Saturday, April 27, 2013
THE RECORD OF A TENEMENT GENTLEMAN (Yasujiro Ozu, 1947)
Pillow shots depicting laundry hanging out to dry in the sun, blowing in the breeze, are easily among Ozu’s favorite transitional shots. They neither enhance nor provide an establishing shot for the scenes that they precede but they comprise moments of silence that allow meditation and reflection on the whole of a film --as the silences are as organically important as those that encompass human action. They feature no human presence, the better to induce tension with our anticipation of the progress of narrative. For this film, however, Ozu seems to delight in inserting a visual pun, as the long shot of a clothesline gives way to a close-up revealing a mattress out on the line with urine stains. (It’s that Ozu earthiness – the humanizing kind and not the vulgar variety -- that sometimes one overlooks but can definitely be found in many of Ozu's films, as in the abundant references to breaking wind in Ohayo or the many times we see Chishu Ryu, one of Ozu’s mainstays, paring down his toenails.)
But this is not about toilet humor. This is about human warmth. The metaphor embodied by the urine stains best sums up the emotional residue of this film: the stains are the marks of indelibility that could only emanate from a child, someone who will leave a lasting mark not just on
a plain mattress but on those who will have the distinct chance to know him. Seemingly abandoned by his father and wandering the streets, this child is brought home by the titular but nominal hero to his lodgings. But he is a painter who has little time to spare, so that it is the stern and humorless old lady next door who is asked to put up the child for the night – perhaps until a suitable home can be found or until the child’s father can be located.
The neighbors are no different from the old lady. They would just as soon dispense with the child as any unconnected stranger. They can only agree to draw lots in order to decide who will take the responsibility to locate the child’s missing father. The lots are rigged, of course, and the old lady is again left to assume responsibility. This prolonged moments together with the child start to grow on the old lady. While she warns the child that she would expel him if he keeps peeing on the mattress in his sleep, nothing could prepare her for his self-imposed banishment. At some irrevocable point of the film, she asks the child to call her his mother.
The characters, specifically the dyad of mother and son, are heart-warmers. The transformation lies with the old lady who starts with cynicism and and gradually becomes sensitized and ultimately humanized for knowing a child who awakens all the maternal instincts within her. Although he weeps as much as the next child, this story’s young character seems to be as near tabula rasa as can be – still untainted and practically angelic. (Perhaps even biblical: His father we come to learn is, wink, wink, a carpenter). The sometimes-unneighborly neighbors we get to meet may embody streaks of cunning, but they are all likable.
Record of a Tenement Gentleman comes just after the Second World War and midstream in the directorial career of Ozu, and it seems to reflect that transition. For those who prefer Ozu’s pre-war films, there is something here to recommend. “Warm and human” are certainly applicable adjectives to its scenario and cast of characters. For those who enjoy the home dramas in Ozu’s final cycle of films, this film also qualifies with flying colors – vis-à-vis, say, the “nonsense/light comedies” where the director got his start.
reviewed: December 13, 2006