Back when I started this blog, I was trying to keep a record as I began to explore Japanese film in greater depth. I was someone who had spent a significant chunk of their adult life either living in or studying Japan, but Japanese cinema was a blind spot for me beyond a handful of films. I started by going straight to Akira Kurosawa, whose name is still synonymous with Japanese cinema, but I’ve still barely scratched the surface when it comes to other giants of the past – those directors like Yasjuiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Kon Ichikawa, and Mikio Naruse whose names and careers are often linked, like in this feature from the Toronto Film Festival.
Ozu is particularly fascinating to me in the way he straddles the silent and sound eras, and in that many of his earliest works are now lost. The earliest known surviving film of his is Days of Youth from 1929: a gentle, slow-paced comedy following two university students (Ichiro Yuki and Tatsuo Saito) as they vie for the attentions of Chieko (Junko Matsui).
I’ve come to appreciate silent films in a way I didn’t when I was younger, from Buster Keaton’s comedies to German genre masterpieces like Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Days of Youth, then, is under a lot of pressure from both its contemporaries and the future career of its director – pressure it somewhat struggles to live up to.
The star of the film is undoubtedly the obnoxious Watanabe (Yuki), introduced with a scheme to meet a pretty young woman: an ad that the room he’s staying in is up for rent, which he tears up whenever an unsuitable prospective renter arrives. It’s only when Chieko visits that he clears out his things, but not before lingering uncomfortably long. It’s a running theme that Watanabe’s attentions border on (or crossover into) the creepy, but one I’m not entirely sure is intentional. It was a little unclear to me whether he expected Chieko to be so smitten with him that he wouldn’t have to move out or whether that was all part of the plan, but it results in him moving in with the long-suffering Yamamoto (Saito).
Here, I must make a confession: in researching some of the details of the film, I came across explanations of a few character relationships that I might otherwise have missed or feel the film didn’t adequately convey. This includes the character names themselves, which never appeared in the translated intertitles, at least in the version I watched. I have to recommend this excellent write-up from another blogger who I think came away more positively than I did.
Whether one intuits it through the film or learns it elsewhere, it emerges that Yamamoto already knows Chieko, setting up a situation where he and Watanabe are both trying to earn her affection. When it becomes clear she’s going skiing, Watanabe more or less invites himself along, and convinces Yamamoto to put his studies to one side, too. The ski trip interlude has some good moments, though nothing at quite the level of, say, Buster Keaton’s physical comedy as Yamamoto consistently fails to ski anywhere upright.
As things wind down and the identity of Chieko’s ultimate suitor becomes clear, Days of Youth ends up being a diverting but unexceptional film. It does at least end on a high note with a gag that takes everything full circle. It’s also an excellent window into Tokyo in 1929 – something I always enjoy with older Japanese cinema – with its mix of traditional and international fashions, period foodstuffs, and vintage ski gear. As a first look at Ozu, this was perhaps underwhelming. On the other hand, I look forward to watching his career grow and hopefully fulfil the reputation he carries today.
Days of Youth / 学生ロマンス 若き日
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Release Date: April 13th, 1929
Version Watched: 102 min (BFI Player)