by Allan Fish
(Japan 1947 74m) DVD1/2
Aka. Nagaya Shinshiroku
Fanning the futon
d Yasujiro Ozu w Tadao Ikeda, Yasujiro Ozu ph Yuharu Atsuta ed Yoshi Sugihara m Ichiro Saito art Tatsuo Hamada
Choko Iida (Tané), Hohi Aoki (Kohei), Eitaro Ozawa (Father), Mitsuko Yoshikawa (Kikuko), Reikichi Kawamura (Tamekichi), Hideko Mimura (Okiku), Chishu Ryu (Tashiro), Takeshi Sakamoto (Kawayashi), Eiko Takamatsu (Tome),
In the opening episode of Mark Cousins’ intoxicating The Story of Film: An Odyssey, he discusses the creation, in cinema’s infancy, of what would become film’s vocabulary, the syntax of how shots were put together to show what he referred to as the ‘then’ (what comes next) and the ‘meanwhile’ (what happens at the same time in another location). Professional film scholars would go to great lengths and infinite detail about the gradual use of cross-cutting, of continuity editing, or parallel editing, all designed to illustrate how a story moves. Then there’s the paradox.
In the same episode Cousins talked about how Alfred Hitchcock once called cinema “life with the boring bits cut out.” Yet how can film mirror life if it only acts as a sort of lifespan or time period highlights package? To Yasujiro Ozu, film was all about the ‘boring bits’, the ephemera, the tiny detail. Cousins highlighted a sequence from an Ozu film that isn’t generally chosen when it comes to Ozu. Chances are a dozen other films would be chosen ahead of it, but Record of a Tenement Gentleman repays repeat viewings; it grows on you.
It’s quite a short film for Ozu, probably his shortest major work, and it was his first made during the fallout of World War II. It’s set in the Tokyo tenement of the title and centres around Tané, a widow whose life consists largely of evenings drinking with neighbours. One such neighbour or regular visitor, Tashiro, returns one day with a small boy in tow. He found him passing through Chigasaki where it is presumed his father abandoned him. Reluctantly, Tané takes him in, but when he wets the bed, she makes him fan the drying futon for hours. When it happens again, the boy is terrified and runs off. Only now does Tané realise she misses the boy and she conducts a search for him. At first it proves unsuccessful, but then Tashiro finds him back in Chigasaki and brings him back. Tané is now delighted, but her joy is short-lived when the boy’s father comes out of the blue to take the boy back with him.
The usual simple story, but the beauty is in the detail. Take the boy; he conforms to the stereotype of Japanese boys in the 30s and 40s, like they are from a Nippon version of the Beano, Bash Street Kids in training. The same shorts, tatty jumper, cap, hands in pockets and downcast sullen face like they’ve just eaten something they shouldn’t and are coming back for a smack from mother or father. It works especially well here in the fact that Tané at one point accuses the boy of eating something he shouldn’t. Like the film itself, however, the boy grows on Tané and her realisation of her own selfishness and that of her fellow tenement residents is forms the emotional core of the film.
The most telling aspect, however, is that we have here that paradox; a film pared to the bone of narrative to seven reels, but consisting largely of pauses, those equivalent of time-outs in sport where the story takes a seeming rest. Throughout Ozu’s pacing is uncanny, his shot composition as precise as any modern practitioner of feng shui. The performances are likewise a pleasure, with Chishu Ryu even getting a chance to sing. At its heart, her’s slowly thawing out, is Choko Iida, who acts for a while like a man trying to get rid of a dog that won’t go away and then all the more moving in the final sequences. We feel her pain. When the boy is taken away you can feel her sense of emptiness. It’s one of the greatest performances of an actress who should be better remembered than she is. The same could also be said of Ozu’s film.