This is the ‘makeweight’ title in the BFI’s double package of Blu-ray/DVD versions of An Autumn Afternoon, the last film by Ozu Yasujiro in 1962. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay included in the package makes clear that A Hen in the Wind has been neglected by many critics and considered one of Ozu’s minor works. Ozu himself is reported as describing it as a ‘bad failure’. It is certainly different from the later films and very different in some respects to its immediate successor, the highly celebrated Late Spring (1949). I personally find it a very moving film and it falls into my favourite period in cinema history in the late 1940s. I’ve just been back to look at what I wrote about Record of a Tenement Gentleman, the first film Ozu made when he returned to work in 1947 after re-patriation. My viewing of A Hen in the Wind confirms everything I wrote about the earlier film, but there are differences as well. The similarities to Italian neo-realism are again evident and the film seems in tune with what is happening in film internationally in those difficult post-war years.
One noticeable feature of A Hen in the Wind is the presence of the great Tanaka Kinuyo in the lead role. Arguably the dominant female figure in classical Japanese cinema, Tanaka is one of our heroes. Although she was best known in her later career as an actress for Mizoguchi and as a director in her own right, she did make several films for Ozu (including some in the 1930s) and it’s hard to imagine any other star in this role as the central character Tokiko – even though she played the role of a 28 year-old when she was already 38. Tokiko is effectively a single mother with a small son. Her husband has not yet returned from the war. We are never told where the husband has been stationed – perhaps in China? Re-patriation did take a long time so in itself this is not unusual. Tokiko is a dressmaker by trade but she has to stay home with the boy and can only survive by gradually selling off her kimonos to raise money for food. When the boy falls ill and needs hospital treatment she has no other resources and she turns to the only solution – selling herself for one night only to pay the medical bill. Her close friend Akiko, is furious with her (for not asking her for the money) and criticises her quite severely. She advises Tokiko to tell no-one and especially her husband about what she has done. At this point we think we know what will happen when the husband returns – which he does soon after. We dread being proved correct.
A Hen in the Wind is deemed an anomaly – in both style and content. My reference to neo-realism refers to two separate issues. First of all Ozu and Shochiku were faced with logistical problems in making films at this point. A Hen in the Wind is short, 82 minutes and it avoids expensive sets or complicated location shooting. This supplies the production context (in effect the restraints) which ‘fit’ for a narrative focused on a single everyday event/social issue at a time of austerity. In plot terms the event is the sudden onset of sickness for Tokiko’s son. It is the need to find the money to pay for his treatment that creates the narrative drive (just as the theft of the bicycle propels Bicycle Thieves forward). In a sense, the same scenario could have been played out in Italy or Germany in 1948. The difference might be in the treatment of the shame attached to the act of prostitution. There is also a second social issue compounding the conflict created by the sickness – the slow repatriation of service personnel (and in the background the problems associated with the Occupation, not mentioned directly in the script). The same issues – health problems and re-patriation – are found in films by Kurosawa and Naruse during this period. What is also important is how Ozu shows us this world of austerity trying to ‘get back on its feet’. I was struck by two long tracking shots showing first Tokiko and then her husband moving through the streets of Tokyo. The evidence of bombing is still there and the urban scene can seem desolate with rubble and wrecked machinery by the side of the road. A moving camera in later Ozu films is so unusual that these shots are quite noticeable. They are also contrasted with more composed scenes set by the riverside. Both Rosenbaum and David Bordwell (Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, BFI 1988) refer to the locations as ‘slum’ areas. I think perhaps ‘slum’ means something different in the US. Tokiko’s home is the top floor of a small wooden house rented from the family who live below. Nobody has much money but the connotations of slum housing – families crushed together in unhygenic mass dwellings etc. doesn’t apply. In fact I felt that somewhere in the film there was an attempt to present this as a transitional period when Japan is recovering. The scenes by the river seem more optimistic.
Sound in the film is also important. Several scenes in the house are accompanied by what sounds like the thud of a machine in a factory. This contrasts with the sound of children singing in a primary school close to the brothel where Tokiko received her ‘visitor’. The singing is heard when Suichi, the returned husband, goes to the brothel and meets the young woman who works there in order to feed her family. This whole sequence offers the possibility of ‘moving on’ in some way. Music also provides one of the (surprisingly few) references to American culture in the dancehall/nightclub next to the office where Suichi eventually gets work.
