Three of Ozu’s most delightful silent films are collected in the three disc set from Eclipse, Criterion’s budget-minded, no-frills sister label. I review the films and survey a little of Ozu’s early career for Turner Classic Movies.
Tokyo Chorus (1931) opens with a scene of familiar college humor (students horsing around as a teacher eyes them and carefully marks out their demerits in his notepad) and segues into salaryman movie territory. Hapless college boy Shinji (played by Tokihiko Okada) is now a husband and father of three (including a very willful son) working for an insurance company and eagerly awaiting his bonus (the gags of adult men attempting to discreetly count their bonus money suggests they haven’t matured much since their college days). The father stands up to his boss over the unfair firing of an elder employee (Ozu regular Takeshi Sakamoto) and, after a childish game of tit-for-tat played with folded fans escalates into a comic scrap, joins the ranks of the unemployed (the “Tokyo Chorus” of the title).
Directing from a screenplay by Kogo Noda, who went on to write many of Ozu’s greatest films (including Tokyo Story, 1953, and Floating Weeds, 1959), Ozu fills the film with deft sight gags, many thanks to the antics of the son, yet there’s undercurrent of desperation to the comedy. As father struggles to find work to support his wife and children, and is forced to sell his wife’s kimonos to pay the doctor when their young daughter falls ill (the sick child is a classic dramatic crisis in Ozu’s silent films, invariably illustrated with the image of a bag of ice water suspended on the child’s forehead with a string). And when the wife sees Shinji marching the streets with an advertising banner, reduced to the lowest form of day labor, she’s first humiliated by his spectacle and then shamed by her attitude to his sacrifice for them. For all the comedy, the film is filled with tender and delicate moments in such seemingly simple scenes as a round-robin of patty-cake with the kids or sing-song at the teacher’s banquet. It’s still very traditional filmmaking compared to his later style, more Lubitsch than late Ozu, but you can see the director mastering his tools and finding his voice. In the words of Japanese film historian Donald Ritchie, “With this film, what Ozu called his “darker side” and what we would call his mature style began to emerge.”
Young father Shinji begins the film as something of a clown but matures along the way, learning to subsume the emotions and his impulses of his youth and join the adult world of duty and deference. There is no greater contrast to this sensibility than the children of Ozu’s films. They are forces of pure id: impulsive, obstinate, willful, at times downright rude to parents and often destructive when they don’t get their way, as when the young son throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get the bike he wanted. He makes a show of his indignation by poking holes through the paper walls and methodically eating the scraps.
The set also features I Was Born, But… (1932) and Passing Fancy (1933). You can the complete piece here.