This year marks the 120th anniversary of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, a maverick filmmaker who began his career during the silent film era and made his last two films (in colour) in the early 1960s. To celebrate the occasion, BFI recently released a 2-disc Blu-ray set containing three of Ozu’s earlier films. Although each is different in topic, the core themes of conflict within the family and relationships between the generations remain.

DRAGNET GIRL (1933 / 101 min – silent) was hugely successful upon its original release and tells the story of Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), a female version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if you so will. An office typist by day, Tokiko reveals her true colours when night falls: not only does she frequent dens of iniquity but she’s also a gun-toting gangster’s moll, although the word gangster might be a bit strong to describe Joji (Oka Joji), a former boxer who now reigns over a gang of pickpockets. Despite the two living together (albeit ‘in sin’), trouble appears on the horizon when Joji encounters Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo), a humble shop assistant who desperately begs the gang leader not to recruit Hiroshi (Tanaka Kinuyo), her brother and only family member, pointing out that Hiroshi is an intelligent student with a bright future and she is worried that he will throw this future in the gutter if he joins the gang in gain for earning a quick buck by stealing. Despite all her well-meaning words, Hiroshi joins the gang though over time, Kazuko’s continuing efforts to persuade Joji to set her brother free not only impresses him but he begins to fall for her – prompting jealousy from Tokiko, who is usually quite tolerant. Things are spilling over when Hiroshi steals money from the very shop where his sister works, leaving her devastated. Her steadfastness even impresses Tokiko, who begins to display sympathy towards Kazuko and she realises there can’t be any future for her and Joji unless they give up their criminal lifestyle and go straight – but not until one last ‘job’ when the couple decide to rob Tokiko’s lecherous boss of all people, if only so they can give the loot to Hiroshi, so he may pay back the money he stole from his sister’s shop. Of course, things don’t go according to plan and when the police are closing in, both Tokiko and Joji begin to realise that their future happiness will come at a price…
Here, Kinuyo Tanaka excels as a gangster’s moll who comes across as hardened on the outside, but inwardly crumbles when her conscience and emotions begin to play havoc. Likewise, the settings add to the atmosphere of this atmospherically shot drama, with scenes set in the underworld that stand in stark contrast to the scenes of daily work- and domestic life.

RECORD OF A TENEMENT GENTLEMAN (1947 / 71min) initially appears to have a rather simplistic plot but look deeper, and you will soon detect complexities subtly woven through the narrative. Set in post-war Tokyo, the story revolves around a small group of residents who live in a poor district of the metropolis which has been particularly badly damaged by bombing raids during WW2. One of the residents is O-Tane (Choko Lida), an embittered, elderly widow who sells bits and bobs to carve out a meagre living. Then there is Tashiro, a street fortune teller (Chishu Ryu) and Tamekichi (Reikichi Kawamura) who, just like widow O-Tane, also sells bits and bobs and pots and pans in the hope of earning a crust. One day, Tashiro arrives with a young boy named Kohei (Hohi Aoki), originally from Chigasaki. The boy claims he has become separated from his father, a carpenter, while looking for work in Tokyo though Tashiro and his friends seem to be of the opinion that the boy’s widowed father is simply neglecting his parental duty. After much discussion and bickering, both Tashiro and Tamekichi persuade widow O-Tane to let the boy sleep in her place for the night. Grudgingly, she agrees but when Kohei wets his futon, O-Tane is furious and wants the boy out of the house. That’s easier said than done, because no one else is willing to put up the lad, least of all Kawayoshi (Takeshi Sakamoto), a dyer who has three children of his own to feed. After a rigged draw, poor O-Tane finds herself looking after the boy once again. When Kiku (Mitsuka Yoshikawa), an old friend of O-Tane who has done well for herself thanks to running a Geisha house, visits the elderly woman, an honest conversation brings emotions in O-Tane to the forefront she didn’t know she had. Gradually, she begins to have motherly feelings for the little boy though she would never admit it to herself, let alone display her emotions in front of others. That moment comes when the boy’s father unexpectedly turns up at O-Tane’s house, overjoyed that his son, who had finally been found again after much searching. The father explains that while looking for a job in Tokyo, Kohei ran off and he couldn’t find him for days. O-Tane, realising that the boy’s father had not neglected his son after all, must now hand her ‘foundling’ back. After the two leave, she breaks down crying and admits to herself that she has become fond of him and now seeks to adopt an orphan to combat her loneliness. With a strong performance from Choko Ida, this will have you reaching for the tissue box!

A HEN IN THE WIND (1944 / 84min) is once again set in post-war Tokyo and stars ‘Dragnet Girl’ actress Kinuyo Tanaka taking on the leading role (who is also called Tokiko in this film)! That said, here she doesn’t play a gangster’s moll but a twenty-nine year old mother who eagerly waits for her husband’s repatriation from WW2. With prices in post-war Tokyo constantly rising, Tokiko Amamiya is forced to rent a ramshackle room in an industrial working-class district and works all hours under the sun to make ends meet as a dressmaker. Her only true friend seems to be Akiko, (Chieko Murata), a former workmate whom she has known since childhood. When Tokiko’s young son Hiroshi unexpectedly falls ill, he needs urgent hospital treatment and while he pulls through, Tokiko is now forced with a hospital bill she simply cannot pay. In her desperation, she prostitutes herself for one night only in an establishment at the periphery of town. A short time later, Shuichi (Shuji Sano), Tokiko’s beloved husband, returns at long last and the happy family is reunited once again. Their happiness is short-lived, however, when Shuichi inquires about his son’s illnesses while he was away and the conversation inevitably turns to his recent hospital stay. Sensing that such treatment must have come with a hefty bill, Tokiko finds herself unable to tell a lie and eventually confesses to her husband about what she has done. Shocked, humiliated and angry all at once, Shuichi leaves the room and cannot bring himself to forgive his wife – even at work, his this and only thought dominates. Unaware of what has happened, Akiko cautions Tokiko not to tell her husband the truth about what she has done, but when Tokiko confesses that she has already told her husband, her friend scolds her for being stupid and a fool. Throughout the film, Akiko always seems well-meaning but ultimately doesn’t come across as compassionate and understanding towards her friend’s situation. When Shuji decides to secretly visit the very establishment in which his wife committed adultery, an encounter with a young woman – equally forced to prostitution due to her desperate circumstances – finally shakes him up enough to realise his wife had no other option than doing what she did… This tale of redemption and forgiveness is superbly acted by the leads and is a testimony to Ozu’s skill as a filmmaker who undoubtedly understood his craft.

Bonus Material includes commentaries for all three films, plus illustrated booklet (first pressing only) with selected essays.