The other notable element in the mise en scène of A Hen in the Wind is the ‘pre-figuring’ of action focused on the staircase leading up to Tokiko’s apartment. Staircases are rarely shown in Ozu’s later films but here the staircase is introduced, almost like a pillow shot, early on. Later it will become the site of something even more unusual in Ozu’s later films – a sequence involving violent action. It is this violent action that will perhaps signal the biggest ‘difference’ to the films of Ozu’s late period and the way the staircase is used makes us think of Hitchcock thrillers or film noir melodramas.
David Bordwell’s chapter on the film refers to Sato Tadao’s 1982 Currents in Japanese Cinema. Sato suggests that the film is essentially progressive in moving away from using easy scapegoats to represent the state of Japan in the aftermath of war. Instead of villainous militarists or weedy collaborators, Ozu offers us a woman whose shame reflects the loss of ‘purity’ in the Japanese spirit while Shoichi’s aggression comes from the brutalisin experience of war. In Ozu’s vision (as perceived by Bordwell) these ‘ordinary’ and flawed people find a way to face the future without national or personal purity but with a sense of realism – Ozu the humanist?
Overall I found this a fascinating film which deserves to be more widely seen and discussed in the context of the ‘Occupation Cinema’ in Japan. Keith’s review of the film from the Tanaka Kinuyo season a few years ago at the Leeds International Film Festival takes a slightly different approach. He focuses more on Tanaka’s performance (and gives away more of the plot details).
I had somehow gained the impression that this was not going to be the best of director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s recent work, but I enjoyed it a great deal. Certainly, if I hadn’t seen Millennium Mambo (2001) and Le voyage du ballon rouge (2007) I would have found it more difficult. As it was, I was prepared to go along with its gentle narrative flow and just observe a new, but still East Asian, perspective on the life of Tokyo’s suburbs, coffee shops and railway systems. The railways are the giveaway clue and this is a film commissioned by the Japanese studio Shochiku to commemorate the centenary of their famous director Ozu Yasujiro in 2003. I take the title to be a play on words evoking film history and the coffee shop (what would have been a bar in Ozu’s Tokyo) which forms the alternative setting to the railway.
The central character in the narrative is Yoko, a young writer from Tokyo who is researching a Taiwanese musician/artist from the 1930s (Jiang Wen-Ye (1910 – 1983). She has just arrived back from Taiwan and she spends time with her parents who still live in Takasaki, a city in Central Japan 100km away by rail. Later she meets up with her friend Hajime, a bookseller in Tokyo with a railways obsession. There is very little plot but part way through the narrative Yoko reveals that she is pregnant.
I’ve read a lot of comments about the film and what many of them miss is that although Hou’s film is undoubtedly an art film, Ozu produced mainstream entertainment, albeit for what I assume to be an upmarket audience. This is an important point because although loving Ozu marks anyone out as a cinephile today, in the 1950s and 1960s he would be a ‘popular’ director. Hou, however, is definitely for cinephiles. However, Hou knows how to sell a film. In his earlier career when he was a leader of Taiwanese New Cinema, he invariably cast non-professionals. Here he casts Yo Hitoto, a Japanese pop singer in her first acting role, as Yoko. Hajime is played (in very relaxed style) by one of Japanese cinema’s leading stars, Asano Tadanobu.
Café Lumière is a very easy film to watch, but arguably a difficult film to read. Mark Lee’s camera frames characters in careful, often static, compositions in Hou’s usual recent style – i.e. through doorways or windows, down corridors, round corners etc. Outside the houses and coffee shops it offers us long takes in long shot, observing the world and Yoko’s journey through it. The shots of trains and trams are beautiful. One shot of a minute or so shows a scene in Tokyo with three railway lines at different levels crossing over each other – and across a river. It’s as if we are looking into a model railway layout or watching a scene from an anime. I love trains but I can understand that for many they are not particularly interesting. And this is what makes the film problematic for a mainstream audience. Comments on the film complain about particular scenes, why are they doing this or that? There is a desire for narrative, a need to be told something, for actions to be in a chain of cause and effect – for the story to mean something in the way that David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson argue constitutes a typical Hollywood narrative. But this story doesn’t have an ending, it doesn’t really have a direction. What we see instead is a family and a relationship between friends. In many ways this is a ‘realist’ film par excellence since it corresponds to the ways many of us live our lives – we don’t lurch from one dramatic crisis to the next, sometimes what we aim to do isn’t achieved, we can’t think of things to say, we’d rather just stare out of the window.
