Most closely associated with his late career family dramas, Yasujiro Ozu has acquired a reputation for geniality which may in a sense be slightly unfair. He was always an astute chronicler of his times, often choosing to view them through the frame of family, and was never as blind to the issues of the day as some would have it. Ozu’s ‘30s work, that which survives at least, is in a sense fiercely political in its critique of the inequalities of the depression-era society. One of his early crime movies, the silent That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, Sono yo no Tsuma) insists that justice must be done but does so with compassion in its full and total empathy for a man driven to extremes by the depth of his paternal love.
Indeed, the early part of the film is tense noir chase as the hero, desperate father Shuji (Tokihiko Okada), attempts to evade a police dragnet to make his way home after robbing a bank to get money to pay for his sick daughter Michiko’s (Mitsuko Ichimura) medical care. Meanwhile, loyal wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo) has been patiently waiting at home tending to the child who refuses to sleep because she only wants her father and constantly asks where he is. Shuji eventually makes it back and tells his horrified wife what he has done, agreeing that he will turn himself in to the police once Michiko is well, but he’s already out of luck. The taxi he darted into was being driven by an undercover cop (Chishu Ryu) who installs himself in the apartment but agrees to wait until the doctor comes in the morning before taking Shuji in.
Out of keeping with the rest of Ozu’s career but very much in the vein of his depression-era silents, That Night’s Wife concerns a poor but happy family mustering what little resources they have in the face of despair. Filled with tension as the policeman waits impatiently, the camera pans around the one room apartment where the family live and finds it to be a homely, bohemian space, apparently an artist’s studio with foreign film posters and travel souvenirs hanging from the walls. By all indications a starving painter, Shuji is a poor man brought to ruin by accidental tragedy. His daughter is deathly ill and doctors cost money. We can see that, by the standards of the time, he is a very hands on father beloved by his little girl and is obviously willing to sacrifice himself and his future to ensure her survival
It’s Mayumi, however, to whom the film’s title refers and in her role as wife rather than mother. The doctor (Tatsuo Saito) worries that she has not slept in the last few days, how could she when her child is so ill, but it’s she who eventually picks up the gun to protect the family by disarming the policeman and, essentially, keeping him hostage until the morning when, she claims, Shuji will willingly go with him after confirming Michiko’s survival. The world is turned upside down, no one quite plays the role they’ve been assigned. The loving father, an effete artist, turns unconvincing master criminal, the loyal wife gangster’s moll, and the policeman a calm and compassionate guardian deeply moved by the family’s predicament but also knowing that the law must be served.
In a typically Ozu touch, the policeman pretends to be asleep with the intention of letting Shuji escape, but he once again makes an atypical choice. He refuses to run, swearing off “crazy ideas” but unrepentant in his crime. Shuji determines to pay his debt to society so that he can return home as a redeemed father and hold his daughter as a man unburned by his transgression. The message isn’t so much that crime doesn’t pay as that crime must be paid for. Shuji is acquitted in the moral courts of the audience’s hearts and not even the policeman blames him for what he has done which is all he could do as a father in an oppressive and indifferent society. A strange complicity develops between the two men who are restored to their original roles, both acknowledging that of the other and sorry for what they each know must happen next but already resigned. The father saves his family only through accepting his exile from it, but unlike Ozu’s wandering fathers of the 1930s, seems destined to return after redeeming himself in the eyes of a society which had long since abandoned him.