Dragnet Girl

Year: 1933
 Yasujiro Ozu
Rating: 7.5

It is surprising to myself that I have managed to go all these many years without seeing a film from what most critics consider one of Japan's greatest directors, Yasujiro Ozu. I have been meaning to for years and in fact have collected many of his films. But I finally picked one out that I found on YouTube of all places. It is a Yakuza film. Not exactly a film genre that Ozu is famous for. In fact, Ozu is best-known for his intimate family dramas, but in his early days in the 1920's he directed a number of comedies and melodramas in which he was influenced by comedies coming out of America. And it seems clear that this gangster film is a homage of sorts to gangster films from Hollywood - more in style with their fedoras, pool halls, boxing clubs, posters and guns than the plot which for America would be fairly mild pertaining to violence and crime.

Though this film was made in 1933, it is still a silent film. Japan lagged far behind Hollywood in implementing sound. Their first sound film was in 1930, but even by the mid-30's the majority of Japanese films were still being made without sound. What Japan had instead throughout their silent days was what was termed a benshi who narrated the film taking on the various characters and acting them out. There was also normally accompanying music provided by traditional Japanese instruments. Many of these benshis gained quite a reputation and were very popular - so that perhaps was a reason that their films adapted to sound so slowly. It was an entertaining night out.

Dragnet Girl was lost for decades and rediscovered in the 1970's and has actually played in film festivals with a score written and performed. Unfortunately, the version on Youtube does not have sound - I mean zero - no music - and watching a film with no sound is a strange experience - I kept raising the volume to no effect. But even taking that into effect this was a lovely film. Ozu's camera placement and movement - much of it shot in the cramped spaces of an apartment and the boxing club - and which I understand became more minimalist as he got older - is inventive, the editing sharp and his fondness for close-ups is stunning. There are so many camera shots of the characters in various postures that are worthy of a still. His lighting is noirish as is the settings that he creates.

The film revolves around a gangster Joji who has a small group of underlings within a larger organization and his moll, Tokiko, who loves him dearly. Their relationship feels natural - playful and carefree - even when he flirts with other girls she is matter of fact knowing he is coming home with her. Tokiko is a modern fun girl who works as an office girl in the day time but at night hangs out with the boys drinking, playing a form of billiards, smoking and loving the wrong man. How she ended up like this is never revealed. Her boss at work wants to make her his mistress, having no idea about this other side to her. Eventually though after meeting the sister of one of Joji's men who is a traditional girl in kimono and clogs, Tokiko decides it is time for them to move out of the Yakuza life and live a normal life - but first there has to be one last job to help out a friend. The conclusion feels very Japanese - a Hollywood gangster film would never end like this - I quite liked it.

The actress Kinuyo Tanaka is terrific as emotions roll off her face like raindrops - sometimes just for a moment - nothing dramatic - but always effective and natural. She isn't to my mind more than mildly attractive but there is something to her personality, her ready fleeting grin, her lively eyes that is very appealing. I didn't realize it while watching her that in fact she was one of Japan's most famous actresses from the 1930s through the 1950s. She worked for all the great directors doing many films with Ozu, Mikio Naruse, Heinosuke Gosha and in particular starred in about 15 films for Kenji Mizoguchi. Later in the 1950s she directed a few films - one of Japan's earliest female directors. So I expect I will be coming across her again.