May 26, 2016
Dragnet Girl – Japan, 1933
In the run up to the Second World War, it is said that Japan was dealing with a contradiction of massive proportions. On the one hand, there was an official coordinated effort to convince people that the West was Japan’s enemy. However, even as the drums of war began to beat even louder, young people craved all things Western, from the fashion of the day to the vibrant beats of Jazz music. That contradiction cannot have made the government very happy, and it is not hard to imagine that hints – whether subtle or obvious – were given that the film industry had better toe the line. Kurosawa would eventually make Most Beautiful (1942), a film that extols the virtues of a female factory worker who sacrifices her health for the war effort, and Yasujiro Ozu would make There Was a Father (1944), a film in which a father practically calls his son unpatriotic for wanting to spend more time with him. However, in 1933, there was no reason to make films that had the obviously propagandist elements that characterized those later films. Make no mistake about it, though: Dragnet Girl is an example of subtle propaganda.
In the film, we watch a group of petty criminals holds down regular jobs by day and lets loose at night. Their leader is a young woman named Tokiko, excellently played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who dresses like Bonnie Parker, smokes, drinks, and speaks of her boyfriend’s ability to beat up people with an almost erotic zeal. In other words, she’s “western.” She and her boyfriend, Joji (Joji Oka), a former boxer, live in sin and are always on the prowl for the next money-making scheme. One day, at his old gym, Joji happens to meet a young boxer named Misako (Koji Kaga). It turns out that Misako idolizes Joji, and once he is under his tutelage, his behavior goes from bad to worse.
Enter Joji’s sweet, caring, traditional sister, Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo). We know she is the film’s moral center almost immediately because she is the only character who consistently wears a kimono. She also has an interesting habit of looking apologetic when people are rude to her; in other words, she’s such a good person that she feels ashamed at having provoked negative feelings in another human being. It’s only a matter of time until she becomes involved in trying to prevent her brother from going down the wrong path, and this of course involves arranging a meeting with Joji.
With a set-up like this, Dragnet Girl could easily have gone down the well-tread path of movies about terrible gangsters who fall in love in the most innocent of women. Fortunately, Dragnet Girl does not follow that script too far. I kept expecting Joji to confess his feelings and promise to be a better person, and I was rather enjoyed the fact that film avoids this scenario. Unfortunately, this does not mean that the film has any other original ideas, for just as quickly as one established genre is disposed of, it employs another one, that of the last job, and we all know how those turn out.
And that may be part of what hampered my enjoyment of Dragnet Girl: I was simply too familiar with films like it to be surprised by anything I saw. I could see what was in store for the characters before they did, and on the few occasions in which something happened that I hadn’t predicted, the actions of the characters seemed forced and slightly exaggerated, as if screenwriter Tadao Ikeda had purposely set out to avoid subtlety. Several conversations go on too long, one in particular in surprisingly creepy (you’ll know which one), and the ending scene goes on much longer than it realistically should, with characters repeating phrases over and over as they run around from one place to another. In the end, I was more exhausted than moved.
Still, I like the movie. It is an interesting take of Ozu’s favorite subjects, contemporary Japan and its effect on families. Here, the families are broken. The gang, as well as its anti-social actions, is likely the product of absent or deceased parents, and Misako and his sister resemble the kind of makeshift family we so often see when either death or an economic crisis befalls a family. Therefore, there is no one to guide these families, to pull them back from the brink, or to act as the moral glue that binds them to each other and to tradition. These imperfect characters are tasked with keeping their families together, and with possibly putting them on a better, more law-abiding path. Again, I like all of this – I just wasn’t especially moved by much of it, and I should have been. The cast, in particular, Ms. Tanaka, is excellent, and fans of Ozu’s later films will notice some of those trademark Ozu’s images. Yet, this is one time when Ozu’s magic just didn’t work on me as well as it has in the past. It all just seemed so standard. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Silent Ozu – Three Crime Dramas)
*Dragnet Girl is a silent film with English intertitles..