Rakudai wa shitakeredo / I Flunked, But… (1930)

22 11 2013

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.

1

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.

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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.

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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.

4

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.

5

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Shukujo to hige / The Lady and the Beard (1931)

12 11 2013

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.

1

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.

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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.

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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.

4

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.

5





Sono yo no tsuma / That Night’s Wife (1930)

11 11 2013

There is a pull to evaluate Ozu’s pre-war works for their differences from his post-war films. This is probably of the 1950s being his most successful and celebrated period of work,but the unfamiliarity with his silent films in particular is telling in most evaluations. Sure, That Night’s Wife is remarkably different in an aesthetic sense from something like Tokyo Story but this emphasis on differences devalues Ozu’s progression as a filmmaker during his early years. Here we have a film that is actually reflective of the filmmaker’s overall social concerns. It’s biggest difference from the later films would be that he is more explicit about these concerns here. The result is something more sentimental than one would expect from Ozu, but he still feels like the artist in charge here.

1

Shuji is in desperate need of some cash to pay for the medical expenses of his daughter, Michiko. Her condition is critical, but the family’s doctor says that she’ll be through the worst part of her sickness if she makes it through the night. That night is the one where Shuji robs a bank, and with the police hot on his tail, it becomes a struggle for him to make it home. He eventually takes a cab back, but the driver turns out to be an undercover detective who follows him into the apartment. There, he pleads with the detective to let him be free for the night so he can keep his daughter company. The result is a night long standoff involving Shuji and his wife, Mayumi against the detective.

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The script here is a Kogo Noda adaptation of a novel written by corporate historian, Oscar Schisgall. The situation seems like it could pass for being from Ozu’s pen, particularly because of its “socially conscious” nature. The conventional wisdom (which I feel no need to debate) is that Ozu’s characters worked their way up, in terms of social class with each new film. At this early stage in his career, his films can be categorized as shomin-geki because we have a struggling, working-class family. The families in his works from the 1950s (save perhaps Tokyo Twilight) are absolutely above the small family here. The struggles in later films are still that of the one here: trying to escape the feeling of being imprisoned by the conditions of society. Money and thus capitalism are always crucial barriers in Ozu’s world, but never has this been explicit than it is in this film.

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It’s Shuji’s class status that makes him resort to crime in the first place. The film’s ending might superficially suggest that “crime” (as it’s constructed in the eyes of the state) must still go punished, but that the state itself might be sensitive in such measures. To me, this is the most conservative and boring reading of the film. Shuji is not redeemed by submitting to the state because he has done nothing wrong. He’s taken money, sure, but the context is the well-being of his only child. Ozu’s suggestion is one that although the state prefers we become the heteronormative family, such a life is not conducive to the model of capitalism. The ideas that are seen to be so intertwined from a political perspective, our ones that are incompatible. Of course, the reality is society prefers the middle-class family that Ozu would depict in later films, but there he would also show that such institutions to still be oppressive, even if the subjects had money.

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This is why I think it’s important to stress the similarities between these early films and Ozu’s later and more beloved work. To me, he was always a filmmaker concerned with social problems, though I realize that such a statement can be read in a variety of ways. Ozu was always a critic at large, the fact that he’s challenging society doesn’t make his dramas less human or whatever. A film like That Night’s Wife isn’t populated with characters as rich and dense as those in his other films, but it does show that even from the start, he had a solid ideological foundation.

5





La collectionneuse (1967)

4 11 2013

Supposedly, this is a bit of a transition film for Rohmer. Perhaps it’s more of a geographic thing, though. This was the first time that he took himself away from the streets of Paris to a remote vacation spot. This is where most of his best films are set, and indeed, the characters here refer to themselves as “on vacation” much like the protagonist in later masterpieces like A Summer Tale or The Green Ray. With nothing happen to the characters in terms of events, we’re once again treated to a story involved in one’s neurosis. As he showed throughout his career, there is the idea here that love is complicated. Or maybe we’re just too dumb to care.

1

Adrien takes a vacation in the French Riviera. He hopes for a peaceful and quiet stay, and plans his days accordingly: he’ll get up early every morning to swim, he’ll keep to himself, go to bed early. His bedroom is a reflection of his almost ascetic nature: it’s entirely bare but for a bed and a window. He’s still bothered, most notably by the presence of Haydee and less so by the presence of Daniel. He and Daniel see themselves as intellectuals and they both position the younger Haydee as being a frivolous and far too loose girl. While Adrien reminds us frequently that Haydee is below him, he begins developing a crush in spite of his own words.

