From small seeds great oaks can grow. The old saying can’t help but inform a viewing of Ozu’s Days of Youth. Through various issues, a combination of Japan’s poor record for preserving their own cinema and the ravages endured during World War 2, this is as far back as we can currently see into Ozu’s career. Although 1929 was only the second full year he spent making films this was the eighth feature he completed. The previous seven are all now considered lost, unless some wonderful discovery is made1. Surviving in poor condition, but certainly watchable, Days of Youth now stands as the earliest access point into the great director’s cinema.
It’s unusual, then, to find that much of the formalism we associate with his later work is already, to some degree or another, present here. Granted, it’s possible that the fairly stayed camera was not so much a conscious expression of the director as it was the result of using older equipment. Compared to other industrialised nations it took Japan much longer to make the transition to sound. A major reason for this was that it was common to twin silent films with a live voiceover, an adaptation of their own national theatre styles, and so live sound seemed like less of an immediate reward.
This being the case it might also be safe to assume that the major studios within Japan didn’t see much point in keeping up to date with the lighter, more modern silent-film cameras that allowed the likes of F.W. Murnau to revolutionise the medium with his ‘unchained’ visuals2. As the USA led the charge, having developed the technology to make full-sound cinema possible, with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, audiences around the world soon came to expect their favourite actors to talk on screen. The changeover took a while. By 1929 various European powers were on board, with Hitchcock’s Blackmail and Robert Land’s Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame (I Kiss Your Hand, Madame) marking breakthroughs for their respective nations. While silent and semi-silent cinema still lingered throughout Europe, in Japan it persisted right up until 1936 as the dominant form.
It’s perhaps also surprising, given later decisions regarding the worth of exporting Ozu’s films to the Occident, that so many western elements are visible here. The famous line attached to the director’s work is that it was ‘too Japanese’ to find appreciation abroad and so favour was instead given to the works of his contemporary Mizoguchi and, of course, the young Kurosawa. The great strength of Ozu’s cinema, as is now largely recognised, is the absolutely timeless and universal flavour it possesses. His films are composed with a kind humanism that vaults over cultural boundaries. Nonetheless, this ‘Japanese-ness’ was largely a myth. The young Ozu found much of his early influences in Hollywood.
Most notable was the great German director Ernst Lubitsch whose sparkling comedies certainly struck a chord. Meanwhile a poster advertising Frank Borzage’s hugely popular romance, 7th Heaven3, hangs in a key location, even gaining its own close-up in one scene. Days of Youth doesn’t feel stiflingly Japanese nor does it feel at all formal or austere. It is a light, breezy comedy that affectionately looks at two college students as they fall for the same girl. The truth is, as we now can realise, that Ozu’s severe ‘Japanese-ness’ was simply his highly developed formal sense manifesting itself. After all, I’ve yet to hear of anyone rejecting the similarly rigorous Robert Bresson based on his films being ‘too French,’ even as Godard proclaimed the elder gent represented the quintessence of his native land on the screen.
Opening with a series of right-to-left pans, moving from broader cityscapes to closer perspectives, we finally settle on the exterior of a single building. A sign advertises a room for rent and we soon learn that it’s a ploy by the student who lives there, the wily Watanabe (Yuji Ichiro) to draw women in. He attracts the attention of Chieko, who is interested in the room. Meanwhile Chieko has also attracted the attention of Watanabe’s friend, the shy and bookish Yamamoto (Saito Tatsuo). Neither boy’s advances find their mark so their attention turns instead to the ski vacation their class has planned to celebrate the completion of annual final exams. Of course there they meet up with Chieko again and once more try to outshine one another before they realise she’s already spoken for, to a classmate of theirs no less. Such are the small defeats in life, further compounded during the train-ride home by news that they have both flunked their exams. Retaining circularity the vistas of the opening pans are reversed as the camera moves left-to-right and waves us on our way.
