Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

Ozu’s “Dragnet Girl”: Mildly Japant-Garde

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Near 30 years ago (yikes!), having recently encountered Nagisa Oshima’s early films, Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil,” Roland Barthes’s Empire of Signs and Tokyo itself, I attempted to formulate a purposefully naïve theory of Japanese culture as seen through Western eyes.

That piece, titled “Japant-Garde Japanorama: The Art of Mutual Misunderstanding,” was published in Artforum in October 1985; it’s never been anthologized and my flip, invented term has, perhaps for the best, never been adopted by anyone. (All google searches lead back to the original article.) Still the concept remains, as exemplified by the “Tokyo 1955-70″ show at MoMA last winter and as I was reminded yesterday afternoon when I had the opportunity to see Yasujiro Ozu’s 1933 “Dragnet Girl.”

This “polite ‘Gun Crazy,’” as my friend A.S. described it, is a soft-boiled gangster flick detailing the doomed romance between a punk who’s given up boxing for crime and a girlish typist who describes herself as “prodigal.” Isn’t as blatantly japant-garde as Ozu’s supremely enigmatic “Woman of Tokyo,” another late silent, made the same year, but (in addition to being far more “modern” than the postwar movies for which Ozu is justly famous) it’s often explicable.

The typage (some drawn from Hollywood) is at times unreadable, the camera placement is a continual surprise (and also quite beautiful), with Ozu alternately peer through cluttered shop windows or abstracting the street. The action, although oblique, is more playful than an American gangster film. English signage abounds, along with posters for Hollywood and European movies. There’s plenty of hot dancing too but even jazzier is the near ubiquitous presence of the Victor recording company’s canine trademark in various forms—at times appearing to comment on the human actors. The whole thing seems weirdly self-conscious, but is it really?

Film Forum’s Ozu retrospective continues through June 27. “Dragnet Girl” isn’t showing again but the Janus Film logo on the print leads me to suspect that we may be seeing in the future as part of a Criterion/Eclipse.

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  1. Barry Moore says:

    If I had to single out one film director as my very favorite, I would have to cite Ozu. The first of his films that I saw, his 1932 masterpiece ‘I Was Born, But…’, was a revelation in its union of formal playfulness, technical rigor, and emotional sensitivity. I tend to prefer, based on what I have seen, Ozu’s earlier silent period over the more celebrated postwar works, though ‘Late Spring’ and ‘Early Summer’ deserve to be ranked as two of the greatest summits of cinematic art.

    There remain significant gaps in my exposure to Ozu, and these include both ‘Dragnet Girl’ and ‘Woman of Tokyo’. Articles such as this serve as abiding, useful reminders of what I am still missing.

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