Saturday, December 7, 2019

Review - Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth?

December 7, 2019

Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? – Japan, 1932

The great Yasujiro Ozu had no qualms about returning to material he’d previously used as inspiration for a film. He remade his 1934 film, The Story of Floating Weeds, as Floating Weeds in 1954, and many of the films explore similar themes, so much so that a common comment about Ozu is that he made his first film in 1929 and then remade that film over and over just with varying titles. It is a joke made by those who are either unaware of his complete repertoire or are exaggerating for comedic effect, and yet it is impossible not to see the similarities between Yasujiro Ozu’s Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? and his earlier “student films,” Days of Youth, I Flunked, But…, and The Lady and the Beard. In many ways, Where Now Are the Dreams of My Youth? is almost an amalgamation of his earlier films, albeit with an ending that is jarringly different that what came before.

Like those earlier movies, Where Now Are the Dreams of My Youth? begins in those jovial days of university, which, as seen in I Flunked, But…, mostly includes playing, hanging out with good friends, and being on the cheerleading squad, and there’s not a whole lot of studying going on during the interim. We first meet a young man named Taichiro Saiki (Tatsuo Saito). He’s such a studious fellow that he walks around the school grounds with his head buried in his books and a pencil in hand; he is not, however, bright – at least not according to his professor -  and he is a bit of a social misfit. In one scene, Ozu shows him watching his friends leading a pep rally from afar, with a look in his eyes that show unmistakable envy.

Soon we meet Tetsuo Horino (Ureo Egawa), who is very much Saiki’s opposite. In fact, it’s highly unlikely he has picked up a book for weeks. In one scene reminiscent of one from an early Harold Lloyd film, he gets so involved in a chess game that he and his opponent carry the game out of a bakery and play it as they are walking and even after they have entered the classroom. Early on, we also meet Oshige (Kinuyo Tanaka), a young woman whose family owns the bakery Horino and his friends frequent often. It is clear where her heart lies from her early interactions with Horino, yet later events caused me to reflect back on Saiki’s reactions during those early scenes in the bakery and see many of his facial expressions and physical movements in a new light. Things take a dramatic turn - at least momentarily – when Horino’s father dies and he elects to take over his father’s company instead of completing his degree.    

Ozu’s student films were made during a worldwide economic downturn, and that reality permeates through most of those films. In Ozu’s lost film, I Graduated, But…, a young man’s degree fails to land him a decent job; here, Tetsuo’s friends are graduating into a world where job prospects are bleak. In I Flunked, But…, the luckiest character is the one who doesn’t pass his exams because he gets to continue basking in the bright glory of student life, while his friends face rejection after rejection. Here, graduation is unnecessary for Hirino to achieve success; for his friends, it sends them ill-prepared into a job market reeling from a global contraction. Days of Youth is a different kind of film, focusing more on comedy and a love triangle, but even in that film, we see similarities to the romantic narrative found in Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth?

Where it diverges is in its finale, and I suspect it is this part of the film that contemporary audiences will have the hardest time with, for instead of embracing the notions that the passage of time creates permanent changes and that accepting that is part of growing up, it reinforces the idea that all that is needed to restore strained relations is an old-fashioned heart-to-heart. Here, said talk involves a confrontational discussion and a discomforting one-sided physical altercation. Voila, they’re all smiles, and life is as it should be. Except that it isn’t. The economy is still lousy, his friends are still woefully unqualified for employment, and Horino still does not have the experience necessary to run a successful company. I guess none of that is more important than whether four young men stay friends.

In fairness, with the exception of a few fleeting remarks here and there, the film doesn’t try to extend much into this reality, but by avoiding any real depiction of what was happening in 1931, the world these characters inhabit feels trivialized. It is as if Ozu is saying that all you need to survive trying times is family wealth and/or connections in high places. I don’t see that message resonating either now or in 1931. It reminds me of a Hollywood movie made during the Great Depression in which the lead character turns down a job because it doesn’t pay enough. Not many people in the audience could afford such considerations, and it is said that the line elicited laughter,

Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? is a more enjoyable film if you ignore the real world. Set aside the drum beats of war and the shattered dreams of those unfortunate enough not to find comfortable employment, and just watch it as the story of four friends whose camaraderie is tested by extreme changes and, for two of them at least, an interest in the same woman. Viewed as such, the film mostly succeeds. It is humorous, employing wit and warmth reminiscent of the early works of Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton. The film is extremely well acted, and several scenes involving Horino and Oshige resonate emotionally. As for the film’s climactic moments, I will not sugarcoat it – they are off-putting and certainly left a bad taste in my mouth. However, after that wore off, I could reflect upon the film’s more uplifting and humorous moments and recall that I’d had a pretty good time up until that point. That should count for something. (on DVD in Region 2 as part of BFI’s The Student Comedies)

3 stars

*Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? is a silent film.

No comments: