Dragnet Girl

May 19, 2004 at 12:00 am

This 1933 silent film by director Yasujiro Ozu seems the antithesis of the type of films that his fame rests on, being a stylistic pastiche of old Warner Brothers gangster movies and Josef von Sternberg’s visually exotic romances. Where the later Ozu would be famous for almost never moving his camera, here it glides around his sets with easy fluidity. And where the story he would later return to repeatedly would be one of subtle family discord, here it’s about thugs plying their trade in an underworld devised by someone who’s obviously seen a lot American movies.

The story, which Ozu wrote under a pseudonym, is about a young hood (“punk” is the word of choice in the subtitles, along with the even more quaint “delinquent”) who falls for the sister of one of his protégés, much to the dismay of his current moll. The sister is a nice girl — you can tell because she wears traditional Japanese dress while all the molls wear snazzy Western clothes — and so the romance is really a non-starter; she’s too good for him and he knows it.

The story isn’t much, but the style is appealing and its depiction of a very Americanized pre-war Japan is intriguing. The hoods wear regulation gangster hats and hang out in smoky nightclubs and seedy pool halls, striking cool tough guy poses and ribbing each other with manly insouciance. At one point, the story’s anti-hero even gives his girlfriend an affectionate closed-fist tap on the cheek, Cagney-style. But whereas their American counterparts were a stylized version of a genuine reality, these “punks” are imitating that stylization, which adds a nearly surreal vibe, one sustained by the recurring appearance of images of Nipper, the famous RCA Victor Dog (true, the nice girl works in a record store, but still ...). Even the reluctance to yield to nihilism (the film’s ending is a triumph for society) seems an imitation of the American films where justice was wont to prevail even before the censorious Production Code went into effect. There are a few static shots here suggestive of the Ozu to come, but aside from that this is the work of a young artist saluting his heroes and in the process proving himself gifted and more than a little movie mad.


In Japanese with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, May 24, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].