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Dragnet Girl
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by Jay Seaver

"Early Ozu could almost be Hollywood."
4 stars

I haven't seen nearly as many films by revered Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu as I probably should if I want to consider myself a well-rounded lover of world and classic cinema. Heck, this may be it, and it's probably more representative of him as a craftsman than an auteur. It's an enjoyable example, though, perhaps especially if seen in its original, narrated format.

It's a fairly familiar sort of youth-at-risk story: Hiroshi (Koji Mitsui) is a kid who could potentially be a great boxer, but it's hard to muster the dedication necessary when crime seems to be treating former champion Joji (Joji Oka) better than boxing ever did. Hiroshi's sister Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo) is concerned, but of course her brother is hearing none of it.She's pretty and pure enough to get Hiroshi's attention, to the annoyance of his girlfriend Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), whose job as an office girl means dealing with attention from the owner's son (Koji Kaga). but may lead to criminal opportunity.

It's easy to think of the Westernization of Japan as a post-WWII phenomenon, but one only has to give this movie from 1933 a look to see it was going on earlier. But for the ethnicity of the cast, it feels like it could easily have come out of Hollywood; not only does everybody spend most of the film in Western attire, but Joji and Hiroshi practice boxing rather than karate or judo, and there's not a yakuza trope to be found among the crooks, either. Kazuko is the only one who spends a notable portion of the movie in traditional dress, for that matter. The story is the same on both sides of the Pacific, and Ozu and company tell it well.

There's probably something to just how western it seems which a westerner watching it almost eighty years later doesn't quite grasp except in the most vague sense. A formulaic story about the perils of easy money and falling in with the wrong crowd gains another layer warning about about breaking with tradition, although Ozu and co-writer Tadao Ikeda opt not to hammer this home (at least, these subtitles don't do that). It's actually a fairly entertaining movie to watch - Ozu and cinematographer Hideo Shigehara find interesting angles and move the camera in a fairly lively manner at times, and things move at a good pace despite not having the action of a typical crime story until fairly late in the game.

The acting style also seems surprisingly modern compared to other movies of its era, compared to the theatricality of silents and early talkies. The cast is good all around - Tanaka would go on to have a long and noteworthy career - giving the sort of performances that don't necessarily seem silent in one's memory. That may be in part due to seeing it not just with a live score, but narration and dialogue delivered by benshi Kataoka Ichiro. Live narration with silent films was the norm in Japan at the time - the guild actually managed to delay talking pictures in Japan for several years - and it allows Ozu to rely less on intertitles than other cultures' silent directors, and helps things flow more smoothly. The flip side is that benshi were independent, occasionally putting their own spin on a movie's story, and the repetitive dialogue in the last act's intertitles almost seems like an attempt to force the narrator to stay on the right track.

It's a relatively minor disruption to an enjoyable movie. It's almost certainly not among Ozu's best, given his reputation, but it's the sort of better-than-expected genre work that certainly can herald great work down the road.

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originally posted: 12/20/12 11:30:50
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1/19/13 Marguerite Eustace EXCELLENT 5 stars
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Directed by
  Yasujiro Ozu

Written by
  Tadao Ikeda
  Yasujiro Ozu

  Kinuyo Tanaka
  Joji Oka
  Sumiko Mizukubo
  Kji Mitsui
  Koji Kaga

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