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Admittedly, I find a lot of what Rohmer is trying to say here is actually not all that profound or amazing. Yes, the wise men are actually bumbling fools who try to justify their assumed superiority over a less intelligent and more sexually active girl. This isn’t the most revolutionary statement on heterosexual relations. Men today, after all, still have a problem with a woman being sexually active. Rohmer paints this in a clever way, though. We never see Haydee’s “immoral behavior” except for when Adrien first meets her. Sure, a first impression being powerful isn’t something new, but it is a crucial decision on the filmmaker’s part. Because Adrien instinctually sees all women through their sexual potential. In Haydee’s case, Adrien has already seen this potential fulfilled as soon as he meets her. Sure, it’s not between them, but the fact that she’s so open about herself sexually is what makes him disinterested. At least, this is what he tells himself.

3

It’s sort of inevitable that Adrien falls for Haydee. Again, it’s Rohmer’s framing of this that makes such a predictable development work. Never does Adrien, despite having the benefit of a first person voiceover, mention anything about desiring Haydee in a serious way. Instead, he speaks of wanting to “have” her and referring to her feelings as a game. Since he assumes she’ll hop in bed with anyone, he makes the leap to also assume she’ll hop in bed with him. In his most revealing moment, he gently touches her leg and says “it’s wrong to caress a girl one dislikes.” For all his equivocating about Haydee’s “confusing” sexual expression, Adrien himself seems to be just as, if not more, unclear about his motivations. We see him aspire for tenderness with Haydee, but his dialogue seems to be written with the intention of disguising such feelings.

4

I feel like it’s necessary to explain that Adrien is just a villain. He’s frustrating, hypocritical, and nearly impossible to like. In finding him fascinating, I by no means want to insinuate that there’s something positive in his behavior. However, I still do find him interesting. He  sees himself isolated (if not above) society, as evidenced by the vacation he takes. His attitude towards Haydee’s lifestyle is still reflective of the society he claims to  have rejected. Adrien is not all that different from most of my peers. An intelligent and sensitive dude who, at the very same time, seems dubious and disinterested in the feelings of women, or at least Haydee in particular. He’d protest that it has nothing to do with her being woman, but when the root of his critique is founded in her sexual activity, it has everything to do with her being a woman.

5

In focusing on Adrien’s hypocrisy, I’ve overlooked other dynamics. Haydee is the perfect foil for him, but in a way, she fails to gain the depth of most of the other women I’ve seen in Rohmer’s films. It could be intentional, this film is about Adrien and his temptation. While she has her moments, the film’s prologue suggests that it’s not her movie. The audience is treated to three prologues introducing Haydee, Adrien, and Daniel. Haydee is photographed walking around the beach, with a jarring cut to her feet gently rubbing against pebbles in the water. It’s a male gaze scene if I’ve ever seen one, but it is intentional and crucial. It establishes the roles of the characters. Haydee is photographed as if Adrien, which is a fitting introduction for the film’s power lays in how Adrien frames Haydee. The attitude he brings towards the relationship is informed by this sequence. The camera limits itself to viewing Haydee’s sexuality, which is all Adrien  can see. The fact that this is the film’s most sensual scene is telling: her sexuality is a controlling image constructed by society.

6

A year following its release, most of La collectionneuse‘s staff were heavily involved in political activism. The events of May 1968 seem a world away from the lives of three or four bourgeois on vacation in the French Riviera. While their social status would mark their struggles as inconsequential and silly, it would be a mistake to characterize Rohmer’s film as apolitical. Here, Adrien has constructed an image of a woman, one made up of found pieces from the dominant discourse and his own heart. The two sources influence each other, of course, but Adrien’s misunderstanding of women is a political conceit. He is not unlike most men, which is what makes Rohmer’s portrait of him more piercing. Late in the film, he’s driving back to the resort with Haydee. The voiceover hints that something physical may happen between them. Then, they’re stopped by an oncoming car driven by a friend of Haydee. This friend is trying to get her to go with him. Meanwhile, Adrien is holding traffic up. Eventually, he gives up waiting for Haydee and drives off. The connection might be reductive but Adrien gives up on this relationship because of the pressures of society, which are embodied by the impatient drivers behind him. He convinces himself he’s made the right decision. He returns to a safer life. Perhaps Haydee could have liberated him, but isn’t it also sort of fucked up to put such an expectation on a person? It’s not that uncommon.

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