April 14, 2016
Walk Cheerfully – Japan, 1930
I can see what the great Yasujiro Ozu was trying to do with his silent film Walk Cheerfully. The film covers what is by now a well-tread path, one in which a man who has strayed far from the path of decency seeks redemption in someone he considers much better than himself. In most of these films, the man’s initial attraction is followed by failed attempts at talking to her. Eventually though she gives him a chance and discovers that there is more to him than the criminal that everyone warns her to stay away from. To be truly believable, the best of these films devotes a great deal of screen time to establishing the bond and emotional connection between the two characters. I’m reminded of films like Sugar Hill, in which Wesley Snipes’s drug-dealer is so overwhelmed by emotions that he remarks just how little he recognizes the man he has become, a man practically pleading with the love of his life to stay with him. Then there’s John Woo’s The Killer. In that film, Chow Yun-Fat throws away everything he has worked for just to have the opportunity to help the woman he has fallen for get an operation. Sure, it was a variation of City Lights, but I still bought every moment of it. This is not necessarily the case with Walk Cheerfully.
The lead character in Walk Cheerfully is a two-bit criminal named Kenji Koyama (Minoru Takada). When we first meet him, he is masquerading as a helpful bystander, trying to get to the bottom of an apparent pickpocketing. We soon learn that he is the leader of this particular racket and that he and the three other people in his gang form a ragtag brotherhood. He is closest to a fellow con named Senko (Hisao Yoshitani), this despite the fact that his girlfriend is in the group. The woman who changes his life is Yasue Sugimoto (Hiroko Kawasaki), and she slays him not with pleasant conversation or fun adventure, but with traditional dress and sandals for shoes.
The 1980s BBC documentary The Road to War explains that pre-World War II Japan had a love-hate relationship with the West. On the one hand, the West was an enemy, viewed with distrust and seen as being discriminatory toward Japan internationally. At the same time, many Japanese people had a keen interest in all things Western, from jazz to the attire often showcased in Hollywood pictures. This is significant because in the film Kenji plays the trumpet, hangs out in a billiards parlor, and is seen in one unnecessarily long scene trying to learn golf. In other words, he appears to be trying to be Western, and in the film, Western values are seen to lead people down the wrong path. Traditional Japanese values, however, are what can lead them back to the straight and narrow. Propaganda? Slightly, but that’s the least of my complaints about the film.
Films like this one need to devote an adequate amount of screen time to establishing their characters’ attraction and innate goodness, and this is where the film comes up short. The bond between them just never feels fully authentic. It is as if screenwriter Tadao Ikeda, working from an original story by Hiroshi Shimizu, took it for granted that the audience would just accept that Kenji’s life is utterly altered simply because he says it is. I just wasn’t convinced.
Unfortunately Ikeda relied too heavily on comedy to lighten the tone of the film. The comedy mostly comes in the form of Senko, a character that is both a jester and a child in a man’s body. Yet it also comes across in the off-putting. yet jovial use of dance steps as a greeting between gangsters. These scenes reminded me of an Astaire musical, yet they serve no purpose in the film itself; instead, they use up valuable time that could have been used to establish the budding connection between Kenji and Yasue.
It is a bit of a cliché to say this, but this is lesser-Ozu. While there are elements of what made later Ozu films so remarkable – the focus of variations of family units, for example – the film is unpolished. Only the ending moments of the film made me stop and marvel at Ozu’s style. Long before Antonioni ended L’Eclisse with a montage of haunting images, there was Ozu’s final vision in Walk Cheerfully, which gives the impression of life going on as usual and provides the audience with what could be interpreted as a sign that everything has worked out in the end. It’s a nice touch; it was also too late to resonate fully.
In the end, Walk Cheerfully is watchable, and it will likely be considered a must-see for Ozu fans. Here’s the rub, though. I consider myself one of these fans, yet even I have to admit that this is one Ozu film that I’d have a hard time viewing a second time. And this disappoints me. I wanted to love the film, to see in it greatness and bold vision. The film simply fell short. It happens - even to one of cinema’s masters. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Silent Ozu – Three Crime Dramas box sets)
2 and a half stars