That Night’s Wife, the camera leaves the room, moving away from Mayumi as she struggles to stay awake and keep the detective covered. The camera creeps around the apartment, passes outside to observe the milkman’s arrival in the grey dawn, then returns and pans back around the apartment to find the situation crucially altered. With this elegant ellipsis, Ozu not only delivers a plot twist but links the family’s desperate crisis to the ongoing rhythms of a workaday world in a way that is at once comforting and poignant. The director spoke about the challenge of dramatizing a whole story in one cramped set, but he was wise to limit excursions to this single, fleeting breath of air. For the trapped characters, freedom and normality are so close and yet still so out of reach.
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by Maud Nelissen