Following the release last year of a collection of Ozu’s ‘Student Comedies’ by the BFI, reviewed here, this week sees the release of another collection of early silent films from the Japanese master. This new set, titled ‘The Gangster Films’, includes three features, the remaining fragment of a feature and a lecture by Tony Rayns.
When viewed in retrospect Ozu’s filmmaking career appears to be one of gradual refinement, the removal of various elements of film language in order to get to a much more simplistic – simplistic being in no way a pejorative – form of filmmaking. It is therefore very interesting to watch these earlier efforts with his later work in mind.
All three features included in this set, Walk Cheerfully, That Night’s Wife and Dragnet Girl, are grouped under the banner of ‘Gangster Films’ but they are more just films that each have a criminal element. Those looking for something more akin to a Japanese take on the gangster films that Warner Brothers made in the thirties and forties should definitely look elsewhere.
Despite the somewhat dark subject matter, particularly the focus on criminality and the victims this results in, these films are generally still rather sentimental, focused on family or family like dramas and end on rather moral notes. Walk Cheerfully in particular is almost crushingly consumed with the morality of the characters and the implications of their actions, often to the detriment of the drama.
That Night’s Wife also focuses heavily on the implications of crime but the use of this as a central concern leads to far more tension than in either Walk Cheerfully or Dragnet Girl. At a brief 63 minutes That Night’s Wife is the shortest of the three features and the tension that bubbles beneath the surface throughout helps makes it by far the most entertaining of the films. Whilst That Night’s Wife mostly relies on surface level pleasures it is a rather enjoyable silent and also notable for the way in which Ozu edits the picture. Perhaps surprisingly the editing is reasonably fast paced and filled with plenty of continuous edits that are most unlike his later work.
The final film in the set, Dragnet Girl, is perhaps the most well known and highly regarded of the three and it’s reasonably easy to see why. Despite a rather complex plot, especially for Ozu, the film is filled with smart visual storytelling that leaves no doubt in one’s mind that Ozu already had a great understanding of film language, even if he was yet to find his own unique style. One of the most interesting moments in the film involves a group of people turning their heads in response to a sudden sound. The effect is extraordinary and it makes for a very amusing and well played moment of visual playfulness from Ozu.
There is a sense with Dragnet Girl, and to some degree the other features in this set, that Ozu has been heavily influenced by the West. This is most obvious in the posters we see for Hollywood films in the background of scenes but there are many other similarities in the style and subject matter. There is, of course, the case to made that some of these influences are ones that Japan was experiencing at the time – changes in fashion for instance – rather than influences specific to Ozu but the subject matter of the Dragnet Girl does seem hugely influenced by Hollywood gangster pictures and in particular Hollywood’s frequent return to the shadier side of the boxing world in its crime films. That said Dragnet Girl is not derivative but more a film in which Ozu wears his influences on his sleeve.
This new set from the BFI is another welcome release in an already expansive collection of Ozu on Blu-ray and DVD and well worth the purchase. It is not without issues though and unfortunately these did mar my experience somewhat. The biggest issue with the set is thankfully one that you have the option to disregard and that is the scores. The newly commissioned scores, by Ed Hughes, are well made but they often work so much at odds with the visuals that they distract greatly. They are also so filled with incessant climaxes and moments of highly strung drama throughout that they are liable to leave you with a case of nervous exhaustion. The BFI have included the option to watch the films without the scores though and watching them completely silent is certainly a far better experience.
There are issues with the transfers too, although these are mostly confined to the transfer of Dragnet Girl. The first two features have reasonably solid transfers that carry across some damage whilst clearly eliminating the more problematic elements, leaving only trace signs of digital manipulation. The tra nsfer of Dragnet Girl is incredibly soft though with a lot of detail missing, scrubbed away to such a degree that the image is often blurry. The disc is also plagued by what appears to be interlacing artifacts throughout. A disappointing transfer in what is otherwise a rather fine set.