Long perceived as little more than stylistic curios, Yasujirô Ozu’s pre-war gangster pictures are revealed by this new BFI set as three of the most vital works he produced at Shōchiku – not only for their dynamic camerawork and bruising violence, but also for the fact that, at their time of shooting, the gangster genre didn’t yet belong to Japan. As Tony Rayns notes in his introductory essay ‘Tokyo Noir‘, “Japan never had a Volstead act, never submitted to Prohibition, and so the country never produced an Al Capone.” And indeed, the socio-economic climate of 1920s Japan could never have birthed such a figure, so Ozu looked to Hollywood and von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927) for inspiration.
Ozu was completely smitten with American culture, and particularly its cinema, so in this trilogy of crime we witness the backstreets, gutters, jazz clubs, diners and pool halls of L.A. re-appropriated for Tokyo. But look closer and you’ll find influences reaching far outside of Hollywood. There are shots in Walk Cheerfully (1930), for example, to suggest that Ozu had seen Eisenstein’s Stachka (1924), and slinky mob moll Chieko’s (Satoko Date) hairstyle is too evocative of Louise Brooks’ iconic bob to have not been an inspiration (we only need look at the lighting to learn how many oceans expressionism had now crossed). Pre-code crime films had played Japanese multiplexes in Ozu’s student comedy days, and there’s no doubt that they, plus the pulpy thrillers imported to Shin Seinen magazine, helped shape the style he perfected in 1933’s Dragnet Girl (which absorbed influence from Little Caesar and Scarface, big hits in Japan in 1931 and 1932), and much of these films’ contemporary appeal is scanning for visual clues as to whose work Ozu had been consuming at the time.
With that in mind, do they survive now as anything more than kitsch trinkets? It’s easy to understand why national audiences found them so appealing – by the early 1930s US pop culture had infiltrated Japan so completely that for filmgoers to suddenly have the heroes of their favourite thrillers look and talk like Japanese must have been extraordinary. Now their fascination lies in a retrospective privilidge afforded critics by time – a view of Ozu’s entire canon, and an understanding of his concerns as an auteur. Thankfully the films do boast much else worth shouting about, not least their gorgeous femme fatales (Shōchiku was the first Japanese studio to have a star system) and two-bit ruffians.
That Night’s Wife (1930) feels more like moral drama compared with the similarly-plotted Walk Cheerfully and Dragnet Girl, but the three films share a singular aesthetic, with Ozu employing recurring visual motifs (feet, clocks, hats) and making effective use of ‘suspense angles’, cross-cutting, quick-pans and tracking shots, a visual fabrication atypical of his later ‘transcendental‘ style (perfected in the shōshimin-eiga films), but skillfully adopted for these westernized crime stories. Still, the auteur resides here in nascent form. Consider the opening sequence of Walk Cheerfully, a quick-cut chase across the Tokyo docks set off by a fluid, backpedalling tracking shot – it’s an almost unthinkable motion from Ozu, yet we can still locate him in the scene: the entire chase is shot in daylight, in stark contrast to genre convention.
Perhaps what fascinates most about these pictures is the way we can observe Ozu mapping out his own thematic and aesthetic concerns through an inherited genre with its own set of tropes. He translates not only the narrative framework and loose editing rhythm of early American films, but also their visual shorthand – for example, masculinity is represented by boxing, and smoking is a social activity used to gather groups of characters and denote illegitimate dealings. Likewise, the tight framing and perpetual diegetic motion are native to US cinema, and contribute to a very ‘non-Japanese’ feeling, but we can still locate Ozu in the recurring theme of tradition and values – in a further overlap, perhaps we can debt this to an adopted genre trope, the code of honour inherent to these gangster characters.
In his book ‘Ozu And The Poetics of Cinema‘, David Bordwell notes Ozu’s regard for exact compositional framing and blocking of actors, whose lines of sight would always match in the edit. Here his sense of geographical and temporal space is highly developed, as is his use of subjective and objective camerawork (consider the lovely character moment in Walk Cheerfully which finds mobsters Kenji and Senko shot from behind, the former running a glove tensely through his hands, the other idly scratching his ass).
So perhaps, decades before New Wave films like Youth Of The Beast (1963) and A Colt Is My Passport (1967), the gangster genre did indeed belong to Japan, and these primitive, if exciting examples provided a conduit for Ozu’s budding authorial vision, best evidenced in the beautiful closing shot of Walk Cheerfully, pegs blowing gently in the wind…
Ozu: The Gangster Films is available now from the BFI…