Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Passing Fancy

Passing Fancy is an early silent comedy by Yasujiro Ozu. Although many of Ozu's silent films are quite different from his later works, in Passing Fancy Ozu's mature style already seems to be almost fully developed. The film is a charming family comedy about the single dad Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto), his son Tomio (Tomio Aoki), and his friend Jiro (Den Obinata), and the tension that enters their simple lives when they meet the homeless and unemployed young woman Harue (Nobuko Fushimi). The middle-aged Kihachi immediately likes the much younger woman, helping her get a job and a place to stay at a neighborhood restaurant while courting her in his goofy but charming way. Harue, though, thinks of Kihachi as an uncle and prefers the younger Jiro, who makes sure to keep her at arm's length, though one suspects that despite his insistence that he doesn't like her, he's only pushing her away out of loyalty to his good friend.

The film is mostly shot from Ozu's familiar low vantage point, his aesthetic already well-established by this time. In his films with children, the low camera placement seems to take on an additional purpose, as the low-to-the-ground framings are perfectly suited to a child's proportions — Tomio fits comfortably within the frame no matter how low the camera is placed — while the adults seem to tower outside the frame, their legs entering the frame before the rest of their body begins to appear in view. The compositions of the film are as meticulous and deliberate as later Ozu, with a constant awareness of how objects and people are arranged within the static frames; there is no camera movement, an aesthetic choice that would be totally codified in Ozu's late color films. As in his later work, striking use is made of bottles and other household objects positioned to counterbalance the actors within the frame; often the actors are placed into the background with some domestic object highlighted in the foreground. Ozu also periodically inserts static shots of the surrounding buildings and water towers to establish the setting, early examples of the "pillow shots" that would become such a powerful aesthetic devise in the director's postwar oeuvre.

Though there are elements of drama and melancholy in Passing Fancy, the film is largely a comedy, not so much in terms of broad slapstick as in its gentle but pervasive comic tone. Even at the height of the film's downtrodden section, when Tomio falls ill and Kihachi worries that the boy might die, Ozu breaks the tragic mood with a comic series of intertitles when Tomio's teacher asks Kihachi how the kid got sick, causing Kihachi to respond that "he ate fifty sen worth of sweets all at once," then enumerating all of the different flavors of candy the boy had eaten. Obviously, the illness isn't meant to be taken entirely seriously, but Kihachi's worries are heartrending anyway. Similarly, there's a strain of comedy running through the film centering on economic concerns in Depression era Japan, a concept introduced in the most humorous possible way in the film's opening scenes. At a theatrical performance, several men in the audience see a coin purse sitting on the ground and discretely peek inside, realizing that it's empty and then discarding it, only to have another man pick it up in the hopes of finding something inside. Ozu milks this gag for its gestural comedy, and also for its suggestion of poverty so extreme and common that none of these men think twice about trying to scrounge for money anywhere they might find a few coins. The physical comedy is then extended with a sequence where several men get up and dance around as though they have bugs crawling around in their clothes, another sign of the squalor of this neighborhood.

That economic hardship defines the film in many ways. Kihachi is embarrassed by his lack of financial security, by his inability to give his child everything he'd like to, and his desire for more leads him to extravagantly give the boy a coin, which Tomio then uses to gorge on candy since he's not used to having any money at all. More seriously, Kihachi proves incapable of paying the doctor who cares for his son, and scraping together the money for the medical bills proves to be an exceedingly difficult task. It quite literally takes the efforts of nearly everyone he knows to pay the doctor, with his community of friends and neighbors coming together to help him and his son.

Ozu often seems constrained by the stylistic conventions of the silent cinema; Japan was slow to switch to sound, and though Ozu often gets by here through gestural acting within the frame, this is a rather dialogue-heavy film with a lot of information and emotion conveyed through the text. In the scene where Harue and Jiro argue over her lack of romantic feelings for Kihachi, Ozu unleashes an uncharacteristic barrage of dialogue intertitles, alternating between static, repetitive images of Harue and Jiro, with more or less the same closeup of each repeated over and over again in between titles. It's one of the moments when the limitations of silent style for Ozu become obvious, as his visual sensibility must be subsumed to the necessity of staging a lengthy and emotionally complex conversation entirely in text.

Such glitches aside, Passing Fancy is a warm and gently funny work. The film's story is minimal, which allows Ozu to develop his characters and to use his slow, observational visual sensibility to create a portrait of an era and a neighborhood. The rich sense of community, the half-comic depiction of economic woes, the emotional nuance of the characters as they make the best of their limited circumstances, it all adds up to a lovely film that's very much attuned to the social milieu in which it is set.


Greg said...

his visual sensibility must be subsumed to the necessity of staging a lengthy and emotionally complex conversation entirely in text.

That sounds cumbersome and belabored. I understand the desire to have a full on conversation you've written be displayed but adapting to the medium seems more important which is why the best silent films, like Sunrise for an obvious example, stay far away from anything but visual storytelling (and, of course, The Last Laugh which I don't think has any intertitles, does it?).

Silent film history has always centered on American cinema for the most part with a big overseas title filling important positions (like Potemkin or Napolean) but it seems a natural area for foreign titles to excel as there is no spoken language anyway, only written or non-existent. I haven't seen this or any of Ozu's silent work and now I'm curious to check some out.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Tomio Aoki is one of the greatestof all child actors.

The noption that Ozu shot all his films the same way dies hard. There's a lot of variance in the silent and early sound period. It's only in the later films where the unmoving camera style sets in completely. Also these later films dealentirely with the settled middle-class. There are precious few characters of the marginal social sort on view in Passing Fancy in his later films.

My favorite Ozu is Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947.

