Tuesday, October 4, 2011

202. Ozu Film #8: Days of Youth (1929)

*8. Gakusei romansu: Wakaki hi (Days of Youth) (4/13/29) (103 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]

The first surviving film and what a precious jewel it is! Here is a peek at the 25-year-old director who would eventually make so many great masterpieces. Not quite yet, however. Here, he seems to be content with cloning the type of pictures his mentor Okubo had been churning out -- mindless comedies with as much spark and spirit as Ozu could put into it. There are, however, many telltale signs; predictors of Ozu's unique way of thinking regarding the making of a commercial film.

Two college students room together and prepare for a ski trip following final exams. They both fall for the same girl, but she is not interested in either of them; she's about to become engaged to the ski instructor. On the train back to Tokyo they commiserate about lost love, then find out that they've flunked. The friends try to maintain a positive attitude and look forward to the future.

  • There is no recorded score for the film on this DVD. As you watch it, try to imagine the live music, and of course the benshi, who literally brought the film to life for the contemporary audience.
  • The Japanese title cards have excellent English translations.
  • The film opens with an awesome slow 180° pan showing the city of Tokyo. All of the usual Hollywood techniques from this era are on display throughout the film -- pans, fades, even a dissolving double-exposure at one point. The cutting is typical and the picture is filled with sight gags which were probably at least mildly amusing at the time.
  • All of this will disappear in Ozu's mature work. The camera will remain fixed at his famous "tatami-mat" level (supposedly at eye level while sitting on tatami -- but in reality, Ozu often brought the camera much lower -- just a few inches off the floor). Nearly without exception, he will use only the 50mm lens; no filmic punctuation whatsoever except the straight cut, and complete disregard of the 180° rule in favor of direct, straight-on shots of each character separated only by straight cuts. But in 1929, we can see the influence of American filmmakers, particularly Ernst Lubitsch.
  • After the first part of the opening pan, Ozu does a quick zoom-in (!) on the first title card -- "Near a University, Tokyo." The pan then continues past a soccer field and over the rooftops of houses. A cut and the pan resumes, closer to the structures. The camera finally comes to rest on a sign taped to the shoji -- "Room Upstairs to Rent."
  • The actors are terrific. Bin Watanabe (Yuki Ichirô) an imp of a college student lives in the upstairs room. His scam is waiting until a pretty girl answers the ad. After rejecting a man then a dowdy young woman, we meet Chieko (Junko Matsui) who agrees to take the room.
  • Ozu's sets show more and more details; here we see a poster on the wall for the hit Frank Borzage film "7th Heaven" [1927], which won the very first Best Director Academy Award.)
  • Out on the street, she runs into Shuichi Yamamoto (Saitô Tatsuo), a Harold Lloyd look-alike here. (In a few years, he will go on to play the father in Ozu's first big success, "I Was Born But...")
"Have you knitted the socks for me?" he asks her.
  • With this one title card, Ozu avoids a lengthy and completely unnecessary exposition. We now know that they are friends.
  • The film weaves gag after gag into the flimsy plot:
    • Yamamoto props his left hand up against a pole; a sign attached reads "Wet Paint." The gag continues as he gets paint on his teacup and then his face, she laughs and Ozu fades to black.
  • The next day the rickshaw boy is busily loading Watanabe's stuff.
    • This is where we see the beautiful dissolve/double-exposure that I mentioned above.

Watanabe quickly overcomeds Yamamoto's objections and becomes his roommate.