Café Lumière could be described as a postmodern narrative, one in which references are made to other ‘texts’ on several levels. The situation of the unmarried daughter and her parents’ concern features in both Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951) and one scene is very close to that in Tokyo Story (1953) when the parents visit their widowed daughter-in-law who has to borrow something from a neighbour in order to offer them hospitality. Hou doesn’t attempt to copy Ozu’s compositions directly but he achieves something of the same tone. The obsession with Tokyo’s railways emerges not just through Hajime’s actions as a character but also the camera’s seeming obsession in almost fetishising train images as if exaggerating Ozu’s occasional glimpses of trains simply for effect. Yet railways also act as triggers for memory – Yoko spots the station cat which she remembers from her childhood in Takasaki when she took the train to school. It’s also interesting that she lives on a tram route in Tokyo, one of the last two remaining from Ozu’s Tokyo. None of these references will mean much to audiences unaware of either Ozu or Taiwanese-Japanese history but this is the nature of film art for a cinephile audience.
The little details that emerge about the Taiwanese boyfriend and from Yoko’s meeting with Jiang Ewn-Ye’s widow and daughter point to a ‘discourse’ about a personal and cultural history that brings together China, Taiwan and Japan over the last century and which is mirrored in the histories of the film industries in these countries (and which also involves Hong Kong).
Hou is now in his 60s but still wishes to represent a younger generation – even when it is via the incomprehension of their parents. Fortunately, for me, the occasional musical accompaniment, which I think refers to the composer who Yoko is researching, was much easier on the ear than the techno of Millennium Mambo.
Banshun (Late Spring) is often regarded as the first of the late cycle of Ozu’s films and defines the style that is regarded, especially outside of Japan, as defining his work. It contains a number of those traits that have come to be seen as classic Ozu: from the visual traits such as sequences of travelling by train, the famous ‘pillow’ or ‘intermediate’ shots, which pepper the opening sequence or an elaborate tea ceremony that introduces the women of the story to the narrative pace, the focus on the intimate spaces of the middle class Japanese home and the narrative elision of important events. This last is a powerful means of skewing the structure to make those small moments and details the focus of screen time and, therefore, to allow the development of the drama through the intimate exchanges and not external drama. As part of this, the rhythms of daily life capture the emotional temperature and are used symbolically. The familiar greeting “tadaima” (“I’m home”) alters for Noriko as events threaten her happiness; the return of Somiya after his daughter’s wedding recalls an earlier scene of his homecoming and disrobing with some stark changes. What Ozu does so masterfully is to weave so subtly varied emotions into ‘set pieces’ that might on the surface appear very familiar, not least because of the reappearance of actors. Both Hara Setsuko and Ryû Chishû appeared in many of these late cycle films, Ryû was Ozu’s actor on most of his features (apparently all but two) and their playing of the emotions maximise the feeling of small moments that have deeply-felt repercussions for each of these characters. At times, it is in the nuance of an expression – at other times it is in a dramatic heartfelt outpouring. An observation of Hara (in character) is that she smiles when she is unhappy and cries when she is happy – adding to her enigmatic appearance, since her emotions are often contrapuntal when they are not hidden.
Something to appreciate about Banshun in the cinema, is how it is as much funny as it is dramatic or even tragic. Noriko (Hara) is a young women out of joint with her time – finding her father’s close friend and fellow widower ‘unclean’ for marrying again (although, in discussion at Bradford, we wondered whether something had been lost in translation there from the original Japanese?) for which she is constantly teased by him. Professor Somiya (Ryû)’s sister is played by another regular Ozu actress (Haruko Sugimura – the daughter, Shige, in Tokyo Monogatari) in a comic turn as the match-making aunt. Ozu jokes directly with us by leaving out narrative elements (as he does in other films in the visual language) – when he withholds certain information from us – Hattori’s engagement, for example.
