2 July 2009

Nagaya shinshiroku / The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1947, Japan) - Japanese Neo Realism?

Much of the understated humour is generated by the conflict between the widow and boy

The national cinematic response to the post war spiritual and moral crisis that faced the world globally cannot solely be attributed to the Italian neo realists. Alongside De Sica and Rossellini, India had an answer in the form of both Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, but perhaps it was Japanese cinema which was the slowest of the countries to form some kind of consistent collective artistic response to the trauma of defeat, national humiliation and the terrible aftermath of the unjustified use of the Atomic bomb. However, film makers in Japan faced a similar economic and technical crisis to that of the Italian neo realists, relying on simple narratives and uncomplicated situations to address the paralysis of an entire nation. Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu are such colossal cinematic figures that their films helped to both shape the international perceptions of Japanese cinema and influence a generation of new film makers. Both are unmistakably genuine art house auteurs, producing a body of work that carries with it a remarkable sense of social urgency and timeless cinematic style.

Japanese actress Choko Iida delivers a gracious performance as the disillusioned widow Tane

Though Ozu had already started making films before the war, it took him five years until he could make his next feature in 1947 with ‘The Record of a Tenement Gentleman’. It had been a long time since I had watched an Ozu film and I had clearly forgotten how deceptively understated he was at extracting a highly charged emotional response from the slightest of domestic situations. The plot involves a young boy, Kohei (Hohi Aoki), whom at first appears as an orphan, and an aging widow, Tané (Choko Iida) who reluctantly offers to take in the boy on a strictly temporary basis. Though the town wants to help the boy, none of the men in particular quite want to take responsibility for him and gradually, the grumpy widow warms to the boy’s affectionate charms. By the end of the film, the two have formed an understanding and the widow as a sign of her growing acceptance of the boy, buys him a set of clothes. However, in the last ten minutes Ozu springs a real surprise on us by having the father enter the story who tells of his efforts to track down his son from whom he was separated in the chaos of the city.

When the boy leaves, the widow is heart broken and she is critical of the town and of herself for their lack of empathy and hesitation at wanting to help ease the trauma of Japanese society. This moment towards the end of the film when we see the widow crying luxuriously, she is in effect crying for the collective fears and uncertainty of the people of Japan and the quiet monumental struggles that lay ahead after the fallout of the war. Ozu handles such a moment with just the right level of distance so that it is not clouded by any obvious sentimental overtures. Ozu’s film was made around the same time as De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’ and the two seem to share an affinity in terms of the dignity and humility with which they treat the relationship between an adult and a child. Such a thematic preoccupation with the elderly and children continues to fascinate neo realist film makers even today, largely because both seem to offer a way of scrutinising society in a perfectly humane manner. But is Ozu’s film as neo realist as those of the Italian masters? Definitely not in style but certainly in terms of its ideological aim which like ‘Bicycle Thieves’ and ‘Paisan’ aims to inform us about the state of society in a way that is both uplifting and revelatory.


  1. This is in my pile of Ozus to watch. I'm intrigued by your linkage of Ozu and the Italian neo-realists. Obviously, I have to watch the film to consider your posting, but a couple of your points need comment perhaps. Ozu didn't just start before the war – he had already built up a major career since the 1920s. In Japan after the war, the studios did re-open, but one of the biggest constraints was the Occupation censorship.

    I can see Kurosawa, who was still a relatively young director, as being influenced by the neo-realists in certain ways, but I think Ozu (like Mizoguchi) simply went back to where he had left off in 1942.

  2. Thanks for throwing some light on the context in which the film was made. So Ozu worked in silent cinema before he made the transition to sound? Also, I was not aware that the Japanese studios were able to continue as they were - I find that quite amazing given the aftermath of the war.

  3. With regards to Kurosawa and Neo Realism, the film I feel which best illustrates this point is 'Stray Dog' which he made in 1949 - the parallels with a detective having his gun stolen works effectively as a McGuffin to that of the stolen Bicycle in De Sica's classic film. Yes, I do agree, perhaps the films of Kurosawa and not Ozu are much more evident of neo realist techniques.