Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Film Review #169: A Woman of Tokyo
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Cast: Yoshiko Okada, Kinuyo Tanaka, Ureo Egawa

Last Saturday morning Owen Shapiro spoke by cell phone from Prospect Park in New York City, where he’d just dropped off his granddaughter at a birthday party. He was already anticipating this Friday evening, when he’ll introduce the screening of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s early film, A Woman of Tokyo (1933), centerpiece of the final event of this year’s 16-day Cazenovia Counterpoints arts festival on Cazenovia Lake east of Syracuse.

“Ozu is one of the most important filmmakers – period!” said Shapiro. “Not just for Japan. This is a very early work, but in his insight into the human condition and his depiction of women – their role in society and their personal angst – he was always ahead of his time.”

Shapiro heads up Syracuse International Film Festival, held each April. As one on-going popular program, SIFF presents classic silent films with live musicians performing new scores. This year’s collaboration with Neva Pilgrim and the Society for New Music, held at the Everson Museum, had some bumps in the road.

“We originally intended to do L’Age d’Or, but then couldn’t,” said Shapiro. That 1930 film, Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s first feature and a collaboration with fellow surrealist Salvador Dali, caused riots when first screened in Paris.

“But,” Shapiro went on, “Neva Pilgrim knew Wayne Horvitz had done music for a number of films, including A Woman of Tokyo, and he agreed to come.”

The Seattle-based pianist/composer also released his Gravitas Quartet’s One Dance Alone in April on the Songlines label. That CD contains a track titled “Waltz from Woman of Tokyo,” excerpted from Horvitz’s new score for the 47-minute Ozu film.

Then freak storms cancelled Horvitz’s April flight to Syracuse.

But Shapiro’s always run a film festival committed to regional outreach. That means screenings year-round across Central New York, so moving the Ozu/Horvitz program to Cazenovia Counterpoints through the Society for New Music’s connection was a natural. Commissioned by the Seattle Film Festival, the full film score has not been recorded and Friday’s performance is the Northeast premiere.

Unlike the Buñuel, Ozu’s 1933 film is not available at Netflix (though YouTube has a short clip). A Woman of Tokyo never released here until 1982 – 19 years after Ozu’s death – and commercial DVD release waited until a 2006 four-disc anthology; the lone copy currently for sale on-line sells for $79. The DVD used in Friday's screening is a Janus edition that Shapiro acquired in France. Fully a third of Ozu’s 54 films have been lost. In fact, the Singapore-based Asian Film Archives, which screened A Woman of Tokyo last year with a new score for traditional Asian instruments, documents massive destruction of early Japanese cinema, lost to studio carelessness and natural disasters, but also to post-war banning – and in 1946, burning – during the Allied Occupation.

How ironic, this slow-to-waken reception for a Japanese filmmaker so intrigued by Hollywood and American culture in general. A 1930s audience could have discerned much common ground. Japan suffered from the decade’s global economic depression too – before you know the plot you see the frosty breaths of Ozu’s characters in their bare, unheated apartments. Commentators on this film generally mention that Ozu sends his proper young dating couple, the student Ryoichi (Ureo Egawa) and shy Harué (Kinuyo Tanaka) to watch an American movie – on-screen there’s a clip from a drama, set in an American business office, by Ernst Lubitsch, whose work Ozu admired. Central New Yorkers might also notice that Ryoichi’s older sister Chikako (Yoshiko Okada) pounds away on a Smith-Corona typewriter during her day job. With immense quiet grace, Chikako supports her younger brother, his tuition and books, even his movie dates. Early on, she hands him a fresh, clean sock as he tosses aside the one with a small hole worn in the toe, suggesting he takes much of her care and sacrifice for granted.

Chikako’s night job collides with that of Harué’s brother Kinoshita (Shinyo Nara), a policeman, and so undoes them all. Supposedly a “cabaret hostess,” a heavily made-up Chikako enters a smirking man’s car late at night. Learning all this, earnest Harué cannot resist telling Ryoichi. The sheltered couple’s myopic grief and fury at Chikako’s dishonor – Ozu’s family considered his movie-making aspirations similarly shady – sadly seem less dated than we might hope.

On Friday, local Japanese instructor Tomoko Mikakawa Walter translates and reads the film’s “intertitles,” full screens of dialogue text instead of subtitles running beneath the action. The film follows other quartets by Horvitz and Ithaca composer Roberto Sierra.

Thanks to Neva Pilgrim for lending A Woman of Tokyo for preview. This review appeared in the 7/31/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.