Tokyo Chorus (東京の合唱, Yasujiro Ozu, 1931)

“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. 


I Was Born, But… ( 大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど, Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

I was born but stillWhen one thinks of the classic examples of children in Japanese cinema, Hiroshi Shimizu is the name which comes to mind but family chronicler Yasujiro Ozu also made a few notable forays into the genre. I Was Born, But… (大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど, Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo) stars one of the premier child actors of the silent era in Tokkan Kozo (later known as Tomio Aoki) who also worked repeatedly with Shimizu (Children in the Wind, Star Athlete) and Naruse (No Blood Relation, Apart from You, Street Without End, Forget Love for Now) among many others. Like Children in the Wind, I Was Born, But… is the story of two young boys and their well meaning dad only this time the boys’ faith in their father is not entirely justified. Ozu would also revisit this theme some years later with the genial comedy Good Morning which also sees a pair of cute as a button brothers going on strike though theirs is one of silence rather than hunger and provoked by the desire for a television rather than just shock and disillusionment on discovering the unfairness and hypocrisy of the adult world.

Mr. Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito) has moved his family into a nice house in the suburbs not far from that of his boss, Mr. Iwasaki (Takeshi Sakamoto). His two sons, Keiji (Tomio Aoki/Tokkan Kozo) and Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) quickly make enemies of some of the neighbourhood kids and start playing truant from school in order to avoid them. Making an ally of the delivery boy from the local sake shop, Keiji and Ryoichi enlist his efforts to get back at the head bully landing themselves top of the local pack.

However, one of the boys, Taro, is none other than the son of their dad’s boss, Mr. Iwasaki. Furiously engaging in a battle of my dad’s better than your dad, the boys are dismayed to see how their father obsequiously greets his superior. Their faith is well and truly crushed when Mr. Iwasaki invites all the kids over to watch some home movies (cutting edge technology for the time) which features some of the employees goofing off, including Yoshi who enthusiastically gurns and performs silly walks for his boss’ benefit. To Keiji and Ryoichi, Yoshi had been a kind of superhero – austere, but strong, honest and inspiring. Realising he’s just another corporate stooge betraying his true self for commercial gain, the boys are thrown into a period of acute existential confusion.

Yoshi’s mantra dictates that he wants his sons to grow up to become “someone”. Keiji and Ryoichi ironically turn this back on him with the charge that he himself is a “no one”. Yoshi cannot argue with their judgement, he is “no one”, in his own mind at least, and harbours a sense of disappointment in his dull and ordinary middle class life. Checking in with his sons after they’ve fallen asleep, Yoshi offers a different kind of mantra during a speech to his wife in that he hopes neither of his sons become company men like he has. He truly wants them to be “someones” but more than that, he wants them to be their own men, living their lives on their own terms and finding a greater sense of fulfilment than he has been able to in willingly debasing himself to curry favour with a boss he doesn’t particularly like to put food on the table for his family.

Keiji and Ryoichi, in a gesture of defiance, go on a hunger strike to prove that they don’t need their father to humiliate himself daily on their behalf. Yoshi can’t get through to them, his authority is significantly damaged and the boys are stubborn but then again their mother’s rice balls are just so tasty they might eventually be persuaded to abandon their mini protest by the power of a rumbly tum. The lesson they learn is one familiar to Ozu’s general philosophy, that battles must be picked and compromises made in the name of pragmatism even if they may uncomfortable to bear.

Ozu shoots with his characteristic naturalism, allowing the boys to goof off as only children can as they pull faces, dance, and strike poses to poke fun at the other boys but also engage in a strange “resurrection” gimmick rather than a secret handshake to bond with their new frenemines. Forgiveness and reconciliation are all around as the boys learn to accept their slightly less black and white world, embrace their new friends, and stride forward towards their eventual destinies. The children occupy one world, and the adults another but perhaps they aren’t so different after all.


Short scene from the film (English subtitles)

Flunky, Work Hard (腰弁頑張れ, Mikio Naruse, 1931)

flunky work hardMikio Naruse is often remembered for his female focussed stories of ordinary women trying to do they best they can in often difficult circumstances, but the earliest extant example of his work (actually his ninth film), Flunky, Work Hard (腰弁頑張れ, Koshiben Ganbare), is the sometimes comic but ultimately poignant tale of a lowly insurance salesman struggling to get ahead in depression era Japan.

Okabe is the lowly insurance agent of the title. He works hard for his money, but there are slim pickings round here to begin with and a lot of competition from rival agents so Okabe struggles to provide for his wife and his little boy, Susumu, in the way that he would like. Okabe subjects himself any sort of humiliating behaviour on offer to try and get a contract including engaging in leap frog with a well to do lady’s children to try and seem more “friendly” than his rival broker.

Susumu, by contrast is a rebellious little boy and is aways getting into scraps with the neighbourhood kids who tease him because of his parents’ money problems. This wouldn’t usually be too much of a problem and Okabe even tells him it’s OK to defend himself when the other kids start in on him. Only this time Susumu has been fighting with the well to do lady’s sons which is going to make Okabe look bad and make it more difficult to convince her to take out a policy with his firm over another.

Okabe loses his temper and scolds the boy who runs off in anger and confusion only to get into a serious accident. His father, not knowing it’s his son that’s been injured, uses the news of a little boy getting hurt to try and convince the other mothers to take out insurance policies on their children. Later he feels bad about shouting at Susumu and decides to buy him a present, only he might already be too late…

Flunky, Work Hard starts out like the nonsense comedies Shochiku were known for at the time with a little of their common man approach thrown in, but quickly heads into melodrama territory as Susumu meets with his unfortunate destiny. This sequence is the most notable in the film as it’s far more experimental in nature than anything found in Naruse’s later work. Dipping into a montage of kaleidoscopic images, diagonal splits and the awful momentum of a train hurtling along a predetermined track only to meet with a horrifying, unexpected obstacle, this extremely complex sequence is the perfect cinematic expression of the blood draining from a father’s face as he contemplates the fact that he might have just lost his son through having lost his temper over something as trivial as a few shiny coins. Okabe is not a bad man, or even a bad father, but just another ordinary guy trying to make it through the depression. Even so, he may be about to pay a terrible price for failing to side with his son in favour of businesses prospects.

Like many silent films from this era, almost all of Naruse’s early work appears to be lost. Flunky, Work Hard is somewhat atypical when considered alongside his later career which had a strong female focus and leant more towards social commentary than the slapstick humour seen here. However, its tale of a father desperately trying to find a way to support his son in difficult economic circumstances only to find that his efforts may cost him the very thing that he was trying to protect all along is one which is instantly recognisable in any era.


Flunky, Work Hard is the first and earliest of the five films included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.