As would become the norm for his cinema, the plot, in terms of recounting the exact events that occur, is extremely simple. The bulk of the film’s material is devoted to the relationship between the two central characters as they try and impress Chieko while also studying. It becomes apparent that the boys are cut out for neither task. Utilising a few simple gags in the first half, an accident with wet paint and Watanabe’s ploys for luring women to his room, the film really takes off once we reach the winter resort of Akakura. Here we’re treated to a few extended slapstick sequences as the snowy slopes become the staging area for rivalrous displays of one-upmanship. If Watanabe is an excellent skier, then Yamamoto is better prepared for life out on the slopes, packing with him various hot drinks and refreshments. Nonetheless it’s eventually the latter who is sent careening down the mountain as he tries to recapture one of his skis, sent upon its way by Watanabe. Although hardly as virtuosic as the athletics of Keaton, Chaplin, or Harold Lloyd4, there is a real sense of dynamism as the previously bridled camera, handled by cameraman Mohara Hideo (apparently an avid skier), lunges down the slope after poor Yamamoto. As fans will know, there are only a handful of examples within the auteur’s extant work where a word like ‘dynamism’ really can be applied in that context.
While Days of Youth is certainly enjoyable in and of itself, it’s difficult not to approach it as a curio in relation to the later, more mature work of Ozu. Certainly stylistically we can see elements of what would become his preferred aesthetic but the implementation is not quite identical. Static compositions, typically observing details of architecture, of clothes-lines or of infrastructure, would form the crux of what would later be known as ‘pillow shots’ and are present here in a rough form. These simple compositions, floating separately but amidst the narrative, worked as rhythmic measures to aid the audience in digesting dramatic elements as the plot unveiled them. Here they find their way in as point-of-view shots, capturing the view of the surrounding area as seen from the boys’ bedroom window. Nonetheless, it’s interesting that even back in 1929, smoke stacks would serve as a primary subject.
Otherwise the general flow of the camera and the composition of shots tend to be a lot more animated than what would become considered the norm. For example, the camera frequently opts to capture full faces in close-up, rather than maintain a medium-shot. Elsewhere it glides and pans in a manner that would become exceedingly rare later on, as Ozu reserved such measures for moments of key dramatic intensity, such as the slowly rising crane-shot that comes near the close of Early Summer or the tracking camera that tries to encapsulate Setsuko Hara’s boundless sense of freedom aboard her bike in Late Spring.
It is with a certain sense of reservation, that one might recommend Days of Youth. It certainly stands up as a pleasant silent comedy but unfortunately the poor condition of the film itself would surely be trying for those unused to watching such old cinema. Although two years younger than Metropolis, the image quality here, per Hong Kong company Panorama’s release5, is markedly poorer than even the recovered segments of Lang’s film. Given the BFI and Criterion’s more recent forays into releasing Ozu’s older films, it’s likely little improvement could be made without compromising other aspects of the image. Still, for those who recognise Ozu’s importance and skill, Days of Youth remains an important piece of film history. That it has survived in full and can be viewed by the general public is undoubtedly victory enough.
1 It can happen. Who could have imagined after eighty years, that much of the “lost” footage excised from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis would be recovered? The odds are pretty long but perhaps it’s the film fan’s duty to hope.
2 Japan wasn’t the only country to be suspicious of sound cinema. Murnau himself lamented the arrival of the technology as being ‘too soon’. He was right. It arrived just as silent cinema was reaching its full potential. The artistry he pioneered was temporarily replaced with clunky visual compositions, limited by heavier sound-capable cameras. There were also limitations with blocking shots due to the new necessity that every actor be within range of a microphone while delivering their lines. Thankfully, improved technology eventually fixed these issues.
3 A late silent film that is unfairly overlooked, or perhaps simply underseen, as compared to its contemporary, F.W. Murnau’s remarkable Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Both were made at Fox studios, where the German master’s influence on his less established Fox cohorts could easily be seen. John Ford, at this point only recently established as a feature film director of serious note, could also be seen taking notice. His 1928 film, The Hangman’s Daughter evokes a similar atmosphere to Sunrise, particularly the swampy set that likely reused elements from Murnau’s audacious, no-expense-spared project.
4 I must admit it didn’t occur to me at the time, but I think Ozu-san.com is quite right with the observation that Yamamoto bears more than a passing resemblance to Harold Lloyd.
5 At the time of this writing, Panorama’s DVD edition is the only available English-friendly version of the film. The British Film Institute (BFI) are currently engaged in a plan to release all of Ozu’s surviving works on DVD and, where possible, Blu-Ray with English subtitles.