Finished Business

An Ozu tribute by Minoru Shibuya—and the Ozu film that might have been
by Chris Fujiwara  posted February 9, 2011
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After finishing An Autumn Afternoon in 1962, Yasujiro Ozu, together with his regular writing collaborator, Kogo Noda, began to prepare a film under the title The Radish and the Carrot (Daikon to ninjin). At the time of Ozu’s death from cancer in December 1963, the project existed only in the form of notes. The following year, Shochiku, Ozu’s lifelong employer, decided to film The Radish and the Carrot as a memorial to its greatest director. The studio entrusted the project to the distinctive stylist Minoru Shibuya, who had worked as Ozu’s assistant (in 1937, on What Did the Lady Forget?) shortly before making his directorial debut. Released in early 1965, The Radish and the Carrot (which is being shown in the Berlinale Forum as part of a Minoru Shibuya retrospective that was organized by Tokyo FILMeX and that will travel next to the Hong Kong International Film Festival) is every inch a Shibuya film, but the traces it bears of its Ozu origins make it possible to compare the intentions and worldviews of both directors.

Shibuya, who worked with equal facility in comedy and melodrama, made his mark as an ironic but compassionate chronicler of the difficulties of the early postwar period with such films as School of Freedom (1951), Doctor’s Day Off (1952), and Modern People (1952). Later he made a number of remarkable films focusing on the problems of families, including Righteousness (1957), The Shrikes (1961), and A Good Man, A Good Day (1961). All these films are a world apart from Ozu: harsh, sometimes strident, in tone, splashed with dark humor, tending to contort the human body or thrust it into the bottoms of violently modernist compositions (generally, from 1958 on, in Scope, a format Ozu rejected).

Ozu’s notes for The Radish and the Carrot take up barely one-and-two-thirds pages of printed text in the 2003 two-volume edition of his complete works. Clearly intended just for his own use and Noda’s, the notes are fragmentary and laconic: some are ideas for scenes, some are indications for dialogue. The notes include a chart of the main characters' relationships, identifying them by the names of the actors whom Ozu had already cast in his mind. Chishu Ryu was to play a college professor who has reached the retirement age limit and gives his final lecture. Shin Saburi would have played Ryu’s long-time friend, the executive of the company that employs Ryu’s son (Teruo Yoshida).

Ryu and Saburi carry on a running battle that, in terms of plot (such as it is), has two main themes. First, when a mutual friend (Kinzo Shin) is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the two disagree over whether the doomed man should be informed of the diagnosis. Second, Ryu’s son and Saburi’s daughter (Shima Iwashita) want to get married, and the two fathers both oppose the match. More in tune than their husbands with the forces of life, the two mothers (Kuniko Miyake would have played Ryu’s wife, as in Early Summer, and Kinuyo Tanaka would have played Saburi’s, as in Equinox Flower) calmly proceed with the wedding preparations. A subplot was to have opened when, after a fight with her father, Iwashita runs away from home to the working-class shitamachi (downtown area), where she moves in with a girlfriend (Chieko Baisho, an up-and-coming Shochiku star and the only actor envisioned who had not already worked for Ozu).

The film that Minoru Shibuya directed and co-wrote (with Yoshio Shirasaka) on the basis of Ozu’s notes keeps the theme of two old friends who constantly fight, played by Chishu Ryu and Isao Yamagata (instead of Shin Saburi). The friend with terminal cancer is also retained (and played, as Ozu had wanted, by Kinzo Shin), along with the problem of whether to tell him the truth. Again, two children carry on a romantic relationship against their fathers' opposition, but the children’s sexes are switched from Ozu’s plan: in the film, Ryu’s daughter (Mariko Kaga) is involved with Ryu’s friend’s son (Shinichiro Mikami).

Shibuya and Shirasaka ignored or changed most of Ozu’s other indications. Among the changes, two are decisive. First, Ryu’s character, Yamaki, becomes a senior manager rather than a college professor. Second, although the film keeps Ozu’s motif of a departure from home, it’s now Yamaki himself, instead of a member of the younger generation, who runs away.

These two changes shift The Radish and the Carrot out of Ozu’s universe and into Shibuya’s. No longer sheltered by retirement or an intellectual profession (as are Ryu’s characters in There Was a Father, Late Spring, and An Autumn Afternoon), the traditional figure of the elderly father now finds himself exposed to all the indignities of modern middle-class living. Shibuya portrays the monotony, pressures, and inconveniences of the salaryman’s life with a relentless comic bleakness, a tone set early on by a prolonged examination of Yamaki’s unchanging daily ritual, as narrated in voiceover by his cynical, sponging younger brother (Hiroyuki Nagato). In this sequence, Yamaki starts his day communicating with his wife (Nobuko Otowa) only with variations on the single sound “Oi” (generally a demand to do something). He then merges with the herd of Tokyo salarymen going to work. Detaching himself from this mass, Yamaki arrives at his office, where he assumes his role of a punctilious manager. When he enters his boss’s office, the pane of frosted glass through which the camera views him (frostily, of course) transforms him into a profusely bowing silhouette.

