Choko IidaTakeshi SakamotoHideko TakamineTokihiko Okada
Tokyo Chorus
Medium: film
Year: 1931
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Writer: Komatsu Kitamura, Kogo Noda
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Keywords: silent
Actor: Tokihiko Okada, Emiko Yagumo, Hideo Sugawara, Hideko Takamine, Tatsuo Saito, Choko Iida, Takeshi Sakamoto, Reiko Tani, Kenichi Miyajima, Isamu Yamaguchi
Format: 90 minutes
Website category: Japanese old
Review date: 21 August 2012
It's a Japanese silent movie by Yasujiro Ozu. It's not my favourite of his, to be honest, but it still has plenty to like.
Its problem, I think, is the balance of tone and storyline. It's a comedy with witty, charming stars, but it's also dealing with a family with three small children who are unemployed in Japan in the 1930s. Tokihiko Okada is very likeable... until the point where he gets sacked through his own stupid fault, at which point you say to yourself "wife and children". The film sort of recovers from this, but it's still a stumbling block I didn't have with The Lady and the Beard, I Was Born, But... or A Story of Floating Weeds.
The first eight minutes are superb, but confusing. I thought this was an army parade ground, until the lack of military discipline made me wonder if they were instead construction workers. Nope, they're schoolboys. This only occurred to me when I looked up the film afterwards on wikipedia. These "schoolboys" are approximately thirty, while similarly later in the film Ozu casts two of his favourite actors in roles that require them to be of an older generation. Problem: they're exactly the same age as everyone else. Answer: fake moustaches. Helllooooo, Groucho.
For my money though, that opening scene is also the best in the movie. It's pure silent cinema, in which a teacher (Tatsuo Saito) orders around the massed ranks and in response they show just enough personality to bring the scene alive. They don't rebel or goof around. It's not Laurel and Hardy. Instead the scene's subtle and witty, making it much more involving than "pie in the face" slapstick. I loved it. In fact, paradoxically this scene is so good that it damages the film, setting up false expectations. Arguably it belonged in a different movie, but in fairness, it does establish that Okada: (a) is disrespectful of authority, and (b) was born to be a silent movie star, with as much screen presence as Chaplin or Keaton.
Both of those are important. Okada is so good in fact that I'm prepared to rank him alongside the wonderful Takeshi Sakamoto, who's incidentally also here, under one of those moustaches. "Choko Iida?" I hear you ask. Yup, her too. The strongest reason to watch this film is its acting.
Anyway, I was talking about the plot. Eight minutes into the film, suddenly we get a time-travelling intertitle. "Several years later, he's working for an insurance company." Okada now has a wife (Emiko Yagumo) and those children, one of whom would grow up to be a bigger name than anyone else in the cast. Even at this point Hideko Takamine was already known as Japan's Shirley Temple, but she'd be the country's number-one star in the 1950s and early 1960s, during a fifty-year career that ran from 1929-1979.
Adult-Okada has to deal with normal family stuff. He has a son who wants a bicycle and throws unconvincing tantrums with a weird shoulder-wiggle when he can't get his way, for instance. He also has that job I mentioned, but not for long. What he does here isn't dissimilar to what we saw him doing at school, except that there it was funny and here it's scary and irresponsible. After that, we're into a film about what it's like to be unemployed in Tokyo in 1931, although Ozu keeps the tone light and never feels far away from a laugh.
There's a Hollywood film here that inspired Ozu, incidentally. It's The Crowd (1928), which was Oscar-nominated for Unique and Artistic Production. That sounds similar to this, but darker. In fact MGM's head, Louis B. Mayer, hated its bleak subject matter and downbeat ending, but its director King Vidor managed to get it made anyway because he'd made them so much money with his other films.
Ozu's film isn't that brave. However it's still interesting and not without Japanese peculiarities, such as the scene where Yagumo is "utterly humiliated" by seeing her husband carrying a billboard. That reminded me of the bit in I Was Born, But... where the young boys have peculiar ideas of appropriate fatherly behaviour. These people need a chill pill. Freakiest though is a line at the end that made my head explode and I'm desperate to quote here, but can't because it's a spoiler.
Would I recommend this film? Probably not as a first Ozu, although that's largely because there are others I love much more. This is still a lively, entertaining and charming film that only really makes one error (Okada being stupid in that scene with his boss). Unfortunately, for me, that mistake cuts so deep that it's nearly a movie-killer. Nevertheless I love this cast of Ozu's regulars, which might just get me watching everything he made in this era, and it's a tragedy that Okada died of tuberculosis a few years later, at the age of thirty. Damn, he's good. I particularly love his sudden smiles. Meanwhile Ozu's having lots of fun and throwing in sometimes silly gags, such as the record-breaking, dust blowing on food or an unusual method of sharpening pencils... yet at the same time, he's addressing serious subject matter and doing a respectful and paradoxically dignified job of it.
It's well worth a look, anyway. Japanese silent movies are great.