Friday, April 8, 2011

Review – Talking Silents 8: Kid Commotion/The Dawning Sky

April 8, 2011

Kid Commotion – Japan, 1935
The Dawning Sky – Japan, 1929

According to Tadao Sato, during the silent era, every country had its own “Chaplin,” and in Japan, that moniker belonged to Shigeru Ogura. One need only look at him for a moment in his 1935 short film Kid Commotion to see the resemblance. That film is directed by Torajiro Sodo, and it is said that his slapstick comedies were so popular that were shown over and over again all over Japan, so many times in fact that all but two of them no longer survive. Kid Commotion has an interesting back story. According to Mr. Sato, the film was a parody of the ideas of birth control activist Margaret Sanger, who brought her message of poor people not having children to Japan in the 1930’s. This can be seen clearly in the film’s original title: Birth Dyscontrol, pun intended, no doubt. The film is a testament to Mr. Sodo’s willingness to use contemporary ideas as fodder for comedy and to push the boundaries of slapstick quite far.

In the film, which is the first of two films on the eighth volume of Digital Meme’s Talking Silents series, Mr. Ogura plays Shigura Fukuda, an unemployed man with six children and a very pregnant wife. In the film, he makes a series of attempts to get money to hire a mid-wife after his wife goes into labor. With each successive failure, his attempts become increasingly desperate, and eventually he contemplates breaking the law. There is a humorous bit in which a pig is used as a football during a rugby practice, and the scene in which Mr. Fukuda’s kids prepare all of the things their mother needs when she goes into labor is rather cute. Plus the image of all of the children’s diapers hanging on clothes lines and blowing in the wind outside was hilarious. There are also a few surprising moments when the slapstick employed involves the children rough-housing a bit too much around and on their mother’s stomach while she’s in labor, and there’s even a scene in which Fukuda tries to sell his very young daughter to a geisha house that is intended to be funny. For me, these were a little hard to laugh at, and the film’s running storyline involving the wife’s gradually declining health didn’t cause me to snicker much either. I suspect that for many in the West, the film’s mixture of comedy and melodrama will be extremely difficult to overcome. As for me, I laughed at times and cringed at others. Then I watched it again. Same reaction.

The second film on the DVD is The Dawning Sky, also directed by Torajiro Sato. The Dawning Sky is a full-length maternal melodrama, a genre that was quite popular in the 1930’s. The film touches on such themes as honor, religion, and starting over. The film stars Yoshiko Kawata as Kyoko, a young woman who becomes a mother and a widow at a very early age. Soon after the death of Kyoko’s husband, her in-law’s bank goes under, and Kyoko’s father becomes concerned about his daughter’s future. In an effort to both ease his concern and improve his daughter’s fortune, he makes what he thinks is a sensible proposal – that his daughter return home so that she can have another chance at happiness. From a Western perspective, his request sounds rather reasonable. However, to Kyoko’s father-in-law Junzo (Reikichi Kawamura), the proposal is an insult, an indication not only that he is being looked down upon, but also that his family was only acceptable when they were well off. Therefore, Junzo decides to severe ties with Kyoko’s family and send her home. In what some may see as a rather cruel move, he also decides that Kyoko’s daughter Reiko (Mitsuko Takao) will remain with him. He later tells his granddaughter that her mother is dead. He does not mean “dead to him,” although he would have been wise to phrase it that way.

In spite of the importance of religion in the film, which I did not expect, The Dawning Sky is rather formulaic, which is not to say that it is bad or boring. We expect mother and daughter to eventually be reunited, and this is indeed what happens. What is interesting is the circumstances under which they meet again, for much has changed for both of them, and the role Kyoko now has may prevent her from revealing her identity to Reiko. There’s also the little matter of the grudge that Junzo still bears Kyoko’s family.

The film contains strong performance from its three leading actors. In particular, the performances of Ms. Kawata and Miss Takao stand out. There are moments towards the beginning of the film when Ms. Kawata faces the camera that are heartbreaking. In one, she asks the spirit of her deceased husband to watch over their child. Later in the film, the camera focuses exclusively on her as she struggles between doing what she wants to do and fulfilling the vows she took when she entered her new life. She makes every aspect of her inner struggle apparent to viewers. Mitsuko Takao, one of the most popular child actors of her time, plays her part perfectly. She successfully captures the innocence of youth, the feeling of loss, and the agony that comes when you know that what you most want is just out of reach.

The film is a bit repetitive towards the end, and the film’s intertitles sometimes reveal things that were already fairly clear. With Ms. Kawata on the screen, it’s simply not necessary for the audience to read the sentence It was breaking her heart. They can see it in her face already. Sometimes less is more, and in this case, less would have been better. However, these are minor quibbles. The film works for the most part, and the end of the film is rather moving. While this edition of Talking Silents will not rank as one of my favorites, it’s still a fascinating look at two Japanese genres that I suspect many people haven’t been exposed to before, and for that, I’m very grateful. (on DVD)

Kid Commotion – 3 stars
The Dawning Sky – 3 stars

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