One of Japan’s greatest filmmakers and a consummate cinephile, Yasujiro Ozu was evidently enigmatic. In his later career, he refashioned the family drama as a conduit for reconciling his country’s postwar modernization with a timelessly reassuring existential ennui.
Even more eccentric and considerably more adventuresome, his earliest films evinced a similar impulse to play with genre and narrative in ways equally smart and flummoxing. Some, such as the class-conscious slapstick of Tokyo Chorus, are more conventional riffs. Others are mysteries of life’s—and art’s—mundaneness.
Among this batch of cine-arcana, Ozu’s 1933 short Woman of Tokyo is among the most compelling –an oblique melodrama that demonstrates both the director’s propensity to perplex and his singular sense of film grammar.
“Adapted,” with Ozu’s typical bone-dry levity, from a novel that never existed (cited in the credits as 26 Hours by Ernest Schwartz), Woman of Tokyo was shot expeditiously during a nine-day gap in the production schedule of Japan’s renowned Shokichu Studios. The resulting film channels that temporal urgency—albeit in a much more inexplicable way. Like most of the director’s work, Woman of Tokyo is predicated in domestic discord.
Quietly coexisting, an amicable pair of siblings shares a spartan tenement in a nondescript working class neighborhood. The brother is a university student. The sister, who does clerical work by day and purportedly moonlights as a translator for various academics, is mostly inscrutable.
The two eventually find themselves at odds when the brother gleans some scandalous gossip about his sister’s nocturnal adventures.
Ozu’s tone is bafflingly offbeat. Linear and deceptively simplistic, the plot’s straightforward and faintly sensationalist premise soon spirals into disjunction. Vague paranoia suffuses the atmosphere.
Early in the film, a police officer visits the sister’s office and furtively inquires about her working habits. Having heard nothing but praise, the cop nevertheless proceeds to brand her as a dangerous person. Word travels fast, and eventually her brother catches wind of the canards from his girlfriend. There is virtually no exposition and key events are elided. Ozu reveals that the sister has joined the Tokyo demi-monde, working as a hostess for a seedy nightclub, but neglects to divulge her most sordid secret.
Indeed, what the director conceals is so vexing that the characters can only utter it in a pronounced stage whisper. The conceit plays like contempo-kabuki by way of Hitchcock and Lacan. Minute gestures assume tremendous importance and obscured information takes shape as a verbal MacGuffin.
Indeed, that which is unknown catalyzes Woman of Tokyo. Deciphering it, though, is difficult. In Kogo Noda and Tadeo Nakeda’s original screenplay, the sister was a clandestine Communist activist, using a portion of her income to finance a party of local agitators. Ozu, however, eventually jettisoned such overt political tropes (due, at least in part, to the ultra-nationalist and anti-pluralist sentiments percolating throughout Japan during this period) for more elusive psychological contretemps.
As a rule, the characters are blankly misanthropic and theatrically inert. The principals overplay emotion with measured stiffness. In the film’s most fraught sequence, the appalled brother violently reprimands his sister with a litany of robotic slaps.
Quietly fractious and occasionally free-associative, Woman of Tokyo’s style is of a piece with its content. Keeping the camera static, Ozu constructs each scene from sundry angles and individual shots. By splitting simple actions like the cutting of fruit into a medley of perspectives, this vaguely cubist cutting method serves mostly to contract onscreen space and isolate the actors within the camera frame—a standard Ozu metaphor for the loneliness of modern living.
In essence, Woman of Tokyo is a film that appears alienated from itself. Perception is disembodied. Ozu peppers the actual plot with “pillow shots”: fixed compositions in which austere interiors or banal household objects take on the character of celluloid still lives. A diffident Marxist, the director emphasizes the material being of the world. What he finds, however, is mostly spiritual vacuity.
Inculcated with sensibilities of the European avant-garde but nostalgic for bygone Japan, no filmmaker understood better or earlier than Ozu his country’s status as a capitalist simulacrum: a place where industry engulfs tradition as if it never existed and the individual takes precedent over community. One might even regard Woman of Tokyo as contra-orientalist.
By appropriating Hollywood motifs and plying them into a foreign context, Ozu effectively flips the West’s fetishizing gaze and lets the East gawk for a change. This theme manifests most evidently early in the film when the brother and his girlfriend attend a screening of Paramount’s 1932 omnibus, If I Had a Million. Interpolated footage of Charles Laughton as a white collar clerk becomes undeniably distant and strange.
Meanwhile, as the characters sit pondering a rags-to-riches fantasy, the fiction of their lives is about to take a turn for the worse.