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. Continue reading Walk Cheerfully (1930): Yasujiro Ozu’s toe-tapping tough guys