November 30, 2019
The Lady and the Beard – Japan, 1931
A funny thing happened on the way to publishing this review.
A few days ago, my wife and I began noticing signs of a rodent – you know, the partially eaten fruit, leaves suddenly missing from plants, a shadow rapidly-moving along the wall. No actual sighting, though. So, Saturday night – after a long day assessing young students’ English – I finally sat down to write about the only new film I’d been able to find time to watch in a week. (Those of you with kids undoubtedly understand this.) What I wrote, along with a few minor edits and additions, appears below.
There’s a little bit of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd in Kiichi Okajima (Tokihiko Okada), the protagonist of Yasujiro Ozu’s 1931 film The Lady and the Beard. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s opening moments, during which a kendo match devolves into a slapstick routine in which each side takes turns calling time out and doing anything he can to get a point. That is, anything other than employing a strategy traditionally associated with kendo. It’s a truly fun scene, and it perfectly establishes the quirkiness of the film’s lead character, for, in truth, he is better suited for a slapstick comedy than a traditional period piece.
I suppose Ozu could have titled his film The Last Samurai, for in Okajima, we have a man adheres to a way of life that has long vanished and many ostracize him for it. In one scene, a group of women ask if he knows how to dance; he answers them in the form of an interpretive dance set to a classic number from Japanese opera. He even ropes in a butler (Takeshi Sakamoto) to play the part of the damsel in distress because, well, he’s male, and that’s the way it was done back in the day. In another, his sense of chivalry does not allow him to look the other way when he sees a young woman in distress (Hiroko Kawasaki), and his calm, cool demeanor as he tells her she can leave brings to mind the conduct of Bogart and Cagney. There’s also Okajima’s entire “samurai” demeanor, which seems inspired by the latest costume dramas playing in nearby theaters, from the beard he adorns to the physical mannerisms that any fan of Toshiro Mifune’s films will recognize as those of a “cinema” samurai.
Suddenly, screams came from the couch, as the rodent was seen scurrying across the floor toward a rather packed corner of the apartment. So much for writing. For the next hour, there was nothing but searching, rearranging, and shining flashlights in darkened corners – all to no avail. And, of course, there was the occasional shriek as the invader apparently made his way from one side of the room to another. I say apparently because I still have yet to actually have visual confirmation of the varmint.
So, now, the next morning, four mouse traps decorating the corners of the living room, each one unoccupied, I am finally sitting down to complete my thoughts on The Lady and the Beard, yet, as it is wont to do, my mind is not cooperating. At any moment, my wife or daughter or both could wake up and recognize the “danger” that may still exist, and if that occurs, what follows may be unpleasant and loud. It certainly won’t allow further writing. Therefore, allow me to be briefer than usual, while admitting that the film deserves better.
In The Lady and the Beard, Ozu shines a light on the values of young people in the 1930’s, and his verdict is not entirely flattering. At one point, a character questions why his brother invited Okajima by commenting, “Send him away. He doesn’t appeal to us because of his beard. He’s too old fashioned.” It’s a common refrain. Old is out of fashion; hip are record players, jazz, Western-style business suits, and individualism. Paradoxically, this view exists in a country still practicing arranged marriages, a custom that could hardly be considered modern even in 1931.
Our hero eventually becomes aware that his beard is a hindrance to employment - he doesn’t seem to mind the chilling effect it seems to have on his love life - so on the advice of the young woman whom he prevents from being mugged, he shaves the beard. The film then follows him as we see how society reacts to the new him and how it comes to realize that there is still something honorable in the old ways – so long as it comes in the form of a young man with a cleanly-shaven face. The film is humorous, using slapstick to its full advantage and containing easily recognizable film troupes concerning gangsters and samurai. As Okajima, Okada is a noble riot, partly because we recognize his exaggerated motions and facial expression even though his character is displaying them in complete earnest. Equally impressive is Kawasaki as the young woman who recognizes the decent man in front of her. She represents the past as well, from the way she dresses to her soft-spoken manner, the direction she casts her eyes and her ability to sew. In a way, Okajima is her soul mate.
I was less enthralled by the film’s insistence upon making Okajima an unwitting ladies man, yet it fits the genre that film is poking fun at. In many samurai films – especially the Zatoichi series – a morally-fallen woman has her decent side awakened by the morals of a roaming samurai. Here, two women go from being either conceited or wicked to valuing decency and truth after extremely brief meetings with Okajima, and the film is less effective for it. One would have been enough, and I think you’ll agree which one fits the plot. Still, this did not dampen my enthusiasm for the film. I was amused throughout, admired the great work of the cast, and left with a sense that everything had made sense in the end. So far, it’s my favorite of Ozu’s “student” films. (on DVD as part of BFI’s The Student Comedies; it is Region 2)
*The Lady and the Beard is a silent film.
*The film can be viewed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SstkVRkjXeA.