November 23, 2019
I Flunked, But… - Japan, 1930
As a rule, I do not read about a movie before watching it, so I do not know for sure if my assumption about Yasujiro Ozu’s I Flunked, But… is correct. However, I suspect that parts of the film have been lost. For one, Ozu’s previous film, Days of Youth, clocked in at 99 minutes; I Flunked, But… is over after just 63, and before you remind me that many films from the same time period also had shorter running times, I should add that many pieces of the film’s narrative, as well as some of the film’s characters, are woefully undeveloped. More on that later.
I Flunked, But… is about a group of students “preparing” for a crucial series of examinations. I put the word preparing in quotation marks, for their concept of studying is writing pieces of information they think are likely to be on the exam on the back of one of the long-sleeve white shirts that the students wear as part of their uniform. They also employ an interesting technique of getting answers to students sitting further away by sticking them onto the back of the teacher as he is roaming around the classroom. Unfortunately, that technique is far less reliable.
The first day of the exam ends without their deviousness being discovered, so naturally, they immediately head home to prepare a second shirt. Problems arise, however, when one of the boys’ landlady mistakes the “cheat” shirt for one that could use a good washing and sends it off to be dry cleaned. Suffice to say, not everyone passes.
It is here where the film shifts tones. Up until this point, I Flunked, But… is humorous, with several scenes that will make you recall Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman. However, once failure makes its presence known, the film starts resembling a satire. one that is critical of Japan’s exam system and shatters the myth that all one needed to succeed in pre-World War II Japan was a degree . There’s a lot of potential in this plot point, but for some reason, Ozu elected not to explore it. Instead, we get a few serious scenes between Takahashi (Tatsuo Saito) and the girl he likes (Kinuyo Tanaka). In one, she notices the cheat shirt and registers an expression of disappointment, yet this is as far as the film goes with these sentiments. The next time we see her, she has forgotten all about her disillusionment; in its place is intense admiration and hints of budding love. The change is jarring, and I suspect that this is one of the spots from which a scene is missing.
And yet it is in this part of the film that its most interesting topics can be found. It has long been said that in Japan a job used to be guaranteed for life, and nothing we see in Ozu’s film shatters that. However, it does show that employment prospects were not quite as rosy as we’ve been led to believe, especially for someone who just barely passed his exams. After all, if no one wants to hire you, what do you care if employment is permanent?
So, I Flunked, But… has potential; it’s just not fully realized. First, I was never fully invested in these characters. Of the five members of the quintet, only two of them receive quality screen time. The other three just act silly, cheat in humorous ways, and dance the kind of short jig one usually associates with a fraternity in the 1950s. The lead character was so underwritten that he remains an enigma throughout the picture. In fact, if I’m honest, I’d say the most involving character is the one who barely passes his exams because we can all understand his plight. If only he’d received more screen time. Second, Ozu seems to be trying to have it both ways. He wants the audience to laugh at the absurdity of the boys’ behavior, yet respond with sympathy to their uncertainty and lamentations. There’s only one problem: We saw them cheating earlier in the film.
There’s a tendency to give the early films of people who eventually became great filmmakers a pass. To do so, some people seem to be view their films not as completed works, but as a source of stunning fragments that hint at the director to come. I get this; I do. However, no amount of esteem for Ozu’s later films can save I Flunked, But… It’s too disjointed, has weak character development, and, seen though modern eyes, contains eccentricity for eccentricity’s sake. It just doesn’t work. Therefore, there must be something lost. After all, the great Ozu couldn’t have made such a disappointing film. It must be that… Dang it. Now I’m doing it. (on DVD as part of BCFI’s collection The Student Comedies; it is Region 2)
*I Flunked, But… is a silent film.
*Apparently, none of the characters in the film have names. I only learned the lead character’s name by reading the insert booklet.