The BFI-packaged Ozu student comedies are 4 very different films. Days of Youth (Days) is a straightforward 2 men-1 girl slapstick comedy. Where Now are the Dreams of Youth? (Dreams) is a character drama, spiced up with some innovative comedy. The Lady and the Beard (Beard) is practically a moralising diatribe. And then I Flunked But… (IFB) is an observational ‘slice of life’ piece. In short, there is quite a variety in subject matter here. Unfortunately there’s also a big variety in quality.
Being that these films are described as ‘comedies’, I was slightly disappointed to find out they weren’t particularly funny. The humour here is very physical: Days in particular abounds with pratfalls. Dreams has a fairly entertaining sequence with two students playing a game of Go (Japanese chess) on the move, and picking up a curious janitor on the way. And there are a few chuckle-worthy, Beano-style methods of cheating on display in Dreams and IFB. But a few chuckles are all any of these purported comedies are worth. Anyone listening to me watching these would hear grunting amusement, but little guffawing.
This might however not be the fault of the films themselves. In part it’s just me: I don’t really find simple slapstick that funny. I much prefer the intricate set pieces of a Mr Bean to a simple Looney-Tunes routine. But even with my comedic snobbery, there is an even greater problem with the films.
I’ll put it simply. Whoever decided that composer Ed Hughes’ score should be put to these movies, should never be allowed to make similar decisions again. I’ve no idea how a deaf person got that job in the first place. Hell, I’d be surprised to learn Hughes had bothered to watch the movies before he started composing.
This is a score made for what are, for the most part, lighthearted comedies, and it is dour and downbeat the whole way through. And, even worse: it’s discordant. This is so basic even I know it: you only have discordant music in a film when you want an audience to be tense. Why would you want an audience to be tense and on edge in a comedy?! Hell, whenever any of the characters had a mild disagreement, I was half expecting them to try to murder one another!
I suppose it could be argued that I could just turn the score off and watch the film in silence. To which I would say ‘Nope. Sorry. You’re not getting away with that. I want to watch my films with music thankyou very much. You provided the option to do so: I have a right to be massively pissed at how monumentally you screwed it up’.
However, I do say all this with one small caveat. The score does work, in part, with IFB. Personally, though I think this has less to do with skill, than Hughes simply getting lucky. IFB’s main character, Takahashi (Tatsuo Saito) is a student whose plan to cheat in his exams fails. As a result he fails to get a degree. Ozu’s direction and Saito’s gloomy performance then perfectly capture the misery of academic failure, so well that you can feel its suffocating weight. These are the kind of miserable circumstances that Hughes’ score fits well.
But this success is pure accident. The score completely fails to reflect the shift in the plot: a revelation that that those who did manage to graduate, find their lives only made harder. Which is a shame because, through this shift, Ozu makes clear the lie that exists at the heart of the academic life. This life is one dominated and evaluated by the success and failure of essays and exams. But, in the real world, these successes and failures are in fact relatively meaningless. IFB, in capturing both the feelings of those within academia, and the truth of how little student accomplishments matter in the real world, is a masterful piece of work.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the other ‘comedies’. As said, Days is little more than predictable slapstick. Dreams culminates in an emotionally affecting scene, where an ex-student boss confronts his employee friends whom he feels have betrayed him, but is otherwise is a fairly dry watch. And Beard is pretty inaccessible. More satire than simple comedy, this film struck me as an endorsement of old-world values in the face of the degraded morals of a ‘modernised’ Japan (from the perspective of the 1930s). Unfortunately, with the distance of time and culture between me and the issues at the film’s core, I found this satire interesting but not relevant enough to be captivating.
So, these comedies are a fairly mixed bag. The score has a decidedly negative impact across the board. But, even taking that out of the equation, the films are for the most part, still not that entertaining. Except of course for IFB, which again, is a goddamn masterpiece. I guess getting it right ¼ of the time isn’t bad, but it’s not really ideal either. In the end then, this collection is a mixed bag. Unfortunately its contents are more bad than good.