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.
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.
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.
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.
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.