Ozu always believed in second chances. In real life we have people who wrong us, or are easily labeled as “bad.” It’s sometimes convenient to throw people away in order to move forward, necessary even. Because love – or any relationship, really – is rarely unconditional. Ozu knew this, and his cinema of forgiveness never shies away from this aspect. But he lays that on his offending characters first and foremost. In his world, it’s up to the person who did wrong to reckon with themselves first. We don’t always get this in life, but his films imagine that this can always be the case. These are people who are shown the errors of their ways, whether large or small, and made to face themselves before they can expect anything of others.
We’ve all been on both sides of this. It’s in those moments where our frailties, or even cruelties, are laid bare that we wish the other person could see “the real me” and realize that we are not just the sums of our sins. Walk Cheerfully lets its semi-notorious small time hoodlum get just such an opportunity to test this. Because it’s Ozu, we know he’ll pass the test, but it’s in that little moment of doubt on the face of Yasue, the one person who chose to write him off, that we see that the director is also fully aware that these wins are never easy, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Another key to the film’s intentions is that Kenji, aka “Ken the Knife,” doesn’t know he’s being tested at the time. It’s one thing to present ourselves as worthy of that second chance when we know we’re being watched. It’s quite another to be caught in an act of goodness unknowingly. Ozu’s distinction here is that just because we may see ourselves as better than we’re thought to be, our actions are what matter.
It’s also interesting that Ozu complicates things by Yasue only learning the truth about Kenji’s secret criminal life via another act of deception. Her friend’s jealousy and scheming are what lead her to the truth. The film doesn’t do much with this idea beyond setting up obstacles for our couple, eventually just settling on good guys and bad guys having to choose sides. The other reason to focus on these fractured friendships is to highlight the contrast in how Kenji’s own friends must then navigate his decision to go straight and leave his old life behind. These characters are just a hair underwritten and don’t hold too much weight either in the script or in their relationships with Kenji and Yasue. They’re mostly there to give the leads someone to bounce things off of. That’s fine, and these early features would see Ozu more and more experimenting with how he’d want to lay his stories out in the future, finalizing his own modern archetypes just a few years later. His fully-formed worldview is on clear display, it would just take his filmmaking a little time to catch up. Here, he’s as playful as ever but still wrestling with getting to the bottom of how his films should feel overall.
There are no bad Ozu films. There’s (maybe) an obvious distinction to be made between these smaller silents and his more revered later work. But it’s not a binary. With Ozu, “these are better than those” holds a little less importance in our critical analysis than in looking at them in terms of his longer ongoing narrative. He told all kinds of stories, but his themes rarely changed. It was always about how we treat and interact with each other, and how our motives might not always be clear from the outside. But he avoided the trap of falling into the more ponderous, rigorously meditative style of some of his contemporaries. These aren’t philosophy lectures. His status as the Master doesn’t come from his reputation of some towering impenetrable greatness, but of simplicity. Walk Cheerfully tells its own story and features all the early trademarks of technical agility and experimentation that he would later reject in favor of his own more clean, representational vision. What we see is a reflection of how he would evolve as an artist, at least from our position now looking back and knowing what was to come. It’s an indirect correlation, maybe, since it’s not that Ozu was “a bad man, but sincere,” as Kenji describes himself. Rather, we get a glimpse into a creative process of trial and error. That the “errors” still led to the creation of a great stretch of films can’t be ignored, but it’s in the ways those experiments are employed here that are the most revealing.
Walk Cheerfully is an early, tentative dividing line between the young Ozu throwing everything at the screen in search of his own identity and the self-sufficient exacting methods of the next phase of his career. It’s almost as if he figured this all out mid-shoot, as the direction and editing in the finale are almost indistinguishable from his most famous sequences. But there are hints all throughout – shots of hats and shoes and tea kettles, low angles looking down hallways; it’s all there. We can already see that he knew the visual language that was most interesting to him but wasn’t ready to show it off just yet. But that shot of the kettle is almost an “aha!” moment when we see it now. Even then, this elliptical cutting is still just a little unsure of itself. A hand grabs the kettle, decides better, then sets it back down. Later, he’d simply cut to the kettle with no other action or explanation needed.
As usual, this is all still in service to the story, even if we add other layers of contextual meaning to it now. Just as Ozu appears to be testing out which version of himself is the one he wants us to see, so do his characters. It’s okay to get tripped up on the excitement and adventure of a way of life that may not feel like “us.” But when given the chance to prove ourselves and commit to who we really are, that’s when all is finally revealed. Walk Cheerfully is about how too often we let our pasts dictate who we have to be. Our past actions – and past lives – can’t be ignored or smoothed over with words, at least not forever, and not in a way that will satisfy our truest selves, let alone others. If we’re forgiven and allowed to grow, it’s nice to know someone is still there, waiting for us on the other side. But Ozu’s film reminds us that while it’s important that others see us for who we really are despite our flaws, trusting ourselves enough to evolve in the first place is the real victory.