THE LADY AND THE BEARD (Yasujiro Ozu, 1931)

“All great men have beards!” Kiichi Okajima declares, citing Charles Darwin and Karl Marx; but bearded, traditionally garbed Kiichi was born in the twentieth century, while Darwin and Marx lived and died in the preceding century—and elsewhere than in Japan. Yasujiro Ozu’s comedy Shukujo to hige charts the gradual entrance of this old-fashioned young man into his own time. One hopes that Ozu doesn’t approve of Kiichi’s chauvinism, and he certainly mocks certain aspects of traditionalism; but one must concede the possibility that Ozu also identifies with his flamboyant protagonist. After all, it is 1931 and Ozu, in his twenties, is still making silent pictures!
     Ironically, Kiichi enters modernity with a traditional act of chivalry: He rescues Hiroko, an office typist, who is preyed upon by Furyou, a female gangster whose modernity mirror-images Hiroko’s in an exaggerated, even grotesque form. Both Hiroko and Furyou fall for Kiichi, especially once Hiroko has convinced him to shave his beard and put on modern clothes in pursuit of a modern job. (A society woman joins the other two in pursuing Kiichi romantically.) Naturally, Kiichi is most attracted to Hiroko, whose modernity, tempered by traditionalism, is modest. Even shorn of his beard, Kiichi cuts a striking figure that Hiroko’s modesty beautifully complements. Implicit in this is Hiroko’s attraction to the very image of Kiichi that she has encouraged him to change! Hiroko desires the substance of the former Kiichi dressed in the appearance of the current Kiichi—a comical expression of Japan’s dilemma in negotiating the competing claims upon it, especially as the lure of modernity becomes code for rejecting Japanese tradition, to whatever extent, in favor of Western influence.
     Discontinuous, sometimes visually clumsy, and not all that funny, this is nevertheless a fascinating comedy.

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