I wrote this essay for the BFI’s The Ozu Collection – The Gangster Films DVD box set, released in 2013.
The cheeky twist in the story of Yasujiro Ozu is the revelation that the director Donald Richie hails as the ‘most Japanese of all’ was actually a devoted fan of American movies. And while Ozu never slavishly mimicked his Hollywood heroes, his early work pushes his passion for Harold Lloyd and Ernst Lubitsch proudly to the fore. Walk Cheerfully (Hogaraka ni ayume) is a prime example: a gangster story ostensibly set in Tokyo, but truly resident in an imagined trans-Pacific replica of the city, part-populated by snappy, glamorous types strangely familiar from American flicks. But Walk Cheerfully goes further than a fan letter. Behind the genre trappings of guns and cars and toe-tapping lowlifes, there’s a classic Ozu domestic drama unfolding – one that reflects real concerns in early 1930s Japan.
In the director’s own words, this is the story of ‘a delinquent who goes straight’. His name is Kenji the Knife (Minoru Takada) and he casts off his spurs only for the love of a good woman, Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki). He needs a good reason to walk the line because Walk Cheerfully depicts the life of a hoodlum as mostly jovial. The snarling gangsters in Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (a clear influence on this film’s sharp light and shade) may pause their feud for a decadent ball, but Kenji and his cohorts mix business with pleasure far more comfortably. Their hangouts are a bar and a boxing gym; the walls of the latter are graffitied with slushy English lyrics and playing cards. These fun-loving criminals wear western suits and dabble in American leisure pursuits: pool, convertible cars, golf and jazz. The gang boss is a hoot, a camp delight complete with fussy moustache, cigarette holder and a teeny-tiny dog, who is greeted by a chorus-line of twirling goons when he makes an entrance. The crew’s cute habit of moving and dancing in unison is a nod to Lloyd (Ozu’s slacking students display the same quirk in his comedy I Flunked, But … 1930), which is also picked up by the police, and the office workers who hang their hats as one. When we do see Kenji in the commission of a crime, his cons are so coolly and stylishly pulled off that we understand why even old-fashioned girl Yasue is charmed by him. It’s the chutzpah of his upstanding citizen pose when his sidekick Senko (Hisao Yoshitani) is accused of theft; his tough-guy stance as he ambushes a mark with his moll Chieko (Satoko Date). Were the Shangri-Las around in 1930s Japan, they’d surely discern that Kenji is ‘good-bad, but he’s not evil’, despite his leather gloves and his dagger tattoo.
Walk Cheerfully doesn’t linger on the consequences of his crimes; it doesn’t linger at all. Like our yotomono heroes, the film itself is easily distracted – as when Kenji and Senko segue from analysing their latest job to lusting after a shiny car and the pretty girl, Yasue, who emerges from it. The camera first closes in on Yasue’s heels – her sandal-clad feet peeking out from her kimono as she enters a jewellery shop are clearly an alluring contrast to the shiny leather shoes worn by Kenji’s fellow hooligans and their ladies. Feet can tell us a lot in an Ozu film: remember Okajima’s embarrassment over his socks in The Lady and the Beard (1931)? Walk Cheerfully’s jittery tempo is measured by more of these cutaways to feet, dancing, pacing and tapping. There’s something suspicious about all that perpetual motion: just like Senko when he’s being frisked at the quayside, Chieko and her boss jiggle their guilty feet while they scheme in the office lift. And the pace of Walk Cheerfully is relentless: these inserts, the speeding cars and the travelling camera. The question is: where is all this forward momentum taking us? Well, Kenji announces his plan to move on, and put the thug life in his rear-view mirror, but, just as Senko has to stop his car to retrieve his hat one too many times, his progress frequently stalls.
The real rush here does not concern Kenji’s love life, or his career crisis. Almost everything we see in Walk Cheerfully, from the gangsters’ western tastes, to the heavy industry at the docks and the girls’ office culture, can be traced to what was perceived at the time as Japan’s race towards modernity, and gradual loss of its traditional values. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the country was changing rapidly, dismantling feudalism and becoming more urban, more hi-tech, more western. America’s influence asserted itself through cultural imports, including the films that fascinated Ozu, and physical ones: cheap, mass-produced commodities. And in this new world, some young people embraced western clothes, habits and sexual freedoms: a trend embodied by the vulgar smoking, drinking ‘modern girl’ rejected by the hero of Ozu’s 1932 film Where Now are the Dreams of Youth? and here by ‘brazen’ Chieko with her bob, her smirk and her gleeful lack of scruples.
There is a fun game for film buffs to play when watching an early Ozu: first you spot the movie posters in the background of the key locations, then you work out the relationship between those Hollywood classics and the story unfolding in the foreground. Sometimes Ozu makes it easy. In Walk Cheerfully, you’ll spot a sheet advertising Our Dancing Daughters (Harry Beaumont, 1928) in the office, and a belligerent Clara Bow promoting Rough House Rosie (Frank R Strayer, 1927) in the gym. In the first film, Joan Crawford’s softhearted party girl negotiates the politics of sexual permissiveness; the trailer for the second (which is now lost), promises the ‘story of a girl who got her men by treating them rough’. Put Crawford and Bow in the same room and it would be like faithful Yasue and ruthless Chieko facing off over their typewriters. In an early scene Chieko even sits in front of the Bow poster, echoing her pose. If you take the hint, you’ll read these bills as a signpost pointing you squarely at the female characters, because the real business of Walk Cheerfully is transacted between Yasue and Chieko. Yasue, like it or not, has to change – just as painfully as her boyfriend does when he scratches away his ink – and take Chieko’s place instead. It’s worth remembering that Yasue spends most of the film trying to escape the clutches of her sleazy, Johnnie-Walker-drinking company director, only to fall for another dodgy westernised type. Kenji succeeds in escaping his morally dubious past, but Yasue fails to avoid a similar future.
When Kenji ditches his nasty moll for a good girl, he doesn’t embrace a new wholesome lifestyle, but brings his own compromised morality into hers. Walk Cheerfully isn’t so much about Kenji leaving his criminal ways behind, but how his actions contribute to the deterioration of Yasue’s traditional family life – Ozu’s most celebrated theme. Watch her mother, usually seen hunched over a steaming tea kettle on the tatami mat, gingerly holding Kenji’s coffeepot (a symbol evolved in Dragnet Girl) in the final scene. In fact, check out that whole ersatz domestic setup in the gym when Senko and Kenji return – it’s more a playhouse than a home. And Yasue’s little bobhaired sister, who threw away her doll when it was mangled by Kenji’s car, is gazing at the men with open admiration. What, we wonder, is going to happen to her now? At the close of the film, the gangsters may have kept their promise to ‘walk cheerfully’ and the assembled family group are all smiles, but the steps they are taking are into an uncertain, possibly unwelcome, future.
- BFI video: Walk Cheerfully, Yasujiro Ozu and the Art of the Benshi
- You can buy the BFI’s Ozu Gangster Films collections online here. Walk Cheerfully is also available from the Criterion Collection in the US in the Silent Ozu – Three Crime Dramas Eclipse set.
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 ‘Hoodlum’ or petty criminal