I'm not sure how to start describing this one. It's a Japanese silent comedy, but to me that suggests all kinds of misleading notions. A samurai equivalent of Harold Lloyd, perhaps? No. I think the nearest I can get is to say that it's more like three films in one. The beginning contains slapstick and wouldn't look completely out of place with Laurel & Hardy in it. The main body of the film is a sophisticated, subtle comedy of social improprieties, with a rumbustuous performance from Tokihiko Okada. It's funny, but more importantly it's doing so in a way you wouldn't get from Hollywood silent comedy. Finally the ending changes gear and drops the comedy, instead going for understated character drama and redemption.
It's directed by Yasujiro Ozu, by the way. He did comedies in the early part of his career and this is one of them. He's not transcending the silent medium like Hitchcock, but his visual storytelling devices are just as subtle despite the fact that it's a silent comedy. He'll convey plot information in something as small as a character pricking her fingers when trying to mend some ripped trousers, which indicates both that the lady is trying her hardest to act like a good housewife and that she doesn't have a clue how to go about it. It's fascinating, actually. It's visual storytelling of a kind that cinema generally jettisoned in moving over to talkies and didn't start rediscovering for decades. Furthermore the acting is both subtle and realistic, which is particularly impressive in Okada's case if you consider how broad he's playing it. The only time you need to make allowances is in the first 5-10 minutes. As with Hitchcock, despite its vintage, in a sense this film feels modern.
Mind you, it also helps that it's 1931. Western cinema had abandoned silent cinema by this point, but Japan would go on refining the art form for another few years yet and it's clear that Ozu's fully aware of what's coming out of Hollywood. Okada's apartment even contains a gigantic movie poster for a feature-length colour talkie starring Laurel & Hardy! I assumed this was fictional. I was wrong. It really existed and it was a two-strip Technicolor film called The Rogue Song (1930), directed by Lionel Barrymore, but apart from its soundtrack it's now a lost film.
Anyway, that's preamble. What about the story of this film?
We begin with a kendo tournament, which is Japanese bamboo sword-fighting and very traditional. This scene has some goofy stuff from the actors, although in fairness it's hard to do understated work when you're entirely hidden inside kendo armour and helmets. They mess around, doing inappropriate things in mid-fight and showing off to the crowd. All this is fun, but childish.
This scene also introduces our hero, Okada. He's a kendo fighter and a bit of a dinosaur, even walking down the street with his kendo sword while wearing his kimono and geta (wooden platformed sandals). He also has a beard. It's an extreme beard. It looks like someone painted the lower half of his face with asphalt. Fortunately it stops short of his lips and so he's still capable of doing lots of acting in it, but this is not a modern man for the modern world. He walks like an ape, he adjusts himself after going to the toilet and basically he's always liable to do things you'll be warned not to do if you visit Japan. Needless to say, he's great. Tokihiko Okada was a big star of the silent era and based on this, I can see why. That monkey grin of his is downright cartoonish, but he gets away with it and incorporates it into a performance that's full of energy, but also detailed. This isn't a rumbustuous comedy, instead being faint and delicate by silent movie standards, but Okada gets laughs out of it.
He died of tuberculosis aged only thirty, by the way. He never got to make a talkie, but he left behind a daughter, Mariko Okada, who herself became an actress and indeed one of the greatest in the history of Japanese cinema. She'd work a lot with Yasujiro Ozu too.
The plot involves (a) women and (b) the difference between the modern and traditional worlds. Don't worry, they're using the latter for gags, not social comment. There's quite a lot of dodgy stuff going on, with the most modernised of Okada's three girlfriends being a no-good who's involved with the yakuza. My favourite was the scene with the old foreigner and the pin. That made me laugh. For a while though I was wondering if Okada's character was supposed to be gay, since he's quoting Abraham Lincoln in saying that the value of a beard is in keeping women away and he doesn't seem even remotely interested in girls. However one of them tells him to lose the beard and he reluctantly obeys. Suddenly he looks as if he belongs in the 20th century, with a clean-shaven chin and a Western suit on his back, and of course looking normal helps him (a) find a job, and (b) get the girls. The latter is pretty ridiculous, by the way. He doesn't go looking for them. They just decide they're in love with him, in some cases going so far as to reject other suitors. It's a plot contrivance to break any other movie beyond repair, but Ozu could at a pinch be said to get away with it because it's a movie of naturalism, comedy and character vignettes rather than plot structure.
The ending is unexpected since it's not funny, but rather good. It touches on all three of the main women, but the one whose story has the real dramatic meat is Satoko Date, the hoodlum. She played bad girls quite a lot, apparently.
I liked this film a lot. It's not "howl 'til you hurt" hilarious or even close, but it has some good laughs and some entertaining bits of business with Japanese people being rude politely. Okada is awesome, with little throwaway moments like the nose hair and big wacky stuff like the sword dance. It's also interesting to be taken to the world of 1930s Japan, which is trying hard to be Westernised and for the most part succeeding, but will still every so often do something even I don't understand. What was going on with the strip of cloth in Okada's trousers, then? I still don't get that bit. Overall, it's both entertaining and interesting. The version of the film I found has no accompanying music, which I'd never experienced before with silent movies, but at least they hadn't done that annoying thing of randomly tinting the picture blue, green, orange, etc. For anyone even slightly interested in silent cinema, this film has convinced me that you'd be missing a lot if you didn't hunt down some Japanese examples.