There was something in the air in the 1930s; in the shadow and under the influence of the Great Depression the great, good and average film-makers dedicated themselves to a cinema that now seems the warmest, most sympathetic and charitable (yet angry and sorrowful) there has been on a wide scale. This cinema, to speak generally and free of certain complications of philosophy, was almost unpretentiously humane and humanistic, understanding of the mingling of joy and sadness, optimism and pessimism, surrender and determination that makes up most of life as lived.
Some of the films in this cinema could be more politically dedicated and genuinely radical than others (Renoir and Prevert, for example, advocating the murder of the corrupt bourgeois in order to facilitate the coming-together of the proletariat in The Crime of Monsieur Lange), but let’s be clear that this was the period (even more so than immediately post-WWII when, as Godard pointed out, the American cinema was able to conquer the European) when the cinema seemed the most interested in the dirt on the face, the dust on the boots, the contents of the hearts and minds of the poor and the ordinary worker, when a certain social responsibility was felt to recognise and present the great mass of people. That’s not to necessarily say that, for all the dramatic conflicts and collisions with the privileged in the plots of these films, they constituted a proletarian cinema entirely free of the ideology of the bourgeois (and, at times, certain traces of apologia for the established order), especially if one follows Roland Barthes’ argument that there is no such thing as proletarian culture or language in a society created, dominated and maintained for the benefit of the bourgeois, but even outside of the likes of Hollywood Marxists such as Abraham Polonsky there was a general interest and sympathy for the proletariat, a sense that here was something pretty much on their side, that has hardly persisted into the modern day (outside of the work of certain choice auteurs) except it’s in its most compromised, weakest states.
Yasujiro Ozu’s Passing Fancy (like the aforementioned M. Lange of Renoir and Prevert) is one of the films in this period that most feels like an authentically proletarian film (whatever that may constitute in our bourgeois world) on the side of the proletariat. Ozu refused to commit to the talkie until three years later, believing the silent cinema was approaching perfection, and here he crafts a silent with all the mercurial and unpredictable grace of its characters, their exuberance and complexity, their warmth and vitality. Ozu, for all his added wisdom as the film-maker, manages to feel like an equal even more so than the omnipresent and powerful director of action, and here he opens the horizons of the everyday, or rather inflates the material of the everyday with the freshest and most bracing of airs. The ghosts of Chaplin and a young Vidor are present, but the film is as slippery as a fish or, rather, as slippery as young Tomio.
The myth of Ozu is the myth of slowness, stillness, the autumn leaf blowing in the wind but still clinging stubbornly, implacably to the branch. But Passing Fancy is a correction to a misconception of the whole of a career. The film moves swiftly, as if unable to wait in its search for the next meaningful and moving gesture, movement, eruption of laughter or loosened tear. The editing is rapid and sometimes deliberately disorientating and misleading in its playful intercutting of intertitle and shot of speaker. Ozu seems aware of the rush that most people have lived in since the dawn of the industrial revolution made time the master more so than ever and, besides, he is simply in love with the act of seeing and seeing as much possible. There are beautiful and spare tracking shots and pans that take in every inch of this environment, from the shelves of cans in an apartment to the old fly traps still dangling in shops and barbers, and it’s these shots, together with those enigmatic pillow shots that represent every joyful or melancholic sigh of Ozu’s during the course of the unfolding of this narrative, that recontextualise and reformalise the actions and intentions of the characters. And, of course, the composition and framing of individual shots is often deeply, remarkably sophisticated, miraculous, even with the speed of the film. This is the piourette of a master, as fresh and dazzling as the day it was made, infused with the sweetest, finest dusts of life even in its saddest moments.
Takeshi Sakamoto is Kihachi, an uneducated but exuberant and joyful figure, the simultaneous father and equal of the precocious Tomio (Tokkan Kozu), alternately proudly studious and a jester in the court of adults. He lives next door to Jiro (Den Obinata), a fellow labourer at a brewery, and Otome (Choko Iida) an elderly woman who owns a restaurant. Harue (Nobuko Fushimi) is found wandering the streets by the two men after attending a concert of ballads, and they take pity on her, entrusting her to Otome. Khiachi is smitten with Harue, and then lovesick; he drinks and misses work much to Tomio’s annoyance and shame. Otome convinces Kihachi to matchmake Harue and Jiro, despite Jiro’s protestations and coldness. Ultimately he succeeds, but is almost heartbroken in the process. Tomio falls ill, and a loan is sought to save the boy; as the film ends and Kihachi convinces Jiro not to leave to work to pay off the bill in a more lucrative location and sneaks away in the night before boarding a boat, he comes to a realisation as to his luck and love in life and jumps overboard to swim back to shore and back to his now healthy son (who had been left also entrusted to Otome for the duration of Kichachi’s labours). The actors are magnificent, particularly Sakamoto (it is he, perhaps, for whom the cliché of an actor disappearing fully into his role was invented) and Kozu (surely the most naturalistic child actor the cinema had until Leaud met Truffaut and rivalled him). Pathos mixes with slapstick, the wistfulness of a daydream in a field of heather with the stark, sweaty realities of life labouring in the slums. And all the time the promise remains; the cinema was so often offered to the proletariat as theirs (at least until television came along), but Ozu was one of the great few who meant it and delivered it.
P.S.: The opening sequence in the concert room, with the passing and returning of two empty purses between opportunistic members of the audience and an outbreak of fleas, should be isolated and shown continually by teachers and professors of screen comedy for its sheer technical brilliance in timing, camera movement, shot choice, restrained acting and editing. It is worthy of any silent comedy hero you can name.