The BFI have done wonders over the last few years in highlighting and promoting the work of Yasujirô Ozu to potential new viewers in the UK.  Their Ozu collection is gradually filling in the many gaps within his work available in Region 2 and he is now perhaps the most represented Japanese director in the Region 2 DVD market outside of Akira Kurosawa.  Ozu’s work has many traits that become typical when viewing large quantities of his work but the BFI’s recent Gangster Films collection showcase a side to the “great dethroner” that isn’t perhaps viewable in his later films.

Very much like the previously released Student Comedies collection, The Ozu Gangster films collection shows a director still experimenting and exploring the medium.  This can come as a great surprise at first, partly because his later films make the gangster genre seem like an impossibility for the director and partly because of the director’s increasingly strict but beautiful adherence to an idiosyncratic formalism.  However, the release’s title is somewhat misleading, if only fleetingly connecting the films contained within it.

Ozu’s slow and precise dismemberment of hope in his character’s worlds have long become a trademark, often inducing characters to submit to tradition at the sacrifice of relationship (usually parental).  The Gangster Films shows a number of pictures which indeed showcase characters that are put under pressure by the times.  This pressure occasionally manifests itself within a social context but is predominantly concerned with the survival of lover’s relationships.  This is what differentiates it from the films that first spring to mind when looking into the gangster genre.

In Walk Cheerfully (1930), an excellent Sternbergian expressionistic piece, Kenji (Minoru Takada) falls for Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki) but is gradually forced to choose between his relatively tame criminal life or his new found love.  Obviously indebted to American and European films, Ozu cannot help but twist the western narrative to his own ends, making a relationship choice the main focus rather than its gangster elements.  Whereas Cagney’s relationships would be defined by death or the squashing of grapefruit into the face of a lover, Ozu merely uses the American influence as a back drop to his own ends.

For those expecting a Japanese equivalent of The Public Enemy (1931) or Scarface (1983), the closest the box set offers is Dragnet Girl (1933); a film with a  femme-fetal-esque character (at least initially).  This is the most visually accomplished of the films and is bookended with a beautifully shot office montage where Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), the girlfriend of the gangster works.  Throughout all of the films, there is a sense of Americana coming to the fore.  This is never more so than in Dragnet Girl which puts explicit emphasis on the American film posters in the background and highlight the His Masters Voice’s dog on several occasions.  Tokiko begins to question her life when her gangster boyfriend begins to fall for another girl.  Full of pool halls, guns and even some violence, this is the most un-Ozu of films but is all the more interesting because of it.

That Night’s Wife (1930) again presents on obviously Ozu like take on the desperate measures that lead to a criminal life.  Shuji (Tokihiko Okada) is forced into a life of crime in order to pay for his daughter’s medical treatment but runs in to trouble when a local detective begins to investigate the goings on in his house.  That Night’s Wife is an extremely tense film, precluding the more awkward moments of Ozu’s later social dramas.  The fact that its gangster theme is born out of necessity rather than greed makes it feel far ahead of the time it is made but also softens the crime fuelled moments meaning it could equally have made it onto the Ozu Melodrama box set.

Along with these three films comes the surviving segment of A Straightforward Boy (1929) which looks extremely promising from this 13 minute reel.  A hapless kidnapper is run round in circles by the young boy he kidnaps and he seems unable to get rid of him.  What starts off as potentially dark theme, turns out to be quite hilarious and the sadness at learning the rest of it no longer exists is engulfing.

There are number of extras on the release.   Another extract of Tony Rayns’ 2010 lecture, Ozu: Emotion and Poetry is included which is extremely insightful; rather like having a personal explanation for each film.  A booklet of essays is also included which again boast of wealth of knowledge and information.  However, as with a number of recent silent releases, attention must be turned to the music which is rather more hit and miss.

Though it is obvious that marketing silent, Japanese film is not going to be the easiest of tasks, it seems a shame that the music is tying in this popular medium into something of a cultural curio; a commodity for those only after the experimental and trying rather than the entertaining.  Ed Hughes’ score for Dragnet Girl works wonders but it is the exception in a set of scores that is far too avant-garde to reflect the populist narratives on show.  This was a greater issue in the Student Comedies set which was marred entirely by dark, brooding music for films that were visually very funny.  Though the gangster films present an obviously more apt scenario for Hughes’ music, it still wallows too much in atonalism and negates the films to the simple curios for the completist and the cultural elitist.

This point aside though, the set is very strong indeed.  Any Ozu release is bound to be worthy of any film lovers time and money but one that shows a side to a director that is rarely seen is doubly so.  These may not be from the gangster worlds of Cagney, Chandler and Bogart but they are something of an undiscovered treasure that mix themes and ideas in search of a cinematic voice; one that would become possibly the best the medium would ever produce.

The Ozu Gangster Films box set is available now.

Adam Scovell

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