Passing Fancy

Passing Fancy is an early silent comedy by Yasujiro Ozu. Although many of Ozu's silent films are quite different from his later works, in Passing Fancy Ozu's mature style already seems to be almost fully developed. The film is a charming family comedy about the single dad Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto), his son Tomio (Tomio Aoki), and his friend Jiro (Den Obinata), and the tension that enters their simple lives when they meet the homeless and unemployed young woman Harue (Nobuko Fushimi). The middle-aged Kihachi immediately likes the much younger woman, helping her get a job and a place to stay at a neighborhood restaurant while courting her in his goofy but charming way. Harue, though, thinks of Kihachi as an uncle and prefers the younger Jiro, who makes sure to keep her at arm's length, though one suspects that despite his insistence that he doesn't like her, he's only pushing her away out of loyalty to his good friend.

The film is mostly shot from Ozu's familiar low vantage point, his aesthetic already well-established by this time. In his films with children, the low camera placement seems to take on an additional purpose, as the low-to-the-ground framings are perfectly suited to a child's proportions — Tomio fits comfortably within the frame no matter how low the camera is placed — while the adults seem to tower outside the frame, their legs entering the frame before the rest of their body begins to appear in view. The compositions of the film are as meticulous and deliberate as later Ozu, with a constant awareness of how objects and people are arranged within the static frames; there is no camera movement, an aesthetic choice that would be totally codified in Ozu's late color films. As in his later work, striking use is made of bottles and other household objects positioned to counterbalance the actors within the frame; often the actors are placed into the background with some domestic object highlighted in the foreground. Ozu also periodically inserts static shots of the surrounding buildings and water towers to establish the setting, early examples of the "pillow shots" that would become such a powerful aesthetic devise in the director's postwar oeuvre.

Though there are elements of drama and melancholy in Passing Fancy, the film is largely a comedy, not so much in terms of broad slapstick as in its gentle but pervasive comic tone. Even at the height of the film's downtrodden section, when Tomio falls ill and Kihachi worries that the boy might die, Ozu breaks the tragic mood with a comic series of intertitles when Tomio's teacher asks Kihachi how the kid got sick, causing Kihachi to respond that "he ate fifty sen worth of sweets all at once," then enumerating all of the different flavors of candy the boy had eaten. Obviously, the illness isn't meant to be taken entirely seriously, but Kihachi's worries are heartrending anyway. Similarly, there's a strain of comedy running through the film centering on economic concerns in Depression era Japan, a concept introduced in the most humorous possible way in the film's opening scenes. At a theatrical performance, several men in the audience see a coin purse sitting on the ground and discretely peek inside, realizing that it's empty and then discarding it, only to have another man pick it up in the hopes of finding something inside. Ozu milks this gag for its gestural comedy, and also for its suggestion of poverty so extreme and common that none of these men think twice about trying to scrounge for money anywhere they might find a few coins. The physical comedy is then extended with a sequence where several men get up and dance around as though they have bugs crawling around in their clothes, another sign of the squalor of this neighborhood.

That economic hardship defines the film in many ways. Kihachi is embarrassed by his lack of financial security, by his inability to give his child everything he'd like to, and his desire for more leads him to extravagantly give the boy a coin, which Tomio then uses to gorge on candy since he's not used to having any money at all. More seriously, Kihachi proves incapable of paying the doctor who cares for his son, and scraping together the money for the medical bills proves to be an exceedingly difficult task. It quite literally takes the efforts of nearly everyone he knows to pay the doctor, with his community of friends and neighbors coming together to help him and his son.

Ozu often seems constrained by the stylistic conventions of the silent cinema; Japan was slow to switch to sound, and though Ozu often gets by here through gestural acting within the frame, this is a rather dialogue-heavy film with a lot of information and emotion conveyed through the text. In the scene where Harue and Jiro argue over her lack of romantic feelings for Kihachi, Ozu unleashes an uncharacteristic barrage of dialogue intertitles, alternating between static, repetitive images of Harue and Jiro, with more or less the same closeup of each repeated over and over again in between titles. It's one of the moments when the limitations of silent style for Ozu become obvious, as his visual sensibility must be subsumed to the necessity of staging a lengthy and emotionally complex conversation entirely in text.

Such glitches aside, Passing Fancy is a warm and gently funny work. The film's story is minimal, which allows Ozu to develop his characters and to use his slow, observational visual sensibility to create a portrait of an era and a neighborhood. The rich sense of community, the half-comic depiction of economic woes, the emotional nuance of the characters as they make the best of their limited circumstances, it all adds up to a lovely film that's very much attuned to the social milieu in which it is set.