November 17, 2019
Days of Youth – Japan, 1929
Rooms must have been hard to come by in Japan circa 1929. At least, that was my conclusion upon seeing the number of people who are practically ecstatic at the sight of a makeshift “room for rent” sign in the opening scene of Yasujiro Ozu’s 1929 film Days of Youth. One man even barges in and looks perfectly giddy as he enquires as to room. Alas, he is told it is already rented – the lucky occupant, a student named Watanabe (Ichiro Yuki), simply forgot to remove the sign. However, a moment later, there Watanabe is putting up another sign with an identical message, all the while adorning the kind of smile that usually telegraphs that someone is up to something, and indeed he is. Yet before you start thinking this is an early version of the now-standard tale of a tenant and a new roommate - think either The Odd Couple or Single White Female – it should be said the Watanabe is very much like many other young men his age: He’s looking for love. How exactly he settled on this approach is anyone’s guess, though.
It makes even less sense as the film progresses. Soon a young child is at his door, proclaiming his certainty that Watanabe will like the next one – She’s a real looker, he tells him. And sure enough, in walks a young woman named Chieko (Junko Matsui), whom Watanabe immediately approves of, so much so that soon he actually packs up his things and moves out, despite having no place to actually go to. You can see how this defies logic, but Watanabe is not known for his great ideas. He’s more of the class clown, the joker who livens up the party, but who puts off the truly important things, such as studying for his exams. In his eyes, he has accomplished his goal, to meet a member of the opposite sex and make a good impression on her – although one can reasonably assume that since she thinks he is leaving of his own accord, the notion of being indebted to him probably never crosses her mind.
We are soon introduced to another student named Yamamoto (Tatsuo Saito), We meet him as Chieko is on her way to retrieve her belongings, and it is soon clear that they are on very friendly terms. She is even making him a pair of socks, apparently a sign of affection back in the day. Clearly, Yamamoto has feelings for her, and she does not reject his subtle advances. Later, who should show up at Yamamoto’s room looking for a place to stay? You guessed it, and just like that, our love triangle is complete. In no time at all, Watanabe and Yamamoto go from being jovial buddies to fierce competitors.
Days of Youth is the earliest surviving Ozu film. Prior to it, he’d made 2 shorts and five feature films, all of which have been lost due to either old age, World War II, or the great purge of supposedly “extra” copies of films that occurred during the years the United States occupied Japan. Not having those films to reference makes it impossible to say with any certainty whether Ozu had develop what we now refer to as his signatures techniques and themes: the low camera angle, the shots taken from a distance, the emphasis on family, and the toll that the passage of time has on tradition. Here, we get a pretty straightforward comedy without any overt comment on modern society, and Ozu’s camerawork is much more traditional.
The comedy is hit-and-miss. Ozu excelled at presenting situations that were humorous because of their sweetness and authenticity. For example, in Good Morning, it is easy to accept that two kids would go on strike until they get a TV. Here, it is similarly believably that a young man would try to hide the paint on his face from the woman he is interested in. Less credible is the aforementioned plan involving Watanabe’s room, and a scene in which Yamamoto goes down a ski slope after a runaway ski adds slapstick to a film that previously based its comedy on the situation its characters find themselves in. As for the plot, it’s pretty razor-slim, so much so that screen time is devoted to ski jumps, shots of nature, and long walks in the snow. Even at 99 minutes, the film doesn’t really earn its running time.
On the plus side, the film ends with a surprise, reminding us that part of youth is enjoying the attention of others and having fun before one settles down, and that these experiences are not exclusive to young men. It also reinforces the notion that youth is a time of heartbreak and recovery and that both play an important role in shaping the kind of adult you eventually become. Ozu would make better films in the future, and he would return to some of these themes later on. Here, we get a mere passing glance at a master at work, and for some, that will be enough. (on DVD as part of BFI’s DVD set The Student Comedies; it is Region 2)
2 and a half stars
*Days of Youth is a silent film.