Friday, 4 May 2018

The family that plays together… Tokyo Chorus (1931), with Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope

1931 and this is already Yasujirō Ozu’s 22nd film and one which, stylistically, isn’t a million miles away from his later work. This is deceptively simple story telling but it is so deliciously subtle. A father returns home from being sacked and has bought his son a scooter rather than the bike he promised, the boy is angry and the two fight with the father smacking the seven-year old in frustration. The mother arrives back and asks her husband to apologise, he shows her the letter… immediately she understands and the children, having glanced at the note turn it into a paper plane and start playing catch. The father decides to buy the boy his bike even though they are facing tough financial straits…

Everyone in this scene has a narrative line, even their baby and the boy’s sister… Ozu is showing the family and all of its parts reacting to the bad news about the job and the bike. It’s not over-dramatized and there’s no “heroic” focus on the man; even though he’s the provider, it’s a family problem and husband and wife will face this together.

This is why Ozu is such a compelling film-maker, even in his silent period when he was still experimenting with style. He lingers on interiors as he will in later films and occasionally cuts away to a brief shot of sunflowers or a washing line… both adding extra impact to the events and emotions in side. The first time I saw Ozu I felt I was viewing a strikingly-foreign culture but now I see more universal themes and some of the best acting you’ll find whether it’s the indefatigable Hideo Sugawara (who was indeed seven) to the middle-aged Tatsuo Saitō.

The central couple are played by Tokihiko Okada as Shinji Okajima and Emiko Yagumo as his wife Sugako. Okada has a comic touch and is Harold Lloyd-handsome able to gain our sympathy as the slightly devil-may-care insurance clerk who argues with his boss against an elder colleague’s dismissal. Emiko Yagumo has a kind, patient face and carries her character’s emotional responses carefully, showing them in devastating slow-release.

The film begins with a group of youths in the exercise yard with their sports teacher, Ōmura Sensei (Tatsuo Saitō) who is exasperated with one out of step student… Shinji who is late and has forgotten his underclothes. Cut forward a few years and Shinj is working as an insurance clerk and promising his son a bike on the basis of his annual bonus.

Battle of the fans
Ozu plays the humour so much we aren’t braced for the dramatic turn-about as Shinji, handsome bonus in pocket, tries to stand up for his older colleague Yamada (Takeshi Sakamoto) who has been sacked on some jumped up pretence. Even his confrontation with the company President (Reikō Tani) is semi-comic as he steals the latter’s fan to make his point only for his boss to pull out another to retaliate.

But there are serious consequences beyond just his failure to buy a bike… the family are about to suffer tough times as jobs are as scarce in Great Depression Japan as anywhere else and as their daughter Miyoko (Hideko Takamine) falls ill, they have to sell Sugako’s kimonos to pay for her care.

In themes reminiscent of The Crowd, the film deals with gradually eroding hope and self-esteem as Shinji has to do anything he can to earn money no matter how humiliating. Throughout we see the family unit hold strong despite petulance from their son (the remarkable Hideo Sugawara who was also to feature in I Was Born But… (1932)) whose spirit will no doubt hold him in good stead…

Facing up together
Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied matching the deceptive, controlled movements of Ozu’s story with figures of his own; period-appropriate arpeggios that carried wistful force and fast-fingered phrasing that echoed the detail in every frame. Those moments when the characters are seemingly still are the ones with the most happening: Shinji and Sugako looking downwards, both in profile as the weight of responsibility for the happiness and survival of their family bears down. It was all captured in Cyrus’ themes too.

The Bioscope is known for it’s excellent accompanists and we also had Meg Morley playing alongside two unusual late period films whilst John Sweeney saddled up alongside Texas Guinan…

Texas was the real thing (or is that “thang!”) a ranch gal (there I go again) from Waco, who could ride and shoot as good as any man on her father’s farm. Michelle Facey’s gone to the heart of Texas and in her introduction revealed how Guinan toured as an itinerant rodeo performer before the stage (not that one…) called. She featured in vaudeville were her pep and knack for self-promotion stood her in good stead: she once claimed to have accidentally shot herself in the side, but the show still went on, it being just a flesh wound an all. She was still a chorus girl in 1917 and as she road a horse down the runway in the theatre she was talent spotted by a movie man.

She had made dozens of short films by the time of The Girl of the Rancho (1919) a tale of thwarted cross-cultural romance in which a Mexican bandit kidnaps Guinan’s young sister to try and blackmail her into loving him. This amorous motivation was excised from most versions of the film and the emphasis was on the abduction which seems to happen for almost no reason. It’s a rip-roaring tale with lots of action: Texas fights, she shoots, she rides and she outwits all around her.

Mr Sweeney formed a piano-posse of his own and galloped along with thunderous intent.

Time for some poetry? Youth, Beside the Lonely Sea (c. 1924-25) was based on the poem, originally entitled Voices and Visions (1893) written by American writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich. It was a dreamy, bitter-sweet ode to old regrets and a call to never lose youthful wonder in the World… part of the reason we all come to the Cinema Museum. It made startling use of a triptych – before even Mr Gance – with a young soul growing old and almost losing touch with his fairies.

Things got even more surreal with painter Boris Deutsch’s only film, Lullaby (1929) which, whilst it focused on the harsh peasant life in Russia also delivered nightmarish visions to torment a young woman charged with minding the baby for her careless elders. If Lotte Eisner had seen this she might have revised her fixed limit to expressionist films. It’s lovely stuff and all illuminated with spritely precision by the deft touch of Meg Morley on keyboards.

Sweet dreams? Lullaby
Tonight was so engaging that it – almost – made me forget that Liverpool FC were playing Roma in the semi-final of the Champions League: we won 7-6! Cinema Museum: You’ll Never Walk Alone.

PS Some more of that Ozu magic...
Others are being called to work
The outside world intrudes
The family that plays together, stays together.

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