Passing Fancy aka Dekigokoro
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The world of Yasujiro Ozu's Passing Fancy (1933) is a far cry from the comfortable middle-class milieu of Ozu's later films, but the director evokes it with every bit as much affection and acutely observed detail. It is the first of four films that Ozu made featuring Takeshi Sakamoto as the character named Kihachi. The other films in the series include A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), An Innocent Maid (1935) and An Inn in Tokyo (1935). As played by Sakamoto, Kihachi is surely one of Ozu's most memorable creations. In Passing Fancy, the illiterate and semi-employed Kihachi lives in the working-class Fukugawa district of Tokyo and raises his son Tomio mostly on his own, though with some help by neighbors such as the local barber. In an interview Ozu recalled: "There used to be, in Fukugawa where I was born, lots of people like the Kihachi character, though they're rare now [...]. They owned one fundoshi [loincloth], dressed any which way, drank shochu." Another aspect of the film that indirectly reflects Ozu's experiences is the notion of a broken home; as the scholar Donald Richie points out, for much of Ozu's childhood and adolescence his father worked as a merchant in Tokyo while he stayed with his mother in the town of Matsuzaka.
Ozu's gift for defining characters with mundane gestures is very much in evidence during the opening scene of Passing Fancy. The camera tracks past a largely working-class audience attending a performance of naniwabushi, which consists of an actor singing a long narrative accompanied by a shamisen player. We first see Kihachi thoughtlessly but good-naturedly keeping time to the music by tapping a small board against his sleeping son's body. Comic business ensues when one audience member spies a purse lying on the ground. He picks it up, finds it empty, and tosses it aside, whereupon another person picks it up. When the purse lands near Kihachi he picks it up and peeks inside like everyone else, but afterwards he picks it up again and exchanges it for his own purse, which is smaller and more badly worn. Here and elsewhere in the film Kihachi also scratches himself almost constantly, the kind of expressive tic that Ozu often used to give characters individuality. Sakamoto worked with Ozu on at least 17 films, starting with Ozu's second feature Dreams of Youth (1928, now lost) up to Late Spring (1949).
The child actor Tomio Aoki (1923-2004) also contributes much to the film's poignant comedy. Here Aoki plays a young boy who is in some ways smarter and more perceptive than his father, but not always well-behaved. Aoki made at least 10 features with Ozu, starting with The Life of an Office Worker (1929, now lost) and including all four Kihachi films. Here the credits list him as "Tokkan Kozo," referring to the rambunctious persona that Aoki established in the 1929 film Tokkan Kozo/A Straightforward Boy (1929, survives as a fragment). (The film scholar David Bordwell explains that the name literally means "a boy who charges into you.") Given Aoki's disarming but hardly sentimental performances in Passing Fancy and I Was Born, But... (1932)--another of Ozu's great masterpieces from the silent era--it is easy to see why Ozu created so many roles for him.
Passing Fancy's visual style is slightly more relaxed compared to the rigorous formalization for which Ozu's postwar films are known. While the later films almost invariably use stationary camera setups, in Passing Fancy Ozu and his cinematographer Shojiro Sugimoto employ several lateral tracking shots, including the very opening shot mentioned above. Still, the film uses mostly static shots with low camera placement, as is typical for all of Ozu's later films. Ozu also punctuates scenes with what are often described as "pillow shots": carefully composed exterior shots which depict the surrounding environment and provide a brief pause in the narrative. Examples here include shots of a pair of large water tanks and lines of laundry hanging out to dry. Ultimately, Passing Fancy remains one of Ozu's funniest and most moving features. The Japanese film journal Kinema Junpo ranked it first in its annual poll, the second time Ozu had received first place; the first was Young Miss (1930).
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Story by "James Maki" (Ozu)
Script by Tadao Ikeda
Director of Photography: Shojiro Sugimoto
Art Director: Yoneichi Wakita
Film Editing: Kazuo Ishikawa
Cast: Takeshi Sakamoto (Kihachi), Nobuko Fushimi (Harue), Den Obinata (Jiro), Choko Iida (Otome), Tokkan Kozo/Tomio Aoki (Tomio), Reiko Tani (Barber), Chishu Ryu (Man on Boat).
by James Steffen
Richie, Donald. Ozu. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.
Bordwell, David. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. London: BFI, 1988.