Here again we have an example of an early Ozu effort that has been, almost by consensus, framed as a curiosity because of how it different it feels from what one understands as the filmmaker’s style. His appreciation of Lubitsch is in plain view here, but there’s a commentary on gender relations, which hints more at something one would fine in Rohmer’s work. It’s not nearly as biting or personal as the latter comparison would imply, but I do think there’s something of interest beyond Ozu’s “delightful” surface. This is a film that plays like a dumb romantic comedy, but the intelligence of its makers playfully sneaks up on the audience.
Okajima is a recent graduate and a kendo master. Unfortunately, the latter hasn’t exactly bettered his social standing. He goes on a furious job search but finds nobody willing to hire him. Hiroko, a typist at one of the companies that shot him down, suggests that shaving his beard might make him more successful. Okajima is resistant, seeing his facial hair as a point of pride as well as a visual reminder of his old-fashioned ideals. He is laughed at by the modern women at a birthday party. However, his shaving leads to his employment, which allows him to also pursue Hiroko romantically.
All of this sounds a little too cute, and certainly Ozu has the charm to pull off such a story. However, there’s something more interesting happening in the couple’s courting process that distracts one from the inevitable happy ending. Okajima’s masculine presentation is of note here, because the way his appearance begins to dictate his personality is a fairly progressive observation from Ozu. It might seem like lazy writing, but Okajima codes his own beard as a sign of his masculine strength. Something he reinforces through his antiquated chivalrous yet chauvinist attitude towards the women around him. All of the characters are socialized into a pretty simplistic view of gender, but Okajima is even worse. He enforces a set of standards that are seen as being from the past.
All of this sounds like maybe a little too much for a Japanese comedy from 1931 to be hinting at, but as I explained with That Night’s Wife, Ozu was always commenting on socialized behavior. I risk making this point because I feel that it can be read as opposing the idea of him as a “human” filmmaker, but I’d argue that it compliments it. His films have always been about the pressures of society, but those pressures obviously influence the poignant nature of his stories. With these early films, the reality is that he wasn’t nearly as confident, and thus the films and their discourse feel more on the nose. Similarly, I can understand the reading of this film as more conservative because the ending seems to suggest that all women are looking for domestic tranquility. The film’s lighthearted tone glosses over the problems in this dream translating to a reality. We get Okajima and Hiroko smiling together in a window frame, waving goodbye to the “modern” Satoko and the audience. I’d counter by saying the film is once again commenting on the performative nature of life. Satoko’s modernity clashes with the simple home life she pines after, but that’s only an image thing. The idea of the “modern girl” in a film like this is coded as the whore. However, her final moment reveals that such presumptions are based entirely on how Ozu choose to frame her. He’s constructed an image of a woman, and allowed her to destroy that image herself.
All of this is exciting to gather from Ozu’s images, but I guess they also don’t make the film a masterpiece. The goofy tone of the opening is followed by a rather dull and dry middle section. A third romantic interest is introduced, but she’s not fleshed out much. I guess this brings up the point again that as much as Ozu’s older films were human stories and social commentary, they’re not as neat in occupying those two genres. The fault of a film like The Lady and the Beard is that it might be difficult to feel for the characters. It might be unfair to compare the completeness of the characters to those in Ozu’s later films, but my mind might be unable to disconnect that association. There’s a lot to collect here, in terms of Ozu’s own ideas, but they aren’t weaved together with his compassion for a complete film. He made I Was Born But… a year later, which I’d argue is his first film to accomplish said balance. For a fan, his progress is still something that should be watched.