Those who think of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu only in terms of his favorite subject matter and distinctive style - films about eldest daughters of aging families reluctantly persuaded to marry and leave behind the parents they love, told in static, sitting-position shots filmed a few feet off the ground and cut together in straight cuts with the actors often looking directly into the camera - will be quite surprised by Dragnet Girl (Hijosen no onna, 1933) a stylish silent crime thriller with much to recommend it.
The picture is Ozu by way of Fritz Lang, closer to that director's German Expressionist crime films than, say, the Warner Bros. gangster movies being made in America at the time. Joji Oka and the great actress Kinuyo Tanaka, the latter a baby-faced 22 when the film was in production, star as Joji and Tokiko, an ex-prizefighter and his dame. She's a tough-talking moll who day-jobs as a typist. Her would-be suitor there, the boss's wealthy son, sets his sights on her but has no idea that she spends her nights at American style nightclubs, smoking cigarettes and chewing the fat with Joji's gang.
The gang's latest addition is another washed-up fighter, a featherweight named Hiroshi (Koji Mistui, billed here as Hideo Mitsui), whose very traditional sister, Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo) is appalled by her brother's new lifestyle. She persuades Joji to kick his recruit out of the gang before it's too late. He acquiesces partly because he's attracted to Kazuko's unspoiled, virginal nature. Tokiko rebels and considers bumping Kazuko off (she carries a pistol) before deciding that she's attracted to Kazuko's genuine nature too, and thus inspired tries to adopt a like-minded manner toward Joji, hoping to win him back.
Dragnet Girl isn't much more than a stylishly-directed crime melodrama, but style it has, in spades, with more tracking shots for instance than probably Ozu's last 15 films combined. (One particularly good shot has the camera strapped to the fender of a speeding car, the reflection of the road and surrounding buildings seen on the backside of one of the vehicle's headlights.) The emphasis is on the two women's efforts to make their men go straight and Tokiko's longing, tough-taking aside, to live like an ordinary women, and especially to be regarded by Joji as something other than a delinquent.
The picture was made just as Japan's growing militarism was beginning to squelch the country's growing fondness with all things western, though the picture is so starkly western in appearance one guesses that Ozu deliberately opted to suck everything Japanese out of it, the significant exception being Kazuko's traditional kimono and distinctly Japanese manner. The film abounds in western signage; except near the end, English writing is everywhere while Nihongo is nowhere to be found. At the TOA Boxing Club, the house rules are written in English, for instance, not Japanese. Hiroshi has a French poster of Lewis Milestone's 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front on his wall.
Joji Oka, whose large, intense yet soft eyes and thin lips recall actor Jeremy Brett, was a big star in the 1930s but probably better known to American viewers as the sneering Phantom of Krankor in the bizarre Japanese sci-fi extravaganza Prince of Space (Yusei oji, 1959). Kinuyo Tanaka, even at 22, gives a mature and sensitive performance in the tradition of great silent actresses like Lillian Gish rather than what one finds in American gangster films of the early-'30s. Koji Mitsui, later known for playing hardened, cynical characters (he played the acid-tongued reporter in The Bad Sleep Well, for instance), appears here in a role 180-degrees from the sort that would eventually make him famous.
Video & Audio
Given Dragnet Girl's age and the generally sorry state of prewar Japanese movies, the image quality is almost outstanding. The 100 minute film, transferred at the proper speed (unlike many silent films, which are often wrongly transferred at 24 frames per second), has little in the way of obvious damage and the picture is pleasingly sharp (though in keeping with the style of the time, the director uses a deliberate softness around the edges of the frame). Though it has the usual flaws associated with Panorama's releases, overall it rates high marks, especially for such a rarity, its release in America limited to a few retrospectives. The film has Japanese inter-titles (in Art Moderne font) with optional subtitles in English and Chinese.
The major shortcoming on Panorama's Dragnet Girl is the complete absence of sound of any kind, even a generic music track. (The presentation laughably opens with the usual Dolby Digital helicopter fly-over. It must have taken a lot of effort to remix 100 minutes of dead silence.)
Japanese silent films were usually exhibited with benshi narration. Performers who were stars all by themselves would narrate, explain, and even perform both male and female roles. The tradition was dying out by 1933 but probably a benshi script for Dragnet Girl survives somewhere. If Criterion or some other U.S. or British label gets around to releasing this or similar Japanese silent films, a good idea would be to offer viewers a choice between a simple music track and one that recreates the benshi experience.
As usual, supplements are limited to the booklet and onscreen director's biography and filmography (in both Chinese and English).
Despite the lack of a music track or benshi narration, Panorama's otherwise fine Dragnet Girl is recommended for those interested in early Japanese cinema and the work of one of its greatest directors, Yasujiro Ozu, in particular.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.