Tokyo Story is a lovely film but its been egregiously overpraised -- its canonical status obscuring the rest of Ozu's richly multi-faceted career.

Sam Juliano said...

"Ozu often seems constrained by the stylistic conventions of the silent cinema; Japan was slow to switch to sound, and though Ozu often gets by here though gestural acting within the frame, this is a rather dialogue-heavy film with a lot of information and emotion conveyed through the text."

Absolutely Ed! Ozu's most justly renowned silent films include I WAS BORN....BUT (beautifully examined at this site last year) TOKYO CHORUS, DRAGNET GIRL and the film being discussed here among his surviving works from this period. I think Bordwell hit the bulls-eye when he suggested that the director's early output illustrated clever ways in which the films are 'frequently organized around gag structures that are developed into larger narrative patterns. The critic subsequently asserts in his seminal study on the director: "Often these turn on repeated gestures, but they also turn on certain spaces and objects that gain layers of significance through repetition and return. Recurring thematic patterns also run through these films, which are organized around the family, the workplace and the suburban locations around Shochiku’s Kamata studios where the films were shot. Behind the auteurist idiosyncrasies, these films were produced within a studio system that was consolidated precisely during the early 1930s."

I completely agree with the perception here Ed, that the traditional camera vantage point (synonomous with Ozu's cinema) is particularly appropriate in this film, as it accentuates the child's perceptions from ground level, precisely where they resonate most. Similarly, the use of objects -always a defining Ozu device- is especially discernible in PASSING FANCY. The gentle and pervasive comic tone you suggest is at work here is really teh essence of Ozu's special brand of comic humanism, where the general tenets of the form are replaced by a kind of melancholic reverie with playful underpinnings. And yes, the depression era is evident in teh film's economic foundations, moreso of course than any of the later talkies. (Your specific delineation of these factors is most impressive) This minimalist work is invariably brought to life by the antics of Kihachi’s son Tomio, played by Tomio Aoki, who also plays the younger son in I WAS BORN...BUT. All in all, the film stands up with his finest work of this period, while setting teh groundwork for the masterpiece that would soon enhance the universal scope of world cinema.

Sam Juliano said...

David says:

"Tokyo Story is a lovely film but its been egregiously overpraised -- its canonical status obscuring the rest of Ozu's richly multi-faceted career."

I really must strongly disagree, though I'll concede that the latter part of the statement, contending that the film's reputation might diminish what is basically one of the greatest canons in movie history.

My own "counter" to the interesting proposition of TENEMENT GENTLEMAN (a film I like quite a bit myself) would be THERE WAS A FATHER, which has slowly but surely taken it's position among the director's greatest works. In Japan it is unquestionably his most revered work for a host of reasons.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Record of a Tenement Gentleman is a political proviocation. OIt's last scene is a giant slap in the face of Japan for its indifference to war orphans.

is a lovely film. It was made under duress. The fascist regime wanted Ozu to do yet another remake of The Loyal 47 Ronin. He explained this was well beyond his means. So he made a delicately sentimental film about a widower. To the japanese a widower is a figure pathos. Honoring such a figure is seen as patriotic in and of itself. So he got by. In his late period films Ozu makes reference to the way with sardonic irony.

Sam Juliano said...

That's a wonderful, greatly appreciated qualification of RECORD OF A TENEMENT GENTLEMAN, a very great film indeed.

Ed Howard said...

Greg, it *is* cumbersome and belabored, at least at times. Like you, I much prefer silent films that tell their stories with limited or even no intertitles. (One of my favorite silents, Kirsanoff's Menilmontant, has no titles at all.) When silent films are very heavy in text, it often feels awkward, and the visuals get displaced a bit by all the words. There are plenty of scenes here where the storytelling is primarily visual, though, especially in the more comic scenes. Ozu was a master of visual storytelling even in his earliest work, so it's disappointing when the film's textual overload occasionally overwhelms the director's aesthetic. I'd definitely recommend checking out some silent Ozu, though. As some others have already said, I Was Born But... is probably his finest silent, an absolutely wonderful (and very funny) film.

David, very true that Ozu's early work has a great deal of variance, though in this film his aesthetic definitely points the way towards the solidified style of the later years. Ozu always had a social conscience, though he seldom displayed it in a heavy-handed way. Instead, all his films, whether they deal with the working class or the middle class, are about the ways in which people live and the ways in which their lives are affected by larger social, economic, and traditional forces.

I like Tokyo Story a lot. Anything that's routinely called one of the greatest films ever could arguably be called "overpraised," but I think it's an undoubtedly great work. Of course, its canonical status should never obscure the fact that Ozu made *many* great works, many of them at least as good as Tokyo Story or even better. In my opinion, Ozu did some of his best work in color, and many of his late color films (Equinox Flower, An Autumn Afternoon, The End of Summer) are among my very favorites.

Sam, that's a great Bordwell quote; it really clarifies the connection between the gag structures of some of these early silents and the formal rigor of Ozu's later style. Also, "comic humanism" is a great term to apply to so many of Ozu's works, both early and late, since he never quite abandons that wry, subtle sense of humor.

And I haven't seen Record of a Tenement Gentleman or There Was a Father yet, so I definitely need to get to those soon.

Greg said...

What David says about canonical films dimishing other films in a director's career is certainly true and makes me wish there never was a Sight and Sound poll to begin with. It's why blogging is important, quite frankly, because most people think Rules of the Game, Seven Samurai and Citizen Kane are the only movies Renoir, Kurosawa or Welles ever did worth seeing.

And unlike the three of you I haven't taken in a lot of Ozu and a discussion like this makes me want to. It's very insightful for someone unfamiliar with Ozu's early work.