Friday, July 19, 2013

Tokyo Chorus (1931)

WHO: Yasujiro Ozu directed this.

WHAT: Made the year that Japan's first talking picture was unveiled, this is the ninth of the fully- or partially-extant films Ozu made in his first four years as a director for the Shochiku studio. He actually directed more than double that number during the period, but so much of Japan's silent film heritage is lost that we can only guess from production artifacts and contemporary accounts what, for instance, Ozu's first film as director Sword of Penitence, or his first (according to David Desser) shomin-geki or "common people's drama" film The Life of an Office Worker might be like. 

At any rate, Tokyo Chorus is almost certainly the best-known of these nine early survivors, thanks in large part to Criterion, which selected it along with slightly later films I Was Born, But... and Passing Fancy to include in its Silent Ozu DVD box set. It was a wise choice of film to include in this set (which is overdue for a sequel I might add) because its particular combination of comedy  and social commentary make it probably the ideal option of these early nine (which includes other truly great films like That Night's Wife and I Flunked, But...) to use as an introduction to Ozu, or just to this stage of his career, for a newcomer to his work.

However, it's also true that the more Ozu films you've seen, and the more frequently you've seen them, the more you are likely to get out a viewing of any of his films, Tokyo Chorus included. Veteran Ozu-philes can recognize this film as particularly rich with actors who recur in other Ozu films. Here's a rundown of the cast:

Tokihiko Okada plays the salaryman father at the center of the story. One of Shochiku's most popular stars, he had leading roles in four other Ozu films: That Night's Wife, Young Miss (now lost), The Lady and the Beard, and Beauty's Sorrow (also lost). Of his non-Ozu roles his turn in Kenji Mizoguchi's 1933 The Water Magician is probably his most famous. He died from tuberculosis at age 30 shortly after completing that film.

Emiko Yagumo plays the wife in the family and was in two other Ozu films; she played the titular character in That Night's Wife, opposite Okada, and had a juicy role as a jealous mistress to Takeshi Sakamoto in A Story of Floating Weeds.

Hideo Sugawara plays the son of the above pair, and is pictured at the top of this post. This and I Was Born, But..., where he plays the older brother and instigator of a short-lived but memorable hunger strike, seem to be his largest roles for Ozu, although he also makes a brief appearance in Passing Fancy and was also in at least two films by Ozu's fellow Shochiku director Mikio Naruse: a substantial role in Flunky, Work Hard and a walk-on in Every Night Dreams. Somewhere in my files I have a still of him grown to gangly teenagehood in a 1936 film called The Pick-Pockets' House. His filmography and biography trail off into the unknown after 1940.

Hideko Takamine plays the daughter, also pictured at the top of this post. One of the biggest child stars, teen stars, and ultimately movie stars in Japan until her screen retirement in the 1970s, Takamine worked with many great directors over the years, but was particularly associated with Mikio Naruse and Keisuke Kinoshita. I wrote about one of her signature roles for the latter director, Carmen Comes Home, for Senses of Cinema earlier this year. Takamine only worked with Ozu one more time in her career, however, alongside Kinuyo Tanaka in Ozu's uncharacteristic 1950 film The Munekata Sisters.

Tatsuo Saito plays Okada's mustachioed teacher in Tokyo Chorus. It was his 16th(!) role in an Ozu film, and there would be seven to follow, including, perhaps most memorably, the (clean-shaven) put-upon father of Hideo Sugawara and Tokkan Kozo in I Was Born, But.... Though associated strongly with Ozu, especially in his early silent period, Saito had a long career playing memorable roles for many directors such as Naruse, Kinoshita, Hiroshi Shimizu, and even Jack Cardiff and Richard Brooks.

Choko Iida, who plays the teacher's wife, is another very familiar Ozu face. She's in more than a dozen Ozu films (as well as some Naruses and Kurosawas), often playing a landlady or washerwoman. Her signature roles are probably as the mother in Ozu's first talkie The Only Son, and as the lead in his first post-World War II film The Record of a Tenement Gentleman. In real life Iida was married to Ozu's cinematographer Hideo Mohara.

Reiko Tani plays the president of the company Tokihiko Okada's character works for. He can also be seen in Ozu's Dragnet Girl, Passing Fancy (as a barber) and A Story of the Floating Weeds, among others.

Takashi Sakamoto, finally, has a small role in Tokyo Chorus as an elderly employee at the same company. His old age make-up should not obscure a familiar face from no fewer than twenty-six Ozu films. He's best known for three films in which he plays a rather similar, happy-go-lucky, lead character (but in different enough circumstances that you know they're not really the same person) named Kihachi: these are Passing Fancy, A Story of the Floating Weeds, and An Inn at Tokyo.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens today only at 4:30 at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHY: This is the third Japanese feature, and the second by Yasujito Ozu, to screen at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival over its 18-year history. But though the total number is small, the frequency is increasing, thankfully. It was only two years ago that the festival screened Ozu's I Was Born But... in a comparable time slot to this afternoon's. Wait, has it been two years already? Time flies. As you know if you attended Prix de Beauté last night, every festival-goer is given a 108-page program book jam-packed with content about the films, some of their lesser-known stars, the musicians who accompany festival programs, and more. In the past I've contributed essays to these guides when they were smaller and printed on matte rather than glossy paper. My last contributed essay to this publication was for I Was Born, But..., and though I'm glad it's archived on the festival site, I'm just as glad to see that the PFA Library's Jason Sanders contributed the lovely and informative essay on Tokyo Story to this year's guide. For now you'll have to attend the festival to get a copy to read for yourself, but I assure you that Sanders' research is impeccable and his prose style matches the elegance of Ozu far better than mine does. And that's just one of the two dozen or so articles in this handsome souvenir keepsake book. If that doesn't make you want to spring for at least one SFSFF ticket this year I don't know what will.

HOW: Thanks to Carl Martin of the Film On Film Foundation, I now know that not only is Tokyo Chorus screening in 35mm, it's screening from a Janus print "struck in 2003 by Shochiko for Ozu's centennial." Martin has similarly -and more- useful data on every feature film (as in non-DCP) presentation at the festival this year, in case you're one to be interested in the historical provenance of restorations and prints. 

Pianist Günter Buchwald will make his SFSFF debut at this screening. I'm curious to hear how he sounds; accompanying Ozu is not the easiest silent film-music task.

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