Yasujirō Ozu’s masterpiece Dragnet Girl came to Cornell Cinema on Wednesday, accompanied by the electronic ambient music group Coupler. The silent film from 1933 follows the story of a minor gangster named Joji (Joji Oka) and his girlfriend, Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), as they attempt to escape a life of crime in the morally corrupt city of Yokohama. Though one of Ozu’s earlier productions, Dragnet Girl utilized the director’s own unique creativity and style while also drawing influence from the Hollywood gangster movies of the time. Before the show started, a brief but comprehensive introduction was given by Andrew Compana, a post-doctoral associate in the Asian Studies department and soon-to-be faculty member. Compana explained the nature and history of Japanese silent film, most importantly the tradition of Benshi, a Japanese orator who narrates the films, often with musical accompaniment. He then introduced the music collective Coupler, who lent an impressive ambient soundtrack to the already compelling silent film.
Although no Benshi was present at this viewing, the accompaniment by Coupler complemented the film perfectly. Most of the sound was comprised of electronic rhythms and bass riffs, but this modern touch never detracted from the original intention of the film. Rather, Coupler’s score was used in conjunction with drums and guitar to follow the rise and fall of tension in the plot, crafting an ambient sound to match the energy of a scene rather than simply narrating specific sounds. The group did a wonderful job of crafting sound effects in a unique and artistic interpretation, such as a rapid drumbeat to imitate a rattling door, rather than directly imitating noises. In doing so, they lend a unique and contemporary interpretation to the classic film.
The plot and structure of Ozu’s work are perhaps the most unique aspects of the film for an American viewer. The director crafts a story of realistic simplicity on a humble scale, with only four important characters and few action sequences. Instead, the complexity can be found through carefully crafted character interactions and development, told through the silence of nuanced facial expressions and detailed set design. Ozu pays homage to the simplicity and realism of everyday beauty, rejecting the sound and over-the-top dramatic action sequences that were rapidly gaining popularity in the industry. This attention to detail paired with Coupler’s tension-building accompaniment make for a surprisingly thrilling crime drama.
Dragnet Girl clearly demonstrates the influences of American crime films on Ozu’s early work perfectly capturing the intrigue and suspense present in the Hollywood hits of the mid-1900s. Both the characters and acting were strikingly modern for the context of the film. With his perfectly tailored suit and overcoat, casually worn hat and Ozu’s ominous lighting, Joji plays the role of a silent and dashing hero akin to Humphrey Bogart and other later American stars. In fact, almost every character except Joji’s innocent love interest Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo) wears western clothing, perhaps to criticize the corruption and greed of modern and industrialized Japan. The dramatic camera shots of shadowy faces show the film noir influences of the movie. Dragnet Girl is itself a melodrama, taking place in a corrupt and unforgiving city dominated by flashy gangsters, clubs and dark streets. All of these features may have been new to both Japanese cinema and silent film, but this unique blend of genres offers a suspenseful watch.
Ozu connects and controls the plot and flow of the movie with a dexterous use of camera placement, lighting and thematic repetition. The film is saturated with visual motifs — from adorned suitcases, to obscene numbers of cigarettes, to (my personal favorite) liberal use of billiards chalk on cues. Most notably, his use of lighting and camera placement gives sound and emotion to the silent picture. These small details in cinematography are what makes Ozu stand out as a director in his otherwise simple movies about ordinary people.
Yasujirō Ozu’s Dragnet Girl gives a unique view of a dynamic time in cinema history. The advent of “talkies” and Hollywood’s dominance over the film industry makes Dragnet Girl a refreshingly unique perspective on cinematography. This Japanese silent film is in a league of its own, between the “everydayness” and humor of the silent films of Chaplin and the modern rise of melodramatic Hollywood gangster talkies. Cornell Cinema did well to bring this picture, along with its beautiful accompaniment by Coupler, to Ithaca.