Sunday, October 2, 2016

To Keep Her Love Alive

I once thought of Dragnet Girl (Hijosen no onna), Yasujiro Ozu's 1933 silent gangster melodrama, as the Chrysler Building of movies. However one feels about Deco, has it ever been presented on screen with such comprehensiveness, concentration and beauty? And with, at least for the first half, such a sense of loss, as if Ozu felt a need to contain and preserve it before something else took its place -- like a man in a burning house who has 10 minutes to collect the valuables.

Something more than a celebration, however, is taking place. The objects are astonishingly beautiful -- typewriters, dice, ceiling lamps, clocks, hats, mirrors, iron gym rings, blinds, Victrolas: soft light, from no apparent source, spreads across them, leaving an irregular darkness. And the objects cast no shadows, and indeed seem edge-lighted as if the light is coming from within. Yet there is something sinister, as well as holy, in the objects. The era defined by the design of Deco was also an era of Capitalist Restoration, the first of the media age -- Deco is a Fordist atmosphere: the pure, clean, smart, of-the-moment, mechanistic new order of production made stunning and opulent. Yearning and mystery, perhaps for the past when the blood had a different throb -- excluded.

Until Tanaka takes over. It is hard to connect this sassy pool-playing moll (with a backside so cute everyone seems to want to watch it) with the suffering mothers and wives and sisters from her 1940s and 50s greatness. She is so pretty here, and one doesn't think of her that way post-war. She turns the movie on its head, when she fears the loss of Joji, her lover, an ex-prizefighter now living off of Tokiko (Tanaka). His character, despite Tokiko's burning, remains to the end as abstract as the objects surrounding him (in Joji's case, a rather Frankensteinian abstraction). All the characters remain pure types, as fixed and frozen in their perfection as are the Deco objects themselves: soon-to-be Naruse's own Sumiko Mizukubo, playing the devoted sister; Hiroshi the confused and somewhat wacky brother; Yumeko Aizome, her own embodiment of astonishing slender Deco beauty. And the story is little but myths and notions of its time. Tokiko is the only force in the work who strives to bust the abstractions and settlements around her, who strives to change, who at the end shoots her lover in order to force him to not merely live in the perpetual now of externals and structures. She becomes a figure of disruption and freedom, the only force in the work that longs to become different. And she forces a work that started out in the land of Hawks and Von Sternberg, to become Bressonian. (Ten years before Bresson.)