On October 6, 1927, Warner Bros.’s sensational The Jazz Singer burst onto the screen and through the loudspeakers of the studio’s flagship Times Square theater. Though it was not the first feature-length motion picture to be presented with synchronized sound, the immense publicity and fanfare surrounding the premiere served notice that silent pictures would soon be a thing of the past—at least as far as America was concerned. One week later and half a world away, Tokyo screens premiered the silent The Sword of Penitence (October 14, 1927), a low-budget drama inspired by George Fitzmaurice’s Kick In (1923) and noteworthy today for being the first film directed by the legendary Yasujiro Ozu.1 This film, now lost, was the first of thirty-three silent features that Ozu created before finally, and [End Page 96] perhaps reluctantly, releasing his first sound film in late 1936—nine years after Al Jolson’s Vitaphone voice crooned “Mammy” to enraptured New York audiences.2
Though the term silent era is relative to culture and geography, one thing that films of the American and Japanese silent eras share is their desperately low survival rate. Yasujiro Ozu was exceptionally productive during his early years, directing twelve feature-length films in his first full two years at the mega-phone, yet only one of these earliest efforts is known to survive. Looking at the full range of his entire silent-era output, only thirteen of his thirty-three silent features exist in a compete form, along with fragments of two others. The mortal remains of these titles most often find incarnation in 16mm reduction prints or even 9.5mm home-viewing reels, because it is rare that materials for a title have survived in their original 35mm scale.
Until recently, it has been difficult to catch more than a glimpse of Ozu’s earliest films outside of archival screenings, and only a single silent title, A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), was generally available for home viewing. The situation has improved dramatically in recent years, first with the release of Criterion’s box set Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies in 2008 and more recently with a flood of new multititle releases from the British Film Institute (BFI): Three Melodramas (2012), The Student Comedies (2012), and The Gangster Films (2013), the latter two being the subject of this review. Now virtually all of Ozu’s surviving silent-era productions are available in high-quality DVD or Blu-ray editions, the lone exception being his next-to-last silent film, Tokyo no Yado (An Inn in Tokyo, 1935), which is currently available only as an Asian import.
BFI’s The Student Comedies assembles five of the director’s fledgling works, including his earliest surviving feature, Days of Youth (1929). The films, four complete features and the fragmentary remains of another, depict, or at least tangentially reflect on, Japanese university life. The films are Ozu’s eighth, tenth, sixteenth, and twenty-third features, and, as is the case with The Gangster Films, BFI’s thematic grouping provides the opportunity to observe the director’s evolution within the sphere of a specific genre. The titles presented in The Student Comedies were released across a period of four years, during which Ozu evolved from producing nuanced but uncomplicated comedies to what can be recognized as early vestiges of the thoughtfulness, nostalgia, and reflection that later became the hallmark of his oeuvre.
Days of Youth provides the earliest glimpse into Ozu as a developing artist and as one deeply influenced by Hollywood film-making in general and Harold Lloyd in particular. The story concerns two students, the blustering and overconfident Watanabe (Yuki Ichirô) and his shy yet clever classmate, Yamamoto (Saitô Tatsuo), who, from the style of his eyeglasses to his persona as an optimistic underdog, is obviously patterned after Harold Lloyd’s trademark “glasses character.” The boys compete for the attention of the attractive Chieko (Matsui Junko), who politely tolerates them both but offers little...