See Yasujiro Ozu's final silent film this Saturday

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From An Inn in Tokyo
  • From An Inn in Tokyo
This Saturday at noon, the Music Box will screen Yasujiro Ozu's An Inn in Tokyo (1935) in its monthly silent-cinema series. It's a special movie in a number of ways: not only was it the last silent film made by Ozu—one of the greatest of Japanese filmmakers—it was one of the last Japanese silent films, period. And since it's estimated that 90 percent of Japanese movies made before 1945 are forever lost, it's one of relatively few examples of its kind still in existence. The silent era lasted longer in Japan than in any other nation, due to the enduring popularity of benshi, live narrators who would explicate the on-screen action and provide voices for the characters. (About a decade ago, Roger Ebert re-created this phenomenon by organizing a benshi-accompanied screening of Ozu's I Was Born, But... at the Chicago International Film Festival; to my knowledge, no one in Chicago has attempted anything similar since.)

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.

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