Old school modernity with Ozu Yasujirō.
Horino Tetsuo, Taichiro Saiki, Kumada, and Shimazaki are college boys. Tetsuo, Shimazaki, and Kumada are part of a male cheerleading squad called the Group of Defenders. Way to make your cheerleading squad sound like a military squad, 1930s Japan. Saiki spends much of his time with his nose is in his schoolbooks. And, just like anyone who texts while walking, he walks right into one of the faculty members…and doesn’t seem to notice. He then walks into some package owned by a girl named Shigeko. She jokes about how he is studying so hard despite not being a great student and then she asks why he is not part of the Group of Defenders like his friends. He says that he is the only support for his mother and, thus, cannot be distracted.
When the Group of Defenders are done performing, they say hi to Shigeko and Saiki. Tetsuo, Kumada, and Shigeko leave and then Shimazaki tells Saiki that Tetsuo has invited him to eat at the Blue Hawaii Bakery, where Shigeko works. It is unclear why Tetsuo did not invite him personally before leaving a few seconds ago, but that is how it is. So, they get to the…bakery. While Shigeko is pouring drinks for them, Tetsuo and Kumada are playing a game (I am not sure what it is: it could be Chinese Chess, but the pieces look weird) and Saiki is still reading his book. Shigeko comes over with the drinks and notices a loose string in Tetsuo’s shirt. She pulls at it and accidentally makes a hole in his sleeve. She tries to fix it and Shimazaki comments that Tetsuo lives in luxury.
Kumada makes a hole in his own sleeve in hopes that Shigeko might fix it and she cracks a joke about a guy as big as him looking tough with a ripped shirt. Because he is pudgy. Everyone laughs except for Kumada, but he continues to play the game with Tetsuo. In fact, they continue to play it when the bell ringer calls everyone back to class. They walk to class while holding the board and moving the pieces. The bell ringer tries to get them to go faster, but then he himself gets wrapped up in their game, following them into their classroom. The bell ringer tries to sneak out of the classroom when the professor comes in. Tetsuo and Kumada do not notice the professor at all until he walks up to them and scolds them for continuing to play the game. The bell ringer, now outside, accidentally rings the bell, so all of the students leave class early.
Tetsuo returns home to find that there are guests. He mentions this to his father, the eccentric (or just drunk) director of the Horino Company. Apparently, the guests are the Yamamura family, and they would not leave until they have discussed marriage between their daughter and Tetsuo. Tetsuo has absolutely not intention of marrying this “modern” woman, and conspires with his father to sabotage the marriage arrangements. So Tetsuo’s father meets with the mother and daughter (who is smoking indoors) and warns them that Tetsuo is drunk, could become violent, and might steal things. Uh…The mother is rightly concerned, but her “modern” daughter seems to invite the adventure of this…saying things that one could really find disturbing even without taking into account what Japan was up to in the 1930s. It is a different matter, however, when Tetsuo comes out, starts acting insulting, and messes up her stuff. The Yamamuras leave and Tetsuo declares victory. His uncle Akasaka, who has been trying to set him up with potential wives, is extremely upset that all of his hard work has gone to waste thanks to his ungrateful nephew and gleefully apathetic brother.
The next day is test day. Tetsuo and his friends are cheating. And not so subtly either. The professor notices them cheating, but refrains from throwing them out for whatever reason. In any case, the bell ringer comes in and asks for Tetsuo. His father is dying. The professor says that he can go home and take the next exam. There are several cars outside of Testuo’s house when he arrives, with a large group of men in one of the rooms as Tetsuo’s father lies dying in another. Tetsuo runs to him and holds his hand as he finally dies. The movie had been pretty funny up to this point. And while there are still comedic parts, more drama starts to creep in.
Tetsuo leaves the University and is made the director of the Horino Company. The first official presentation does not go very well, as it takes 90 minutes for Uncle Akasaka, the deputy director, to arrive and introduce Tetsuo. The employees pretend to pay attention, but the men are yawning. Tetsuo yawns too, making the female employees giggle. He finally gets up to make a speech…which is just a single sentence, promising to continue his father’s legacy…and that’s it; everyone goes back to work There is no explanation as to why they had to wait ninety minutes for that. Well, of course, business is the explanation.
