By Jason McBride (Seattle, WA, USA)
The problem with silent film isn’t the lack of sound- it’s too much sound, as in the cheap scores thrown on top of DVD transfers. Almost every time, we get soulless calliope muzak more suitable for an old merry-go-round. I was therefore pleased with the restrained, Satie-esque piano score thoughtfully provided for Yasujiro Ozu’s “That Night’s Wife” (1930). Not only is it delicate and sweet, it matches the humanism of Ozu’s heartstring-pulling tableau.
The title sounds like a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to adultery, but its relation to the plot is more elusive than allusive, leaving you to wonder if it’s a poor translation of the original Japanese “Sono yo no tsuma.” The film does span one night, and there is a wife (there almost always is), but really the story centers on her husband, Shuji (Tokihiko Okada), a presumably upstanding citizen who commits an armed robbery to pay for their ailing child’s medical care. But the inexperienced thief gets tailed by a cop posing as a cab driver, and Shuji finds himself caught between Detective Kagawa (Togo Yamamato) and his wife Mayumi’s (Emiko Yagumo) crafty courage.
Ozu’s career began during the silent era and ended with his death in 1963, but the addition of sound wasn’t the most significant change in his style. “Wife” starts out noirish- shadowy, cruel, and seedy. But the film ends with the egalitarian spirit typical of his later works, where social civility is present even in the most rancorous conflict; a simple apology could fix most of Ozu’s characters’ problems, and violence is rare. Ozu’s film are driven by everyday people who struggle not for glory or riches, but for peace and equilibrium.
Which is why it makes sense that Ozu would deconstruct the roles in the cops and robbers genre. Detective Kagawa, beefy and thuggish, swaggers into Shuji and Mayumi’s flat, despite Mayumi’s pleas that his presence will upset their chronically sick child. When the detective peeks behind a curtain where Shuji hides, Mayumi sticks a gun in the cop’s back. He gives up his weapon, and suddenly the kimono-clad Mayumi is transformed into a cowboy with double pistols at the ready. The roles continue to revolve when the child wants Shuji to stay with her, so it is the father who acts as nurse while the wife fills the role of gutsy sentry.
It seems that Ozu doesn’t have much regard for uniforms or outward, social convention. Detective Kagawa’s heart begins to soften over the couple’s desperation; initially he insists it is his duty to catch Shuji, but by the end he allows Shuji to flee. Although Ozu doesn’t trade in high drama, it is to his credit that Shuji turns himself in, for how dramatically compelling is a consensual escape? What is compelling is the two-shot of the cop and criminal walking into the sun together without handcuffs. If you were to walk into the film at this moment, you wouldn’t know is arresting whom. In Ozu’s world, there aren’t heroes or villains: people are people.