Monday, April 11, 2011

Dragnet Girl (Ozu, 1933)

It was a rare foray into the gangster genre for the master so well-known for detailing the everyday rituals of the (then) modern Japanese family, but even in this oeuvre-oddity one can clearly see the early workings of many of the signature motifs that would later come to define the great Yasujiro Ozu.  Considered the most "Japanese" of Japanese filmmakers, Ozu was still, like his younger contemporary Akira Kurosawa, influenced by western filmmakers, and that influence is not more evident that in his 1933 silent gangster movie, Dragnet Girl.

Opening with Ozu's famous "pillow shots", there is no doubt this is an Ozu film.  Rows of hats hanging on hooks, businessmen hurrying through the streets, their shadows rushing along behind them in hopes of keeping up, pans of typewriters clicking away in an anonymous office.  These quite simple yet beautiful and strangely alluring shots open Ozu's picture, and the director will go back to these shots again and again throughout, creating a mood that is both formal and soothing but also arousing and potentially dangerous in its oft-disarming fashion.  Like I said, pure Ozu.

The difference here, as opposed to the grand auteur's later, more austere works such as Late Spring, Early Summer, Tokyo Story and Autumn Afternoon, is that potential danger that lingers in the quietude of those aforementioned "pillow shots", actually does explode in Dragnet Girl.  It explodes in quick bursts (sometimes off-screen entirely!?) in the way one would expect the familial catharsis to happen in the director's later works.  There it is emotional but here it is physical.  Different but the same in many ways.  With its Jazz Age exuberance and touches of classic Hollywood, Dragnet Girl is certainly much more westernized than most of Ozu, but still very much an Ozu motion picture from start to finish.

As far as a gangster film goes, though influenced by the early precode films of Hollywood (and probably the Poetic Realism of early French sound cinema) and with a look that reputedly mirrored von Sternberg, Dragnet Girl, the story of an up and coming mobster and his titular moll, and the tragedy that ensues in this world of petty crime and romantic larceny, is much more esoteric (aka, more Ozu-like) than any of these particular influences.  Ozu's use of quiet space (and since this is a silent film, I of course mean quiet in the physical sense of the word) and his methodical pacing (and those beloved pillow shots!) make for a gangster flick with the heart of a poetic dreamer.  Perhaps the influence of Poetic Realism is stronger than I first alluded to oh so parenthetically and offhandishly.

Whatever the case, Dragnet Girl ends up being one of the earliest works of Ozu, even in a genre he so rarely (only twice that I can be sure of) went to, that shows what the great auteur would one day become.  Influenced by Film Forum's current retrospective, "5 Japanese Divas" (info can be found here) this film helps to kick off my personal proclamation of Japanese Cinema Month (a deeper explanation can be read here) and I think this very modern work of said national cinema, and the way it leads to the whole breadth of what is to come in that very same cinema, may be the perfect intro to the rest of this month full of Mizoguchi and Naruse and Kurosawa and Ichikawa and, of course, Yasujiro Ozu.

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