A random event—the shattering of an office window by the vibrations of a passing train—triggers Yamaki’s sudden decision to disappear from his own existence. His disappearance places the film within a Japanese modernity soon to be catalogued in Shohei Imamura’s A Man Vanishes (1967). Yamaki departs for Osaka, where he takes up residence in a love hotel but abstains from the carnal pleasures that are offered him. Instead, he becomes involved in what turns out to be a parody of his life in Tokyo, as he acquires a surrogate family of prostitutes and is offered a job managing a company that produces fake Chinese medicine. This crazy-comedy Osaka subplot has no precedent in Ozu’s notes and is obviously far from the world of Ozu’s films.

The Radish and the Carrot presents, with Shibuya’s customary (and un-Ozu-ian) coldness, a family at least as disjointed as any Ozu ever depicted, even though Yamaki’s disappearance serves as a pretext for the reintegration of the family, as his grown daughters, and the husband of one of them, return home to discuss the problem. These roles provide guest-star cameos for four actors who had worked for Ozu—Mariko Okada, Yoko Tsukasa, Ineko Arima, and Ryo Ikebe—briefly reasserting the raison d’être of the film as a tribute to Ozu only to contradict it, since the chilly, aristocratic daughters and the ineffectual son-in-law are unlike any child figures Ozu ever depicted. (Another legendary Ozu alumna, Haruko Sugimura, though prominently featured in Shochiku’s promotional materials for the film, ended up skipping the reunion, to be replaced in her small part by Chieko Higashiyama, the grandmother of Early Summer and Tokyo Story.)

The family house, built on the slope of a hill so that the living room lies, disturbingly, downstairs from the main entrance, is highly un-Ozu-ian, suggesting that the uncertainties that were present, but in some manner contained, in Ozu’s work have come to the surface not only in the characters’ relationships but also in their physical environment. The figure of the father, central in There Was a Father and Late Spring, demoted but still potent in Equinox Flower, becomes a clownish, malfunctioning cipher in The Radish and the Carrot. Yamaki’s wife actually says she doesn’t care whether he returns or not. "Japan is the worst place to get old in," declares another character, articulating a point of view Ozu may well have shared (after all, Tokyo Story is hardly less bleak a statement about families than The Radish and the Carrot) but rarely expressed.

Shibuya depicts modernity with a widescreen fervor unrelated to Ozu’s sense of the world. As Yamaki’s youngest daughter, Mariko Kaga flops through the film with a pouting, chest-thrusting 1960s brashness that Ozu’s decorum would hardly have accommodated. (Two of the actress’s best-known roles, both from 1964, the year before The Radish and the Carrot, were as a gambling-addicted thrill-seeker in Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower and a men’s plaything in Ko Nakahira’s Only on Mondays.) Yamaki’s wastrel brother, obsessed with money and sex, appears not as an exception but as an extreme, low-comic case of the self-absorption that afflicts all the characters.

Under Shibuya’s direction, Ryu deploys a broad comic style and a fluency with slapstick, both of which he kept hidden throughout his long association with Ozu. Shibuya had directed Ryu several times previously, notably in Drunkard Paradise (1962). In that stunningly harsh film, the actor, as an alcoholic accountant who loses his beloved son, embodies the Shibuyan figure of visual excess, his body splayed, twisted, bent in supplication, or drunkenly demonstrative. In The Radish and the Carrot he plays more for comedy, but his performance shows a similar awareness of life as a series of sufferings that the body registers physically.

Ozu’s notes for The Radish and the Carrot finish with a quote from literary critic Hideo Kobayashi about aging: "As we carelessly go along the insensible path to dullness, we imagine ourselves to be gradually acquiring maturity." It’s easy to imagine how this grim sentence (which can apply to several Ozu films) would have become the tragicomic keynote of Ozu’s The Radish and the Carrot. The Ryu and Saburi characters and their friends would have gone on complimenting themselves for being solid, wise, and good, not noticing that their wives and children have long known how to maneuver around them. In the context of Shibuya's film, Kobayashi’s statement is irrelevant. Shibuya's old men are too petty, too stuck in their satisfactions and grievances, even to imagine themselves as mature. Yet the film ends with the Ryu character becoming able, for the first time, to apologize. So perhaps in spite of appearances something like maturity does exist for Shibuya. But it’s not the same as the maturity Ozu knew his characters had missed. 

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Shôchiku Eiga
Shima Iwashita, Chishu Ryu and Mariko Kaga in The Radish and the Carrot, directed by Minoru Shibuya
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February 23–28, 2011 Minoru Shibuya

THE AUTHOR

Chris Fujiwara's latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by University of Illinois Press.

More articles by Chris Fujiwara
Author's Website: insanemute.com