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Ozu came to prominence during the silent era, beginning as an apprentice to the comic filmmaker Tadamoto Okubo before directing films of his own. One can feel the influence of silent comedy in all of Ozu's work—his precise compositions and calculated positioning of actors have much in common with the visual humor of Buster Keaton. (The critic Manny Farber once quipped, "Ozu's long career . . . never outgrows the Hal Roach idea of a movie image being naive and making you feel good.") More importantly, the director's famous mix of humor and pathos bears the direct influence of Charlie Chaplin.
An Inn in Tokyo follows a Chaplinesque ne'er-do-well named Kihachi as he struggles to find work and support his two sons. Like Chaplin and his Little Tramp persona, Ozu employed the Kihachi character in several films during the silent period, including Passing Fancy (1933), A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), and the now-lost An Innocent Maid (also 1935). In his study A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, the late Donald Richie considers the importance of this character in the development of Ozu's singular filmmaking style:
Kihachi may serve as an amalgam of the various influences that formed Ozu's way of doing things. In Passing Fancy one notices how Wallace Beery's eminently naturalistic performance [in King Vidor's The Champ] has been choreographed and structuralized by Ozu and his actor, Sakamoto Takeshi. Their Kihachi could be seen as a modernist construction. His personal characteristics are surmised from his behavior: he always scratches himself in the same way, he stomps his way out of his trousers in the same manner, his typical gestures are typical. The result is humorous, since repetition is one of the techniques that comedians use, but at the same time, the spectator is allowed to see into the character, just as a visible structure allows one to see into a film or, architecturally speaking, to peer into a building.