In Tetsuo’s new office, Uncle Akasaka tells him that he needs to act more like a grown up, to have more decorum, and be more imposing. His first venture into the employee area is less than imposing. He seems to ignore all of the bowing, instead shaking hands, patting backs, rubbing heads, rubs the heads of the couple of kids, and acting playful with the women. Akasaka gives him a dirty look, so they return to his office.
The movie then skips to a year later. Tetsuo looks all professional in his suit. His three friends show up; Shimazaki and Kumada in some unimpressive kimonos and Saiki in what looks like his college uniform. They have come to Tetsuo to ask for work, Shimazaki says that other companies dislike them because they are too good for other companies. Tetsuo smiles, saying that he knows why other companies dislike them. Shimizaki and Kumada get close to him and continue to pester him while Saiki keeps his distance with his hands in his pockets. He asks whether there is a corner for them. Tetsuo grins…there might be.
This was my first movie from legendary director Yasujirō Ozu, and is one of the earliest movies of his that is still around and intact. It is a small film compared to a few others by him, being cheap quick and cheap cash-in to finance another more ambitious film that is, unfortunately, lost. Still, I found it to be a fine introduction to his work. Just in case you were wondering, yes, this is a silent film. And it is literally silent. There is no audio whatsoever. There had been a few Japanese sound films made during this time, but it took a few more years for them to catch on. Theaters would provide their own musical accompaniment as well as people reading the text aloud. Still, the actual content of the film is all there. And despite being made over eighty years ago, several things still hold true. The comedic parts are still funny and the dramatic parts still hold weight. But there are also themes that are relevant, even if presented in a way that I had personally not seen before.
There are two major themes that I picked up on. The first is one of modernity and tradition. The movie seems somewhat skeptical about modernity, not out of fear for the future, but because of doubts over sincerity. The most overt commentary about modernity is the modern woman arranged to be Tetsuo’s wife. Nevermind her taking part in an arranged marriage in the first place in contrast to Tetsuo, her idea of modernity seems to be more along the lines of shocking her mother instead of standing up for herself. It is only when faced with the “reality” of what she is willing to put up with as a modern woman that she backs down, angered and humiliated.
The second theme is one of class. In school, the students (well, male students at least) appear to be treated as equals. It is, however, illusory. Tetsuo goofs off with Kumada and Shimazaki because he has no worries. Saiki, by contrast, is always studying because he cannot afford to fall behind any further in class. He does not cheat because he is too lazy to study; he cheats because he has to get ahead no matter what. Tetsuo may think of Saiki as a friend, but they are always at a distance. Maybe Tetsuo does not notice this or does not believe it to be be all that important. He does not seem to notice or mind that Kumada and Shimazaki are hangers on as well as friends. He either does not realize his privilege or just brushes it off as nothing.
The death of Tetsuo’s father effectively separates him from his friends, highlighting the chasm between him and them. He does not graduate from college, but he does not have to, as he is automatically made director of his late father’s company. His friends, however, are left to their own devices until they come to him and ask for jobs. And while Tetsuo may try to remain the playful scamp, people start to treat him differently, including his friends. Perhaps he has more power and prestige, but there are also more doors that become closed to him. Because of his power, people cannot be as honest with him as he would like them to be out of fear of the possible consequences. It is said that money cannot buy happiness; maybe this is a reason.
As time goes on, the realities of society, adulthood, family and responsibility catch up to the characters. Certainty slowly fades from their behavior. It is not so much that they embrace the status quo so much as they become resigned to it co-opting them. They used to be aloof in regards to the system, but now their best hope is to carve a place out for themselves within it as best that they can. The world changes them more than they change the world. Many Japanese movies express nostalgia for youth or a time that was obviously not to last. This movie does that while also showing reasons why it does not last.
Some things change a lot; some not so much. This little bittersweet film provides a snapshot of a carefree time that was already on its way out thanks to JAPAN INVADING MANCHURIA during the months before this movie was released. Seriously, Japan; what were you thinking? Buncha dolts. The time would eventually return in some form or another for a future generation. I would check out this movie before that time truly is lost.
WTF ASIA 62: Sparrow (Hong Kong: 2008, approx. 87 minutes)
WTF ASIA 63: A Brand New Life (South Korea: 2009, approx. 93 minutes)