  • More gags. Watanabe spots an alarm clock (right next to a tin of Libby's California Asparagus) and hassles the sleeping Yamamoto with the usual alarm-clock gags until he wakes up. Watanabe quickly overcomes Yamamoto's token resistance and they are roommates.
  • Watanabe makes himself at home -- he picks up the Libby's California Asparagus and begins to plop the long stalks into his mouth."Someday your kindness will be repaid." Yamamoto snatches away the canned asapargus as the rickshaw boy arrives with the many bags.
  • Extremely naturalistic acting with very few title cards ... Chieko is sewing socks (a nice macguffin).
  • One of the cutest gags in the film: She is trying to ignore him and goes back to her reading. He toys with the little figurines on her desk, twisting one of them (a male) into a position with four-on-the-floor, back arched up high and bug-eyed face looking right at Chieko. She laughs slightly. He looks uncomfortable. He'll try something else. The next time she looks up from her book, he is tickling the figurine's behind with his fingers. She laughs a little longer this time. He breaks a figurine.
  • Finally, he sees the socks. "May I have these?" She nods in the negative, but Watanabe pushes on -- chutzpah on full display -- and tries them on. He stomps up and down like a delighted three-year-old, and breaks yet another figurine.
  • There is some extremely fast cutting here -- the first several cuts are about one second each. First an ECU on the broken figurine on the floor. Medium on Watanabe, looking from side to side. The pair of skis resting against the wall, which fall over. Back on Watanabe and then back on the ECU of the broken figurine.The cuts then lengthen just a bit -- on her, then him; a title card ("Do you ski?" he asks her) and then back to the original medium master shot (he is standing she is sitting).
  • Here we get a preview of some iconic images which run like a river through all the films of Ozu: telephone poles, factory smokestacks, a wind vane. The boys are looking at the objects trying to predict the weather. Watanabe: "It'll snow." Ozu will parallel this scene at the very end (a device used nearly continuously from here on).
  • Watanabe throws his textbook into the air and holds it open to the page where it randomly landed. "This will be on the exam," he tells Yamamoto, who believes him and writes it all down on his shirt cuff. Cut to bell, students pour out of building.
  • Notice the elision -- we see nothing of the actual taking of the exams, only the aftermath -- much like the weddings, etc. in the later films.
  • A student is caught cheating. Watanabe tries to visit Chieko, but she's already gone skiing. Yamamoto is on a streetcar, but lost his purse. Nice shot of POV from the streetcar, leaving Yamamoto behind. FTB.
  • Back home, Watanabe looks at his 7th Heaven poster and gets an idea. He gathers up some books and a trophy. Brief hesitation, and he returns the trophy to the shelf. As he descends the stairs, Ozu shoots a CU on his feet, which have stopped -- and he returns to get the trophy.
  • The big reveal is that "7th Heaven" is the name of a pawn shop. Now they have money. A shot of a magazine, "Skiing News." A train schedule. POV front train car, looking forward at the tracks and surrounding view -- coming out of a tunnel. "Two more lunch boxes were sold that night."
  • Watanabe writes possible exam scores on the dirty train window. He discovers the socks that Chieko has knitted for Yamamoto. Watanabe has a pipe. (From here on, almost all the students will be smoking pipes!)
  • They arrive at the ski resort (Taguchi). The remainder of the film -- before a short coda on the train -- takes place on the slopes.
  • The lettering on the back of Yamamoto's jacket reads: "Smack Front Only."
  • "How many more electric poles?" Yamamoto asks. Watanabe: "136 more." Some landscape pans, dissolves. An intertitle: "At the 130th electric pole." (Watanabe was pretty close!)
  • Yamamoto is not a good skier and is constantly falling down.
  • Watanabe is constantly knocking Chieko down.
  • Ozu inserts a wonderful sideways POV during one fall.
  • Indoors, Watanabe and Yamamoto huddle under blankets. Two other students enter (one of them is Chishu Ryu, the most important actor in Ozu's later films) and discuss exam grades.
  • Watch carefully as Watanabe tries to undo Yamamoto's ski bindings with the tip of his pole.
  • He then leaves him planted in the snow as he races to catch Chieko. Yamamoto repeatedly tries to get up.
  • Another wonderful tilted camera again, as he watches the people rushing by on a 90° tilt.
  • Lovely scene of making tea in the snow.
  • Note the lovely match-dissolve (watch the English lettering on the box of sugar cubes).
  • Watanabe surreptitiously gives one of Yamamoto's skis a push down the slope.
  • Note the naturalistic cutting -- Ozu allows Yamamoto (and the audience) a bit of time to realize his ski is gone. After Watanabe releases the ski, cut to a CU of the ski sliding down the slope. Cut to Watanabe, impish. Cut to Chieko and Yamamoto; he's handing her something to eat. Cut back to Watanabe, motioning and pointing towards the disappearing ski. Quick cut on Chieko and Yamamoto -- he looks at the ski -- cut back to the ski, quickly moving away. Cut back to Chieko and Yamamoto -- she is mildly amused; he starts to run after his ski. Watanabe is also laughing.
  • Finally, the ski stops, but just as he approachs it, it continues to move (very fake looking; bad early Chaplinesque).
  • The students drink, sing and dance. First Yamamoto, then Watanabe join in. "Dance to the rhythm of floor sound."
  • Nice little details: Beer bottles knocked over. Watanabe is fondling those socks.
  • [music]: "Stop crying. We'll meet again someday."
  • A nice transition of related smoke -- Watanabe puffs on his pipe; stokes the fire -- the camera moves up to show a tea kettle with steam rising and finally a cut to the steam pipes rising from "Hutte Arlberg."
  • The next day it is snowing heavily. The group of guys and Chieko are perfectly framed by two trees (early Ozu poetry!) ... Yamamoto and Watanabe have come to say goodbye. Watanabe leaves first and skis away easily.
  • Yamamoto, of course, falls immediately and then again (Ozu reuses the 90° tilted POV shot).
  • With the girl no longer between them, the boys are friends again. Watanabe takes Yamamoto's pack from him. The boys trudge away on their skis. FTB. Watanabe takes the fruit which Chieko gave them and puts them in one of the socks and drops it out the train window. Watanabe predicts a 40 on the exam, and writes the number on the window.

Suddenly, they see "Badger" (the professor) and eventually discover that the grade is 37, probably failing.

  • Badger: "You'd better study, too." They return to their seats. Watanabe writes a 37 on the window.
  • "In Tokyo, the west wind has blown steadily since morning." Again we see the telephone lines; smokestacks, etc. Yamamoto is looking out the window-- Watanabe motions for him to close it."Smile, I'll find you a better one." Watanabe makes a new sign. He seems to be explaining his "scam" to Yamamoto. Two friends talk. Exterior, on the sign.
  • Begin the same pan from the beginning (except in reverse -- left to right here). FTB. The End.

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