Wednesday, March 30, 2011

5 Japanese Divas: Dragnet Girl (Kinuyo Tanaka)

By day, Tokiko works in an office typing pool. By night, she is a gun moll. One has to respect her work ethic. Perhaps most surprisingly, this silent gangster drama was a rare foray into genre cinema from Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu. Featuring Kinuyo Tanaka as the bad girl leading a double life, Ozu’s Dragnet Girl screens during the soon to commence 5 Japanese Divas retrospective series, which Film Forum scheduled well in advance of the earthquake and tsunami that shook Japan. However, it serves as a timely reminder of the exceptional films produced by a country that has become one of America’s closest friends and allies.

Like many Ozu films, Dragnet takes us into the world of the Japanese white collar worker. Tokiko is a loyal member of an office typing pool, who frequently receives extravagant gifts from the boss’s son. She tries her best to keep him at arm’s length for the sake of her job. She really does not seem to need it though. Every night she lives the high life with her lover Joji, a former prize fighter turned gangster. Together, they operate a racket Ozu never spells out, but seems to involve her sex appeal and his brawn. They look like a perfect match, but when Joji starts to fall for the “good girl” sister of one of their flunky henchmen, it leads both of them to reconsider their life choices.

Even if Dragnet were not such an unrepresentative film in Ozu’s canon, it would be a fun little gangster film. Indeed, Ozu offers some quite striking film noir shadow play that is nothing like his trademark “tatami-level” shots. Although most analysis of Dragnet emphasizes how it differs from his mature style, there are certain similarities. Though ostensibly a crime drama, Ozu focuses far more on the emotional conflicts within his female characters. While not exactly like his famous transitional still-life shots, he shows the same facility for investing meaning in everyday objects, like the office typewriters neatly covered, or the orderly row of the office workers’ hats hanging on their hooks.

Of course, this is not an Ozu retrospective, but a survey of five superb Japanese actresses: Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, Machiko Kyo, Setsuko Hara, and Hideko Takamine. Appropriately, Dragnet is a first class showcase for Tanaka, who looks deceptively cute and innocent, but burns up the screen as Tokiko. She covers the full emotional range, ultimately becoming an unlikely combination of Ma Barker and Mother Theresa.

Dragnet is a silent film, but music plays an important role, so Film Forum house pianist Steve Sterner will have a chance to exercise both his jazz and classical chops. Dragnet might be an anomaly within Ozu’s filmography, but it proves he could handle the classic Warner Brothers-esque gangster melodrama, when he chose to. So there. Dapper entertainment from two masters of world cinema (Ozu and Tanaka), Dragnet screens as part of a double bill this coming Monday (4/4) during Film Forum’s 5 Japanese Divas (which kicks off this Friday). After partaking of some great Japanese films, those so moved can support the Red Cross’ efforts in Japan here and find information on the Japan Society’s upcoming (4/9) Concert for Japan benefit here.