As part of a Western audience, I can find things that are ‘very Japanese’ about the film – the noh play, for example (which is apparently Kakitsubata based on the Tales of Ise? If so, it performs a second function as a metaphor as a tale of loss and longing, of being banished on a journey. However, aside from recognising that what might appear representative of a culture to outsiders has a far more complex position within the culture itself, it’s also worth remembering that in Late Spring as elsewhere in these films presents us with a world that is Ozu’s own rigorous creation. Part of effect of this is the way in which the emotions are incredibly ‘globally’ resonant – the relationship between the daughter and the father is entirely recognisable and affecting. Ozu is involving in a way that can (whether it should or not) lead us to ignore the specific cultural setting and talk about the characters – as people. In the end, does Noriko move towards something that is ‘natural’ and necessary – the right course of action to start a life with her husband. Or should she have been left to choose her own, completely contented (and free) life, with her father?
This was the first film that Ozu Yasujiro was able to make for five years (he was stationed in Singapore from 1943-5) and it was made on a shoestring at Shochiku’s Ofuna Studio in Kamakura, the ancient city South-West of Tokyo where Ozu lived and died. According to David Bordwell the film was scripted in just 12 days and the final cut lasted only 72 mins – it was after all a very difficult time in Japan.
Bordwell writes in detail about the film, including the similarities to prewar films by both Ozu and Naruse but he doesn’t mention the two things that struck me straightaway – the social and industrial context and the neo-realist feel. (To be fair he probably mentions these traits in other parts of his book that I haven’t read.)
The story is very simple. One of a group of people living in a clutch of houses amidst the rubble of Tokyo comes home one day with a small boy in tow. All the local residents have temporary jobs that reflect a struggle to make ends meet in this period of post-war reconstruction – yet there are also ‘new’ characters such as the smart young niece of one of the men.
The boy appears to have been abandoned by his father in the city and Tashiro (Ryu Chisu) has taken pity on him. But Tashiro doesn’t want to look after the boy himself and he tries first to unload him on his neighbour Tamekichi and when he refuses, on the widow Tane. She doesn’t want to look after the boy either but she lets him stay the night. Over the next week the reluctant Tane comes to accept the boy. That’s about it really as far as the narrative goes. There are incidents and there’s an ending, but the film is about the characters and the social situation rather than the narrative structure. This is why I think that neo-realism is a valid reference. The situation in Tokyo was similar (worse probably) to that in Rome or Berlin. Perhaps the Japanese were fortunate in not having so many ‘displaced persons’ (although there were Korean and Chinese migrants in Japan under the Occupation Authority). Like the neo-realists, Ozu was working with a familiar daily occurrence and seeing what it allowed him to explore in communities. May 1947 was too early for Ozu to have seen Bicycle Thieves or Germany Year Zero – or indeed any of the German ‘rubble films’ of the postwar period. But there are similarities in the situation and his approach. Although most of the film is studio bound, there are significant location-shot scenes. There are studio sets and these are studio actors, but still there is a sense in which this is a ‘story from the streets’ (rather than a literary adaptation like many of Ozu’s later films). It’s worth remembering also that the Occupation Authorities were supportive of some themes while they banned others. A story about a widow in the ‘new Japan’ was probably very acceptable in a climate of support for women’s rights.
I’m beginning to realise, as I watch more of Ozu, that most critics are too keen to ‘sectionalise’ the director’s output – as if he stopped making one kind of film and then started something else. He didn’t of course. There is a gradual accretion of stylistic devices and although there are shifts in thematics, there are also threads running through the whole body of work. For instance, I understand that there was reference to the difficult social realities of contemporary Japan in the 1930s films. In this sense, Record of a Tenement Gentleman is a continuation rather than a new beginning. The comic tone that lies on top of the sentimentality in the film is also a recurring element and the focus on the boy picks up on earlier films and is repeated in cameo appearances in Late Spring (1949) and is very evident in Ohayo! (1959).
In stylistic terms, this film has some of the ‘straight on’, Medium Close-Ups/Mid-Shots (as in the image above), shots of laundry drying, groups around the stove in the houses etc. – as well as shots outside amongst the rubble and along the beach. (I honestly can’t recall whether the camera moved in these sequences or if it was the movement of characters within the frame – certainly there is the sense of movement along the beach.)
I see no real reason to separate this film from those that followed in the so-called ‘late period’ of 1949-62. I haven’t watched all of the latter yet, but I’m sure that I will find them both similar and different, but consistent – if that makes sense.