“Tokyo – city of the unemployed” runs a rather unexpected caption part way through Yasujiro Ozu’s depression-era silent comedy, Tokyo Chorus (東京の合唱, Tokyo no Chorus). Putting an unconventional spin on the reality of the contemporary capital, Ozu nevertheless retreats into his favourite themes as good people attempt to remain cheerful in the face of increasing adversity while embracing an often latent interest in class politics as the hero finds himself losing out at the hands of heartless capitalists when he alone is brave enough to stand up for a friend treated unfairly.
Ozu opens however with an amusing prologue set some years before the main action in which the hero, Okajima (Tokihiko Okada), is a poor student goofing off during a military-style drill. While another boy arrives late to practice and is mocked for having arrived in geta, Okajima’s problem is that he didn’t want to take his jacket off because he isn’t wearing a shirt. A little less well off than some of the others, he brazens things out by ribbing the teacher, Mr. Omura (Tatsuo Saito). Flashforward some years and Okajima has become an insurance clerk, married with three children. His oldest child, a son, is desperate for a bicycle because the other kids have one and as Okajima is supposed to be getting his bonus today, the parents have decided to give in.
Things do not, however, go quite to plan. After picking up his pay packet, Okajima gets talking with an old timer who laments he’s just been fired. He thinks it’s because he sold some unlucky policies in which the beneficiary died shortly after signing the paperwork, but it seems obvious to Okajima that they’re firing him because they don’t want to pay his pension. He talks things over with the other employees who all agree it’s unfair, but is the only one brave enough to march into the boss’ office and say so. Unfortunately, Okajima gets nowhere and loses his own job in the proccess. Dejected, he buys his son a much cheaper scooter on the way home but the boy is unimpressed, as is his wife (Emiko Yagumo) when he hands her his notice of termination.
It is of course a good and proper thing that Okajima stood up for colleague, but he’s lost out because of his pride, smugly explaining to his wife that he was in the right while arguing with his boss and resentfully refusing to admit the irresponsibility of his actions as a husband and a father. Pride becomes a persistent secondary concern as he tries to find another steady job in the economically straitened world of 1931. Despite telling his colleague he envied him for his job as a sandwichboard man and claiming that having a college degree makes him overqualified for casual work, Okajima struggles with himself intellectually knowing that any job will do to feed his family but embarrassed in having to resort to work he feels is beneath him. When he runs into Mr. Omura and he offers to help him with a job in the curry rice restaurant he now owns after retiring from teaching, Okajima is conflicted, telling him he won’t accept help if it’s offered out of pity but only if extended in friendship. When his wife spots him out delivering leaflets, however, she is scandalised and humiliated rather than proud or grateful, only later coming round and agreeing to help out in the Omuras’ restaurant herself.
Meanwhile, family life is obviously strained by their ongoing financial predicament. When their daughter is taken ill and needs hospital treatment, Mrs. Okajima is upset to discover that her husband sold all her kimonos to pay the fees, their eyes aflash with anger and despair as they put on a brave face for the children but eventually brightening as they continue on with a family game of pat-a-cake. Despite her distress, Mrs. Okaijma maintains faith in her husband and the family is as happy as it can be under the circumstances. At a reunion organised for some of his former students now no longer the rambunctious young men they were at the film’s opening but wistful for the spent freedoms of their youth, Omura makes a toast hoping that everyone continues to prosper through “hard-work and self-reliance”, but it is the mutual solidarity which Okajima showed when he stood up for his mistreated colleague which eventually proves his salvation. Humbled by his experiences, no longer looking down on honest work, he gets the offer of another job which is not quite of the kind he was hoping for, but is perhaps a new start even if it means leaving Tokyo, city of the unemployed, behind for the greener pastures of provincial Tochigi and a simpler, but perhaps kinder, existence.