Sunday, March 3, 2013

Dragnet Girl (1933)

To those of us who have seen Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpieces (Tokyo Story being the most famous of them), the silent films he made early in his career can seem strange. Ironically, it’s their familiarity that makes them so. Ozu’s mature works are famously minimalist: conservative in style, slow and contemplative in pace, alike in subject matter. But much of his early work, influenced by Hollywood and his own studio masters, has a more populist feel. This was an artist in search of himself.

He did not find what he was looking for with Dragnet Girl, a gangster (!) film with characters more reminiscent of Mikio Naruse’s later work than Ozu’s. But though Dragnet Girl is an anomaly even among Ozu’s silent films—and far from the best of them—it is still interesting to watch. Especially when considering the roles Ozu assigned to both women and children later on.

Dragnet Girl concerns a young couple, Joji (Joji Oka) and Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who are charmingly described (in translation, anyway) as “delinquents.” Joji is a former boxer, turned hood; Tokiko, his squeeze, keeps a day-job as a straight-laced office worker. Their nights are spent in revel, with booze, smokes, and presumably sex, in vast supply.

Joji is an intimidating young man with a grim bearing. He carries himself with a mature swagger and most defer to him. But he’s not really that old. And Tokiko looks all of 15. She dresses like a woman in her mid-thirties, out on the town. Joji favours a double-breasted suit and fedora. They look less like criminals than two kids headed to a Halloween party.

Almost everyone else in the film is about their age. We never meet Joji’s or Tokiko’s parents, and though we’re told Joji is only mid-level in the criminal operation he’s part of, his superiors are never seen either. Only occasionally do we see Tokiko’s boss. Dragnet Girl is a film populated with immature young people acting their age… or maybe even younger.

Within this universe, Kazuko stands out. She’s a retiring, modest young woman who works in a music store, selling Classical records to refined buyers. Always dressed in a kimono (the rest of the characters in Dragnet Girl dress in Western-style), Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo) is a youth living the life of an honest, hardworking adult.

Kazuko has only one fixation: the welfare of her younger brother, Hiroshi (Kōji Mitsui). Hiroshi is an impressionable kid, enamored of Joji’s gangster lifestyle and just old enough to adopt it. He relies on his sister for support, however; she seems to be their sole breadwinner. Like everyone else in Dragnet Girl, they get by without parental support. 

Dragnet Girl has few of the stylistic touches characteristic of Ozu’s later work. But what really sets it apart are the lives its four main characters live. They’re abnormal. Whereas the director’s sound dramas (and even some of his silents) focused on universal truths, here we’re treated to bizarre specifics, peculiar to a few oddballs.

Even Kazuko is unusual. Not just because of the circumstances she finds herself in, but because of the way she looks. Mizukubo was, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful women ever filmed. And that point is worth mentioning here, because it is Mizukubo’s exceptional beauty upon which the plot of Dragnet Girl turns. She proves irresistible to Joji, and deeply threatening to the rather plain-looking Tokiko, who is driven to a state of crisis.

I spent much of Dragnet Girl expecting Joji and Kazuko’s romance to flower and overwhelm the rest of the story. So it surprised me to see Tokiko’s role not only continue, but grow as the film went on. She is arguably the main character by the time it is done. I suppose that’s illogical—how can someone become the main character only at the end? But it does feel that way. Then you find yourself wishing you’d had more of her early on.

Tokiko ends up embodying Dragnet Girl’s thin message of reform, though her emotional and philosophical shifts matched the needs of the story a little too closely for me. Dragnet Girl never really pulls you all the way in. At times it does capture the seedy tragedy a good Noir, but you’re always aware of Ozu trying. Which is appropriate, perhaps: because Tokiko and Joji are doing the same thing.

Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox screened Dragnet Girl on March 2, 2013; part of the retrospective Japanese Divas: The Great Actresses of Japanese Cinema’s Golden Age. Live accompaniment was provided by William O’Meara.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this as a well done knockoff of 30's American Gangster films, especially in the costuming of the young 'toughs'.