Cast & Crew
A young rebel faces unemployment with three children to feed.
Screenwriter Kogo Noda, who went on to write many of Ozu's greatest films (including Tokyo Story, 1953, and Floating Weeds, 1959), drew many of the situations of bittersweet family comedy and drama from the stories of author Komatsu Kitamura (who received credit for "Original Idea"), but the film opens with a scene right out of Ozu's earlier college comedies. Rambunctious students goof around during an exercise period as a teacher (Tatsuo Saito, in a droopy mustache and a hangdog expression) eyes them and carefully marks out their demerits in his notepad. The good-natured horseplay segues into the future: a modern office building and a staff of white collar employees, where hapless college boy Shinji (Tokihiko Okada) is now a husband and father of three working for an insurance company; though still impulsive and young, a bad decision lands him in the ranks of the unemployed (hence the "Tokyo Chorus" of the title). As his situation becomes more desperate, he reconnects with his old teacher, Omura. Though now reduced to passing out flyers in the street like a busker, this supportive elder faces his situation with optimism and reaches out to Shinji and his family.
For all the deft sight gags and comic situations--and there are plenty (including a comic symphony around the shenanigans of salarymen trying to count their bonus money away from prying eyes)--there is also an undercurrent of anxiety running through the film as Shinji struggles to find work in Japan's depressed economy. The shadow of Japan's hard times falls over Tokyo Chorus and the characters and Ozu isn't shy about putting the depressed conditions on screen. Yet Ozu meets it with hope and humor and fills the film with tender and delicate moments in such seemingly simple scenes as a round-robin of patty-cake with the kids or group sing-song at the teacher's banquet. And in contrast to the adults, the children remain impulsive, obstinate and at times destructive when they don't get their way, especially Shinji's young son, who defiantly pokes holes through the paper walls and methodically eats the scraps in a show of indignation. The father is forced to grow up but his son remains blissfully free of such responsibilities and Ozu celebrates his stubborn willfulness and bad behavior as a last moment of innocence as well as opportunities for comedy (his hilariously ingenious ploy for stealing a pill from his younger sister is worthy of Chaplin).
Tokyo Chorus is more traditional filmmaking than his later style but it's also compassionate and affirming, funny and heartwarming without tipping into sentimental melodrama. It is also sharply observant of the everyday world that this family lives in. As film historian and Ozu scholar Donald Ritchie observed, "With this film, what Ozu called his "darker side" and what we would call his mature style began to emerge." Tokyo Chorus shows us Ozu in command of his tools, honing his style and finding his voice.
Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Screenplay: Kôgo Noda (screenplay, adaptation & story); Komatsu Kitamura (adaptation & story)
Cinematography: Hideo Shigehara
Film Editing: Hideo Shigehara
Cast: Tokihiko Okada (Shinji Okajima), Emiko Yagumo (Tsuma Sugako (His wife)), Hideo Sugawara (Sono Chounan (First Son)), Hideko Takamine (Sono Choujo (First Daughter)), Tatsuo Saito (Omura Sensei (Teacher)), Chôko Iida (Sensei no tusma (Mrs. Omura)), Takeshi Sakamoto (Rou-Shain Yamada (Old employee)), Reikô Tani (Shachou (Company President)), Kenichi Miyajima (Hisho (Secretary)), Isamu Yamaguchi (Kaisha no Douryou (An Employee).
by Sean Axmaker
Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies on DVD from Eclipse
Perhaps his most beloved films of the silent era, and certainly his most enduring, are his lively family comedies. Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies, a collection released by Criterion's no-frills Eclipse label, features some of the director's richest and most delightful productions from the period.
Tokyo Chorus (1931) opens with a scene of familiar college humor (students horsing around as a teacher eyes them and carefully marks out their demerits in his notepad) and segues into salaryman movie territory. Hapless college boy Shinji (played by Tokihiko Okada) is now a husband and father of three (including a very willful son) working for an insurance company and eagerly awaiting his bonus (the gags of adult men attempting to discreetly count their bonus money suggests they haven't matured much since their college days). The father stands up to his boss over the unfair firing of an elder employee (Ozu regular Takeshi Sakamoto) and, after a childish game of tit-for-tat played with folded fans escalates into a comic scrap, joins the ranks of the unemployed (the "Tokyo Chorus" of the title).
Directing from a screenplay by Kogo Noda, who went on to write many of Ozu's greatest films (including Tokyo Story, 1953, and Floating Weeds, 1959), Ozu fills the film with deft sight gags, many thanks to the antics of the son, yet there's undercurrent of desperation to the comedy. As father struggles to find work to support his wife and children, and is forced to sell his wife's kimonos to pay the doctor when their young daughter falls ill (the sick child is a classic dramatic crisis in Ozu's silent films, invariably illustrated with the image of a bag of ice water suspended on the child's forehead with a string). And when the wife sees Shinji marching the streets with an advertising banner, reduced to the lowest form of day labor, she's first humiliated by his spectacle and then shamed by her attitude to his sacrifice for them. For all the comedy, the film is filled with tender and delicate moments in such seemingly simple scenes as a round-robin of patty-cake with the kids or sing-song at the teacher's banquet. It's still very traditional filmmaking compared to his later style, more Lubitsch than late Ozu, but you can see the director mastering his tools and finding his voice. In the words of Japanese film historian Donald Ritchie, "With this film, what Ozu called his "darker side" and what we would call his mature style began to emerge."
