In my reviews of That Night’s Wife (1930) and The Lady and the Beard (1931) I argued that there was something vital to be found in tracking Ozu’s progress as a filmmaker. In both of those films, the social commentary that he would refine and quietly mold into his most engaging and affecting portraits of the human conditions. I Flunked But… is another effort that will appeal to completists, but I hesitate in making an argument that it’s worthwhile for anyone else. Ozu has made a clever comedy here, one that can easily resonate with a lot of young people who feel like their life is missing direction. However, the film itself also lacks a direction. It’s fun, but it doesn’t achieve much outside of this.
Takahashi and his friends are preparing to pass their final exams. In lieu of studying, they’ve devoted their efforts to cheating. The best way seems to be printing the answers on the back of a t-shirt. However, this plan doesn’t work out when the shirt is question ends up in a load of laundry. Most of Takahashi’s roommates pass, but he doesn’t. However, the prospects for either aren’t exactly promising. Those who do graduate receive nothing but rejection letters and daydream constantly about their days in college. Takahashi is stuck in limbo, waiting for next semester, but he does get to live off his parent’s money in the mean time.
I will give Ozu some credit here, he has hit close to home with a film about post-graduate malaise. Of course, the film’s protagonist is stuck in school, but we do see and empathize with the struggles of the individuals who do pass their final exam. It rings true to me because I’m graduating from college in a month and I can sure I know as much about my future as the recent graduates in this film. Just by depicting this phenomenon, Ozu strikes a personal cord, though his film is not particularly concerned with fleshing out these anxieties further. Instead, they just sort of sit at the surface and provide the context for most of the comedic bits.
The greatest fault of all these Ozu comedies is that, when they are funny, they are so in a really corny way. It feels like a bit of an unfair accusation considering that’s his intention, but it also makes everything feel a little bit old-fashioned. The broad comedy works a bit smoother than it would in one of John Ford’s “comedic” films, but the result is sort of similar. Harold Lloyd is a more appropriate reference point, as it is his influence that is so most prevalent in most of these early efforts. However, it’s not exactly my thing and the films seem consciously designed to distance itself from any pathos potentially derived from the material. When the film ends, we see the graduates daydreaming about being at college and it’s all supposed to be cute and silly. Here’s where one could ask “great, now what?” but to be fair, Ozu isn’t exactly interested in working through their struggle, or painting a richer picture for Takahashi.
From a technical aspect, Ozu is on to something here. The quick tracking shots are again, disorienting for anyone well-versed in his celebrated signature style from the later years. However, he does actually provide nice, sensory-driven closeups. They don’t serve a transitional purpose like his pillow shots, but they are strikingly similar in composition. There’s some not very subtle suicide imagery here (a shadow of a noose, an emphasis placed on the sharp edges of a pair of scissors) which one could argue refutes the claim that the film isn’t serious enough. I’d counter by mentioning that these visual touches are fleeting and if nothing else, feel sort of maudlin. One never gets the impression that Takahashi truly feels that hopeless, and these flourishes then just seem too self-serious. Still, it’s Ozu so I’ll argue always that anything he does matter, if only in framing his career more accurately. This is enjoyable enough, but nothing special. Exciting developments were on the way from the master, this just feels like something he needed to get out of his system.