In 2012, international critics voted Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 production Tokyo Story the best film ever made in the Sight and Sound poll. But decades before that film was made, Ozu was directing a series of short comedies, before graduating to a fascinating series of silent crime films at the start of the 1930s (sound cinema came late to Japan). These films are a fascinating example of the work of a director learning the ropes and cranking out commercial genre movies for a pre-war Japanese audience.
While Japanese crime cinema has a long and respected tradition, these early works are notable for not only being pioneering films within the genre, but for the influence of American cinema on them. It’s not just the crime movie tropes that are adopted here – the films seem to take place in a strange world that is neither Japan or America, as English language signposts and posters, American fashions and gangster movie references sit alongside traditional Japanese dress and locations. The resulting films tend to throw the viewer off – this is crime cinema, but not quite as we know it. Seeing a typically slick gangster next to a giant Buddha statue is somewhat incongruous – and deliberately so, as Ozu lifts from the US movies he loves and adapts them to his own world.
While Ozu had made a short crime comedy (A Straightforward Boy / Tokkan kozō) in 1929 (now partly lost), the first of the serious crime films is 1930s Walk Cheerfully (Hogaraka ni ayume). This is a fairly lightweight tale of petty criminal, Kenji the Knife (Minoru Takada), who is convinced to put aside his criminal ways and go straight by the demure Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki). But this proves easier said than done, as the criminal gang he used to lead does its best to suck him back in. The film offers a mix of drama and comedy, and is distinguished by some impressive visual ideas (when characters are lying, they tap their feet involuntarily). And the style sets the scene for all the subsequent films. The good girls in these movies wear traditional Japanese dress, while the bad girls – the gangster’s molls – look like western floozies. Ozu may have been fascinated by American culture, but he clearly didn’t approve of it entirely.
That Night’s Wife (Sono yo no tsuma) was Ozu’s next, and it’s probably the most interesting of his crime films of the period. It’s a curious mix of melodrama and crime, with Tokihiko Hashizume as the father of a dying child, forced to a life of crime in order to pay the medical bills needed to save the child. When a policeman (Togo Yamamoto) comes to arrest him, the man’s wife (Emiko Yagumo) is driven by desperation to take the detective hostage until the child is out of danger.
Taking place mostly in a single cramped room, the film ramps up the melodramatic angles, and in this film there are no real villains – just the desperate parents and the sympathetic cop who nevertheless has his job to do. It’s a slight but effective little story, with some nice visual flourishes thrown in and decent performances from the three leads.
While That Night’s Wife is an impressive work, Dragnet Girl (Hijosen no onna), from 1933, is probably the weakest of the bunch, effectively a mix of crime drama and love triangle, as westernised bad girl Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) finds herself overthrown in the affections of crime boss Joji (Joji Oka) by nice girl Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo). There are some nice moments here, but the film tends to plod somewhat, and none of the characters are well-developed enough for us to really care about what happens in this convoluted affair.
While none of these films can be really described as essential viewing in their own right, they do nevertheless offer a fascinating insight into both the early work of Ozu and the beginnings of the Japanese crime genre, and so are well worth seeking out.