Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Hardboiled Ozu: DRAGNET GIRL (1933)

For half the 1930s Yasujiro Ozu was reluctant to switch from silent film to talkies. It's hard to see why, since sound made Ozu. It made him into the director idolized globally for his preference for humane conversation over purely visual spectacle. His reluctance to switch -- Japan had been making talkies since 1931 -- is especially strange given how often characters in his films talk about the importance of talking. Even in Dragnet Girl, a self-indulgent spectacle by his later standard, the film's good girl chastises her aspiring-hoodlum brother for not spending more time talking to her. "When was the last time we had a nice chat?" she laments. Maybe this film finds its director at a point of uncertainty where he's questioning his own practices. That'd make sense in a film that is, to say the least, ambivalent about the influence of western popular culture, of which movies are obviously a part, on Japanese civilization.

Here is a Japanese picture in which the criminals appear not to be yakuza but American-style gangsters whose favorite martial art isn't karate but boxing. These are "crooks," as American silents would call gangsters whose primary activity seems to be robbery, and the type of men (and women) who carry guns while the police carry swords. Americans themselves were worried about such people, and often saw them as foreign implants, meaning by that Irish or Italian. Above all, Ozu sees them as western. The signage at the Toa Boxing Club and at the pool hall where the hoods hang out is all conspicuously in English. Since in many ways the director is already the Ozu many love and others loathe, he's fascinated by the decor and bric-a-brac. Nipper the RCA dog dominates scenes set in a record store almost to the point of product placement. Often Ozu gives us close-ups of objects. More unexpectedly, if you're used to later Ozu, he gives us smooth tracking shots of the front rank of a jazz band playing in a dance hall, or secretaries pounding on typewriters, or even a row of hats on hooks, just as one is falling off. Some of this may not be style as much as showing-off in imitation of F. W. Murnau and all the Hollywood filmmakers influenced by him in the late 1920s. But there's also style that would stick with Ozu all his career. It's not just the montages of objects but also the way he stages shots, not just in early versions of his typical T-grid -- characters moving toward or away from the camera with a perpendicular plane of action in the background -- but also the layers of windows and objects and words on posters that make some shots reminiscent of Picasso's or Braque's collages. Dragnet Girl may be a self-conscious genre piece but it's also still a work of art in many ways.

Pick on a helpless plastic dog, will you? Where I live in Albany NY we have a Nipper it'd take Godzilla to punch that way.

Ozu's gangster film more closely resembles the silent Hollywood gangster films of a few years earlier than contemporary talking crime films. By Pre-Code standards the story might well seem sappy. To be brief, it tells how that good girl's effort to save her brother from a life of crime ends up saving two seeming hardened criminals as well. The girl is Kazuko (Sumiko Mizikubo), the clerk at the record store. Her brother is Hiroshi (Koji Mitsui), who idolizes Joji (Joji Oka) as both a boxer and a gangster. Joji's moll is Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who works one of those typewriters when her boss isn't trying to hit on her. Just as Joji agrees to accept Hiroshi into his little gang, Kazuko appeals to Joji to send Hiroshi away and let him (or order him to) go straight. To his own apparent surprise, Joji agrees, punctuating his decision with a sock to Hiroshi's jaw. For a while Joji seems interested in Kazuko, hanging out at her store and sampling the records. Word of this gets to Tokiko, who borrows Joji's gun for a confrontation with the good girl. Ozu pointedly emphasizes their different dress -- Kazuko's traditional footwear and Tokiko's overall sleek chic -- as they walk to a point where Tokiko turns and points the gun at Kazuko. To her own surprise, and probably even more to the audience's surprise, even Tokiko is moved by Kazuko's courage and goodness. Rather than eliminate a potential rival, she now hopes to emulate her, vowing to go straight and take Joji with her.

"I'm very extravagant." Japanese cinematic legend Kinuyo Tanaka in Dragnet Girl

Tokiko is one confused dame. She finally convinces Joji that they should quit the big city, but not until they do one more robbery, mainly so they can give something to the struggling Kazuko and Hiroshi. Her criminal spirit seems to surge once more when she gleefully pulls a gun on her obnoxious boss, but no sooner have she and Joji made their exit that she starts thinking that they ought to turn themselves in. That way they can have a real fresh start after they pay their debts to society. Hollywood had this same idea a lot of the time and it's hokey wherever it plays out. To his credit, Ozu plays it out to an extreme. Joji's having none of this idea at first, and their arguing nearly gets them caught when the cops raid their apartment. After an escape via the window ledge, Joji would rather split up than surrender with her. Tokiko's answer to this is to shoot him in the leg. After that, he may as well give up, and in symbolism Hollywood would love the cops cuff our antiheroes together, even if they'll be spending the next few months? -- years? -- apart.

Like many an American film of the period, Dragnet Girl is dumb fun enlivened by a sense of style. It sort of reinforces your respect for what Ozu would become when you see that he could do all the tricks he later denied himself back when he felt like it. Beyond style, there's a playfulness here that we'd get less of later. There's some self-consciousness of this being a silent film, and a clever "who needs sound?" argument in a scene where tensions build up to a fight between Joji and three men. Just as the action's about to start, Ozu cuts away to different groups of people lounging around the club. Suddenly they start; they're responding to something and we know exactly what it is. By the time they get to where the action is the action's over and Joji casually dusts himself off. At first I thought it might be an Ozu thing that he doesn't show the fight, but he does give us a little bit of a later pool-hall tussle, though he makes a point of putting a crowd in our way before it's done. For a film that implicitly decries corrupting western influences Dragnet Girl is rather derivative of Hollywood product, but to be fair Ozu never directly denounces the west. That'd be too much of a downer for a film meant above all to entertain. In time Ozu would march to his own beat, but here he's practically in the Pre-Code Parade, and we're glad to have him with us.

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