The BFI first announced their Yasujiro Ozu project towards the end of 2009. Following a massive retrospective of the director’s surviving work at the BFI Southbank in early 2010, they were to issue 32 of his films onto Blu-ray and/or DVD over a period of three years. The initial batch emerged in the July of that year: the so-called ‘Noriko Trilogy’ of Late Spring, Early Summer and Tokyo Story released in HD and each supplemented by a comparatively minor supporting feature. Such a template (classic plus obscurity) remained for further discs and, before we knew it, the first eighteen months of the Ozu project had seen fourteen films made available, nine of them in high definition.
This month sees a slight change in approach, one that was inevitable. Ozu’s career as director started in the late twenties and he was instantly prolific; within four years of his directorial debut he already had twenty-plus features under his belt. Some of these films are lost, others exist in fragmentary form, and those that are complete are rarely in the best of shape. We knew this already thanks to those earlier supplementary features unworthy of making the transition to Blu-ray. Reviewing A Mother Should Be Loved - the 1934 silent that accompanied Late Autumn - for the Digital Fix, clydefro declared it watchable but “beat up”. And so it is that the latest Ozu set from the BFI necessarily reverts to DVD-only as it delves into some of his very earliest work. The Student Comedies collects a quartet of silent features, and one of those surviving fragments, all dating from between 1929 and 1932. Each is just as beat up as A Mother Should Be Loved, but also a fascinating glimpse at a director in the initial stages of his career.
Ozu was just 25 when he earned the promotion to director at Shochiku. The first become employed at the studios in 1923, making his way up from assistant cameraman. Unsurprisingly the cinema of young Ozu is a far cry from that of his most celebrated works. That distinctive style typical of such masterpieces as Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon was slowly honed and refined over the years - it didn’t just emerge fully formed. Similarly the subjects of his films, which were later to focus almost exclusively on quiet family dramas, were much more diverse during the early years. What we find in The Student Comedies is a filmmaker still in search of both a voice and a style. Perhaps at this point he wasn’t even searching at all, happy instead just to be making films on a regular basis and thus contributing to one of Japan’s most popular genres of the time.
According to Bryony Dixon’s booklet essay, these lightweight college-set frivolities were ten-a-penny. Ozu alone added directed six such films during 1929. The commercial appeal is entirely understandable, dependent as they are on a combination of youthful leads, that first blossoming of teenaged romance and a hefty quota of visual gags. Those leads also tend to be more of the slacker persuasion, thus adding a certain irreverence to the cutesiness. In Days of Youth, Ozu’s earliest surviving work, we have a pair of students so caught up in pursuing the same girl that they ultimately fail their final exams. The title to the second film in the set, I Flunked, But…, tells its own story. The early stages are partly devoted to four campus pals devising various plans in which to cheat their finals, an idea used once more in Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? albeit of a more elaborate nature this time around. Not that it does these students any favours: they flunk too and are thrust into a world where unemployment is rife.
Such bittersweet seriousness is rare, however. As too are any references that feel quite so culturally specific. These students may wear those distinctly Japanese uniform as they go about their classes and their wooing, but ultimately these films are universal. If there are two types of cinema that translate particularly well then it’s the coming-of-age drama and the school-set comedy; the Ozu films have both. Indeed, the classroom banter contained in I Flunked, But… is little different from that found in, for example, a Will Hay comedy from the UK in the thirties or a Kemal Sunal vehicle from Turkey in the seventies. That mixture of youthful cheek and mostly innocent anti-authoritarianism works anywhere in the world. In his notes for The Lady and the Beard (actually a graduate comedy rather than a student comedy if we’re being pedantic), David Jenkins evokes both Grease and She’s All That, high school movies that may seem fundamentally American on the surface but clearly share a thing or two with this brand of silent Japanese cinema. More importantly, such reference points aren’t in any way wilful or purposefully obtuse - as I say, this kind of thing is truly universal. In fact, I’m perfectly happy to evoke the finale of mid-eighties John Cusack comedy Better Off Dead in relation to the skiing scenes which conclude Days of Youth.
Dealing with such generic works, there is a certain interchangeable quality to The Student Comedies. After all, Shochiku was pumping them out on a regular basis. Yet, in some respects, that is part of the appeal. So little Japanese cinema exists (or is readily available) from the silent era that it’s fascinating to take a look at some of its more populist efforts. Furthermore, there’s an even greater fascination seeing them come from Ozu. There are hints of what’s to come - the serious turn of events in I Flunked, But… and Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? once college is over contain a hint of melancholy more typical of the director - but the fun mostly resides in what is different. Who would have thought, for example, that Ozu would mount a camera atop a pair of skis for various POV travelling shots, as we see in Days of Youth, or prefigure She’s All That by almost seventy years! Of course, comedy figured in his work throughout his career (Good Morning revealed him to be king of the fart gag) but there’s something massively appealing in it delivered so overtly. Pratfalls, young love, the occasional loving homage to Harold Lloyd - what’s not to like?
The four films which make up The Student Comedies are evenly spread across a pair of dual-layered discs. Days of Youth and I Flunked, But… appear on the first (combined running time: approximately 162 minutes), with The Lady and the Beard and Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (combined running time: approximately 154 minutes) on the second. Disc one also finds space for the eleven surviving minutes of I Graduated, But… from 1929, whilst disc two has an additional 20-minute featurette in which Tony Rayns provides an introduction to Ozu’s early work. Both are encoded for Region 2 only.
The presentation of these films is a difficult one to adjudge. None of the films is in particularly good shape (Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? easily fares the best but is far from perfect) yet this is likely as good as it is going to get. It is remarkable in itself that so much of Ozu’s early work survives at all, especially in complete form. There is prevalent wear and tear, instability in the frame, and so on, though arguably never enough to distract from the films at hand. Beneath that damage we still have these wonderfully charming tales - and that’s the important thing.
Each title comes with opportunity of viewing silent or with newly composed scores by Ed Hughes (previously employed on the BFI editions of I Was Born, But… and A Mother Should Be Loved). The accompaniment works especially well - the thinking behind each is discussed by Hughes in the accompanying booklet - and, needless to say, sounds excellent. They’re presented in DD2.0 form which is more than sufficient for the combination of piano, clarinet and cello. Optional English subtitles are also provided to accompany the Japanese intertitles.
At only eleven minutes it is hard to judge I Was Graduated, But…, though of course it’s presence is welcome. Hughes provides an optional score for this one too, whilst the presentation quality is expectedly a little on the rough side. The 20-minute piece from Tony Rayns was recorded during the Ozu retrospective at the BFI Southbank and provides an excellent overview of this period plus the director’s background prior to moving into features. The occasional clip and illustration is also employed. Finally, we have the typically excellent BFI booklet. In this instances there are 36-pages containing individual essays and credits for all five of the films contained on the set, plus Rayns cropping up again for a three-page introduction and the aforementioned piece by Hughes. Notes on the transfers, acknowledgements and plenty of illustrations top things off.