The films are Yasujiro Ozu are being featured this month for Silent Movie Sundays on Turner Classic Movies. Tokyo Chorus played last week (the night I got back from my much-needed vacation off the grid) and I didn’t get around to posting a link my feature article on TCM then, but better late than never.
For all the deft sight gags and comic situations–and there are plenty (including a comic symphony around the shenanigans of salarymen trying to count their bonus money away from prying eyes)–there is also an undercurrent of anxiety running through the film as Shinji struggles to find work in Japan’s depressed economy. The shadow of Japan’s hard times falls over Tokyo Chorus and the characters and Ozu isn’t shy about putting the depressed conditions on screen. Yet Ozu meets it with hope and humor and fills the film with tender and delicate moments in such seemingly simple scenes as a round-robin of patty-cake with the kids or group sing-song at the teacher’s banquet. And in contrast to the adults, the children remain impulsive, obstinate and at times destructive when they don’t get their way, especially Shinji’s young son, who defiantly pokes holes through the paper walls and methodically eats the scraps in a show of indignation. The father is forced to grow up but his son remains blissfully free of such responsibilities and Ozu celebrates his stubborn willfulness and bad behavior as a last moment of innocence as well as opportunities for comedy (his hilariously ingenious ploy for stealing a pill from his younger sister is worthy of Chaplin).
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.”