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Days of Youth

Days of Youth (Wakaki Hi)
1929, b/w, 60 min.
With Ichiro Yuki, Tatsuo Saito, Junko Matsui

Ozu’s earliest extant film reveals the director as a master of Hollywood-style filmmaking. (Donald Richie and David Bordwell have both pointed out that Days of Youth is indebted to the films of Harold Lloyd and Ernst Lubitsch.) Two friends at Waseda University, one a smart guy, the other a bumbler, fall in love with the same girl but postpone courting her until they are through “exam hell.” They later go on a ski holiday in Akakura and discover that she is about to enter into an arranged marriage with the leader of their ski club. Punctuated by great gags involving runaway skis, wet paint, hot chocolate, gloves, socks, and a handful of persimmons, Days of Youth offers our first glimpse of Ozu regular Chishu Ryu, who appeared in more than a dozen of Ozu’s finest films.

The film turns out to be closer to 100 minutes, rather than the 60 minutes stated in the catalog. It's also a silent film.

This is more like it. One of the joys of an auteurist retrospective such as this one is the discovery of works made before certain themes and styles had rooted themselves. You get a chance to see the director grow and flex his creative muscles, in genres that seem highly incongruous to latter-day fans like myself. So it is with Days of Youth, where Ozu whips up a Hollywood-inspired blend of slapstick, romance and buddy movie.

An immediate visual sign that this isn't your regular Ozu: the camera moves. It pans across the city in the opening, and the move is reflected in the closing when the pan occurs in the opposite direction.

At the same time, there are already visual motifs here that would surface repeatedly in later films, such as smokestacks. But they are different from future appearances in two ways. One, there is an accountable POV: a shot of smokestacks is always followed by a shot of someone looking at them through a window. Two, there is narrative motivation: the flowing shape of the smoke hints at the strength of the wind, and is used by the characters to guess the coming weather.

The two male leads are fantastic. I was trying to remember who they reminded me of, and I nailed it: Ichiro Yuki is Owen Wilson to Tatsuo Saito's Ben Stiller. Yuki's slick, what-me-worry? personality is nicely paired with Saito's earnest, bumbling self. (Saito has plenty of Harold Lloyd in him, too.) I related to Saito's character closely - I sure know that feeling, like I've been punched in the gut by a good friend over a girl.

Chishu Ryu was in this? I didn't recognize him. Sigh. He must have been one of the college buddies.

The second half of the film is set in the ski-sloped mountains, and the filmed snowscapes are dreamy. The expansive outdoor scenes make for high contrast against the carefully delineated interiors of Ozu's later works.

The back of Saito's ski jacket says: "SMACK FRONT ONLY" in English. Huh? Fun to see that mangled English was already in full usage in Japan circa 1929.

April 3, 2004 at 11:59 PM | Permalink