Preliminary Mastery in “Silent Ozu”

Silent Ozu isn’t such a strange proposition, as here was a director who knew his way around the unspoken. When we think of Yasujiro Ozu as a master, we credit his mastery in the high art of letting silences play. “Crime dramas,” on the other hand, don’t automatically come to mind, but here are three from the early 1930s in a new box-set from Eclipse, the completist-friendly imprint of the Criterion Collection. Typically this series’ nice-priced bunchings of auteurist rarities tend to be light on special features, but the idea is that the movies themselves are special features.

And in Ozu’s case, they certainly are. Obviously hindsight heightens the effect, but it is thrilling to search these pulpy melodramas for the rudiments of what Paul Schrader famously described as Ozu’s “transcendental style.” Before cinematic quietude was a mode of contemplation, it was of course a formal requirement, and how fascinating to see some pushback against it from this director of all people. These three are highly quaint by the standards of modern Japanese crime films, and by the standards of classic Ozu films, but in their chase scenes through shady urban underworlds, their emotional outbursts and high-stakes pivots of plot, an eagerness to embrace the medium is palpable. Prior to his famous reticence, and in spite of his singular so-called Japanese-ness, Ozu wore his western influences flamboyantly on his sleeve. 

In Walk Cheerfully, a small-time crook (Minoru Takada) meets a secretary (Horoki Kawasaki) whose sweet innocence makes him want to leave his life of crime behind. That urge toward placid domesticity could be seen as embryonic for the filmmaker’s later career, but what’s most compelling here is a contagious simple revelry of grifters at work — scoundrels whose secret handshake is a silly dance.

Probably the most familiar of this batch — it screened at last year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival — is Dragnet Girl, with Joji Oka as a boxer-cum-gangster, and Kinuyo Tanaka, who would become one of the great leading ladies of Japanese (or any) cinema, as his moll. This is Ozu’s blissfully unselfconscious homage to the gangster potboilers of young Hollywood, made with so much energy it’s almost like the camera can’t sit still. Which is remarkable when coming from a director who’d later be hailed for keeping his camera so stationary and burrowed-in.

My favorite of the three, That Night’s Wife, involves a desperate father (Tokihiko Okada) who turns to crime to afford medication for his deathly-ill child. This prompts an all-night standoff in his apartment with the detective (Togo Yamamoto) who’s been on his tail. Though not at all above sensationalism (like a handgun, in closeup, pointed straight at the camera), the movie bends always toward sensitivity, and it’s here that I really see the master emerging. There is some suspense, as we wait to see how fate will turn, but also something like the opposite of suspense — a sense of poignantly dignified resignation to inescapable circumstances. That’s the Ozu touch, all right.

It’s not necessarily true that any great master’s juvenilia or journeyman work will contain great revelations about his or her eventual excellence. But these three shining windows give us a good view into Ozu. Together they let us see how he adapted to a medium in transition, and how he arrived at what became his hallowed ground — middle-class chamber drama — by way of lively little movies for the common man.