Yasujiro Ozu was known for his family (melo)dramas, and lesser-known for his fascination with American films. The irony of this fact is that his contemporary, Akira Kurosawa, made a career out of imitating—and surpassing—the Western filmmakers he loved so much. Ozu, on the other hand, tended to restrict his fanboy-ism to posters on the walls of his characters. Ozu was no Kevin Smith; his characters never discussed these movies. It sufficed that we knew they were into them.
The Criterion Collection recently released a new entry into the Eclipse series: "Silent Ozu: Three Crime Dramas." Imagine my surprise when I heard that these films even existed, let alone that Criterion was giving them a release. A huge Ozu fan, I immediately pre-ordered the films when they were announced. Fast forward four months later and I have now watched the earliest in the bunch, Walk Cheerfully, which Ozu made in 1930 alongside multiple other films, including another one in this trilogy.
Walk Cheerfully delights from the start because Ozu wears his influences on his sleeve. The wisecracking moll of the film, Chieko, sports a Louise Brooks-inspired bob, which immediately inspires the words "trollope" and "untrustworthy" in one's mind, provided you're familiar with Brooks' persona and work (I know you're out there somewhere). Posters with round-eyed Aryan folks bedeck the walls of the characters' rooms, betraying the American cinematic lineage that bolsters the film. Ozu also ditches his normally static camera for a virtuoso, dynamic opening shot that predicts the swaggering brilliance of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. You could be forgiven for believing that Criterion was pulling the wool over your eyes, and got you to buy an obscure Japanese sort-of-noir by slapping Ozu's name onto it.
Then the "pillow shots" begin, as Roger Ebert used to describe them. These are the shots in between the storyline, the ones that give you a breath in between the thrust of plot and character, or what there are of such things in this film. We get shots of tea kettles, white shirts flapping in the breeze on a clothesline. This sense of pace, and the completely character-driven storyline, bring you back into the realm of Ozu, a place I love dearly.
This is the kind of film that, if one were to have seen it in 1930, one would say, "I sure would like more of that quietness than that clunky gangster stuff." And in a fashion that completely opposes the trajectory of most current filmmakers, Ozu would, indeed, get quieter. It is nevertheless entertaining to see Ozu try on a different hat, as though he were still searching for the house style he would eventually cement. In the late 20s and throughout the 30s, Ozu would experiment with several different genres, including family and workplace comedies. He would focus on children in films like, I Was Born, But... the star of which, the child actor Ozu nicknamed "Tokkan," appears in one scene in Walk Cheerfully. It is as if Michael Bay's first film had been a meditative character study, except in reverse.
As for Walk Cheerfully's quality, I can speak to a few scenes in which Ozu demonstrates glimpses of the visual acuity that would come to define him as a filmmaker. Take, for example, the scene in which Chieko, the dastardly moll, conspires with the lusting businessman Ono, played by Ozu stalwart, Takeshi Sakamoto. The pair is in an elevator, which lends suspense to the scene because their privacy will last only so long. We see a shot of Chieko's foot tapping insistently, a tic we've come to understand about her. She then begins to engage Ono, and we see her feet face towards his, still tapping. Ono considers her idea until we get a shot of his feet, which now face Chieko's, and are now tapping in sync. The scene is perhaps less than two minutes long, yet Ozu establishes the link between these characters with minimal dialogue, yet expressive visuals. His efficiency as a visual storyteller is absolutely thrilling to watch.