Young father Shinji begins the film as something of a clown but matures along the way, learning to subsume the emotions and his impulses of his youth and join the adult world of duty and deference. There is no greater contrast to this sensibility than the children of Ozu's films. They are forces of pure id: impulsive, obstinate, willful, at times downright rude to parents and often destructive when they don't get their way, as when the young son throws a tantrum when he doesn't get the bike he wanted. He makes a show of his indignation by poking holes through the paper walls and methodically eating the scraps.
In I Was Born, But... (1932), the portrait of self-absorbed childhood is even more comically egocentric and creatively crafty. This "picture book for grown-ups" (as the opening titles read) follows two young sons of salaryman Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito, the schoolteacher from Tokyo Chorus) as they move to a Tokyo suburb and a new school. These boys are truly little rascals, skipping school to avoid bullies, faking homework assignments to fool their parents, bribing a delivery boy to take care of the biggest bully on the block. Ozu's lively peek into the social dynamics of the juvenile world is full of private games hand gestures, taunting poses, comic faces that define the playful milieu of their social competition. When the brothers finally establish their dominance in the childhood pecking order, they are appalled to see their father submit to his boss (Takeshi Sakamoto again). "You tell us to become somebody, but you're nobody. Why do you have to bow so much to Taro's father?" they demand in an epic tantrum, and they finally staging a hunger strike to protest this unfair social order. (The hunger strike was reworked as a silent protest for a TV set in Ozu's 1959 Ohayo, aka Good Morning, not quite a remake but certainly a family comedy indebted to this film.)
Behind the deft comedy and spirited performances of the two boys is a rather somber engagement with the compromises adults make to the demands of the social order. Yoshi has no illusions of his place in the company hierarchy and dutifully kowtows to his boss and plays the clown in his home movies. But his attempts to explain the realities of the adult world to the boys leads to an introspective talk between husband and wife after the boys have fallen asleep. Their faces glow with innocence as father blesses them with the wish: "Don't become an apple polisher like me, boys." Perhaps that ambivalence over such compromises explains the parents' astonishing tolerance of the boys' brazen impertinence and bad behavior. "I started to make a film about children and ended up making a film about grownups," observed Ozu in a 1958 interview. I Was Born, But..., which Ozu developed from his own story, is a social satire of comic delights and melancholy resignation to the innocence lost as the boys face up to the compromises that await them. The film won first prize at the Kinema Jumpo awards the first of six such prizes he would eventually win and is regarded as Ozu's first genuine masterpiece.
Familiar Ozu character actor Takeshi Sakamoto takes the lead for the first time in Passing Fancy (1933), playing easy living single father Kihachi with a big, guileless grin. "I'm not as useless as people think," he claims with a smile, but his actions say otherwise, especially when he falls for a pretty young homeless woman (Nobuko Fushimi) who is attracted Kihachi's younger best friend, Jiro (Den Obinata). Tokkan Kozo, who played the younger brother in I Was Born, But..., is Kihachi's son Tomio, a kid who does more parenting than his father. A night, dad piggy-packs the boy home from the bar, and in the morning the boy is forced to become a human alarm clock to rouse Kihachi for work. His method is quite effective: a sharp blow to the shin with a club. The story takes a melodramatic turn in the third act when Tomio gets ill, thanks to an act of generosity gone wrong. "It's so horrible not having an education. I got my son sick and I can't pay for the doctor." Sakamoto went on to play variations of the same character in A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and An Inn at Tokyo (1935). The film's sentimental streak lacks the conviction Ozu brings to the other films in the set, but the street milieu of day laborers and working class men living paycheck to paycheck and drinking their evenings away in the local bar is fascinating. Like the other films of the set, it is utterly contemporary to the times, a stylized snapshot of working class life in 1933 Japan, and Ozu's details of their subsistence existence (not to mention little touches such as the eye-patch that Tomio wears in the opening scenes never explained but surely another example of Kihachi's benign negligence) creates a rich atmosphere.
A release of Eclipse, the budget-minded branch of Criterion, the discs come in separate thinpak cases in a paperboard sleeve. The sad truth about the state of film preservation in Japan is that most silent films were not well preserved and the existing prints are not in the best of condition. The master prints used for this set are of varying quality. Tokyo Chorus is the most scuffed and scratched, with splotchy frames (the result of chemical degradation) and seriously damaged sequences, but the image is always watchable and is generally steady throughout. Passing Fancy is much better, with minor scuffing and chemical splotching, but a couple of sequences look as if a blizzard has suddenly erupted on the screen. A few frames have been briefly held as still frames to cover damaged footage. I Was Born But... is the cleanest and brightest of the prints, with only minor scratching and image degradation. The framing is overly tight on top throughout, cutting off the tops of heads in some scenes.
There are no supplements on the no-frills discs apart from the piano accompaniment composed and performed by Donald Sosin His original scores match the mood of each film with bright, upbeat music (a little more restrained in I Was Born, But..., instilled with a torchy saloon-song lilt for Passing Fancy). There is an option to watch the films silent or with the score. The films feature the Japanese intertitles with optional English subtitles. The option also gives subtitle translations of some of the notes and signs in the film.
For more information about Silent Ozu - Three Family Comedies, visit Eclipse Films. To order Silent Ozu - Three Family Comedies, go to TCM Shopping
by Sean Axmaker