Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Films of Yasujiro Ozu at Film Forum Part 2

Returning to the comedy genre, What Did the Lady Forget? (1937) is a departure from the melodramatic Ozu films immediately preceding it. Members of his marvelous repertory group are here: Choko Iida and Takeshi Sakamoto are reunited after An Inn in Tokyo (1935) as husband and wife (Iida makes an entrance in a lavish get-up that would make Stella Dallas blush); another Inn alum and Ozu's go-to child actor, Tomio Aoki, appears as the schoolmate of Masao Hayama, another Ozu favorite. Sumiko Kurishima, the first Japanese female movie star in her only film with Ozu, stars as the frigid Tokiko, a bespectacled wet blanket who reluctantly hosts her visiting niece, rambunctious Setsuko (played with relish by the ill-fated Michiko Kuwano). The young girl smokes, drinks, and takes a shine to visiting geisha houses, immediately connecting with her bemused uncle Okada over her conservative aunt. The couple's strained marriage is tested by Setsuko's presence, especially when Okada lies about a golfing trip so he can spend a day away from home with his protege, a plot development Ozu re-used with sexes reversed in his later Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952). Some of the funniest moments occur in the girl talk scenes between Tokiko and her girlfriends, loud Chiyoko (Iida can do no wrong in my book) and subdued Mitsuko; another comic gem occurs when a clueless tutor attempts to help Mitsuko's son with his arithmetic homework. The film, at 70 minutes, is one of few films that might make some viewers wish Ozu, known for spending a considerable amount of time with his characters, had . The third act feels rushed, atypical for the director, and the pat resolution has none of the satisfaction of his later marital problem films. All this said, this is lesser Ozu, but as such is possibly most likely to win over newcomers to the director's oeuvre. It is laugh-out-loud funny, beyond charming, and sorely in need of a region 1 DVD restoration.

The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941), released the same year Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, feels more influenced by Western films than most of Ozu's work, in particular Leo McCarey's brilliant Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). A later film, the French Summer Hours (2008), also borrowed a great deal from Ozu's story of family troubles initiated by the death of its patriarch. This is one of Ozu's most gripping family melodramas, opening with a family photograph being taken of the Toda clan before the father dies of a coronary hours later. With the father's death come the creditors, demanding their debts be paid, forcing the children to sell the lavish family estate and everything of value and casting Toda's widow (Ayako Katsuragi) and youngest daughter, Setsuko (Mieko Takamine), out on the street. The two women, oldest and youngest of the family, are moved from one sibling's home to another, never feeling welcome in any of their new surroundings and eventually choosing to retire to a secluded rundown villa still in the family's possession. This last act of desperation does not sit well with youngest son Shojiro (Shin Saburi), who figures into the film's completely satisfying finale. It's a wonder why this film has not been given the Criterion treatment in this country. Toda Family is certainly not lesser Ozu, and might stand as one of his most accomplished works, in both narration and style. In fact, as one of the director's most accessible works that still manages to include all of his polarizing trademark flourishes, it's a very good choice for Ozu 101. Some viewers may find it unusual and rather awkward that Shojiro emigrates to China, considering Japan's horrific invasion of the large Asian nation over the years of the war. But casting aside real world events in favor of immersing yourself in Ozu's engrossing tale is best. Saburi is marvelous as head strong Shojiro, and he would join the director's repertory cast, appearing in a number of his works over the years. Mitsuko Yoshikawa, so funny and winning in What Did the Lady Forget?, demonstrates her acting range by playing the icy class-conscious elder daughter to perfection. Michiko Kuwano, who also appeared in Forget as the mischievous Setsuko, similarly plays against type as the friendly lower-class friend of this film's Setsuko; this would be one of her last films before dying young from an ectopic pregnancy. It's a shame that both of her Ozu films are generally unavailable to American audiences.

The Munekata Sisters (1950) was produced by Toho Studios, the one time Ozu worked for the titans of Japanese film, and because it has remained in the Toho library, remains very difficult to see. It has been released on DVD in Japan, without subtitles, and a Spanish bootleg DVD, but that's about it. The studio allowed Film Forum to screen the film once over the course of the series, an 8pm screening on June 24, and needless to say the theater was packed with Ozu admirers anxious to see this obscure effort. While it's not Ozu's finest (in fact, some might argue it's his most commercial and Western feature), it does not deserve to languish away from the public eye as Toho seems to want. The news that her father has a mere year to live coincides with a crossroads in Setsuko Munekata's marriage to her alcoholic unemployed husband, Ryosuke. Setsuko's sister, Mariko, sneaks a peek at her sister's diary and learns that sis was once in love with old friend Hiroshi, and makes it her goal to reunite the two, coaxing her sister to pursue her own happiness and abandon her indifferent and often abusive husband. The reason why Munekata Sisters doesn't completely work is the fact that it is based on a then-popular novel, so the studio and its audience had built-in expectations for the film. Ozu injects his personal style into the project, and visually it is an Ozu film. Thematically, however, it comes up short and does not gel with the other films he was making around the same time (Late Spring, Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, Early Summer). The film is aided by the superb central performances by Kinuyo Tanaka and Hideko Takamine as Setsuko and Mariko, respectively. Takamine is a sprightly comic presence, afforded many lovely funny moments but also appropriately moving in dramatic scenes. Tanaka at first gives us very little to work with in her characterization of Setsuko, but as the film progresses and we learn how trapped she is in her marriage, how duty drives her daily life, how she is deserving of the happiness constantly denied her, the pain in her performance becomes almost unbearable. The final confrontation between husband and wife is a stunner, and audibly upset many Film Forum audience members. Takamine had worked with Ozu in his silent film Tokyo Chorus (1931), but sadly would not work again with the director. Tanaka was a favorite of another Ozu contemporary, the great Kenji Mizoguchi, and also appeared in a number of earlier Ozu features. She would later star in Equinox Flower (1958) for him. Ozu regular Chishu Ryu is inadequately used as the Munekata patriarch, and another Ozu favorite, Tatsuo Saito, is the doctor who delivers the bad news to Setsuko in the opening sequence.

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