This is a strange one. Ozu’s films are always direct in their moral philosophy, but it’s rare that we see him approach anything resembling an overt political statement. More common would be a story reflecting his own personal critique of modern Japanese culture or society with only a nudge towards anything more grand. It could be that Kitamura’s book, which formed the basis for the script, wasn’t enough to go on. The Lady and the Beard definitely has the feeling of a fairytale by the end, but this doesn’t always read as intentional. Here, there’s a sinking feeling that the material simply got away from Ozu and he had to pick up the pieces and work with what he had. He may have been a wild artistic genius but he was still a professional, after all.
I’ll rarely feel compelled in any way to go back and look at a director’s source material unless they tell me to. More often I’m satisfied with a film as a complete statement unto itself. In this case – and this has applied equally in the past to a handful of other examples we might label as “failures” of adaptation – I may make an exception. With nothing else to go on, and knowing what the director is otherwise capable of, there’s a feeling of wanting to get to the bottom of things. Something is very off. Like good disciples, we want the reasoning or the blame to lie somewhere other than at the feet of our hero. But what we have to go on at the moment is that Ozu simply dropped the ball. At the very least, there are some extremely odd choices on display here.
Ozu was a fan of anticlimax, though he surely wouldn’t name it that. This type of terminology is useful only in comparing his work to those of others, which we should not do. On the other hand, I’ve argued before that this type of thinking and analysis is always counterproductive, especially when reading into someone’s work something we want to be true instead of just looking at what’s on the screen minute to minute. I stand by my statement that there are no bad Ozu films. In each new release he had something on offer, always inventing new methods of communicating his core concepts of empathy and solidarity. But we should also admit that in the case of The Lady and the Beard, a compelling argument could be made to the contrary. Again, I’ll freely admit to wanting to maintain the aura of the “good disciple,” but just the same, this kind of devotion removes agency from the source of our pleasure. We have to allow our heroes to be human, too, and make mistakes. Ozu makes plenty here.
The apparent (and jarring) technical incompetence of the film is one thing, but doesn’t fully explain away the lack of overall cohesion to his story. The bad takes, breaking of eyelines, the spatial disorientation of more than a few scenes (his blocking is All Over The Place), not to mention the atrocious, hilariously fake beard… those are annoying. But they tell us little other than that this may have just been a rushed, troubled shoot. It’s possible these were all on purpose and were part of Ozu’s ongoing experimentation with the form, but the piling up of these instances sort of drain all the life from that idea. It’s more that these are all stitched together to create a story that may be the director’s weakest to date. And it’s not even that it’s bad, not exactly. By the end there is the sense that there either just wasn’t much to work with or that Ozu wasn’t as interested in these characters and their world as he was in seeing what kind of cinematic trickery he could get away with. We can forgive a lot, and I am staunchly of the opinion that a movie, in general, doesn’t need any story, it doesn’t need to conform to any traditional rules. But that falls apart instantly if that same movie doesn’t replace those elements with something else worth our time. I’m just rambling and making excuses now, though. The fact is that Ozu has failed us here to the point that even his usual happy ending comes off as more sloppy and tossed off than heartfelt and genuine.
(One quick note on that eyeline business, though: it’s especially strange to see this here, since Ozu would soon incorporate the deliberate breaking of eyelines into his personal style. Really not sure what to make of this one.)
Attempting to make sense of the Lincoln and Marx imagery is also frustrating, since it is exactly those ideas that make it seem as though the film does actually have a lot on its mind when it comes to how these characters have chosen to organize their lives. But it’s the sort of detail that only makes us question what the film was really going for rather than provide insight into some deeper meaning. What do kendo and celibacy have to do with Lincoln beyond superficial quotations? Are the gangsters Ozu’s commentary on what a Marxist society would look like? Are we supposed to inuit from the ending that these two can coexist harmoniously? We get so little from any of this that all we can do is question what the real point is even supposed to be, which makes the distraction of the crushingly bad filmmaking even more of a problem. Ozu is (usually) nothing if not clear in his intention, so it’s crazy that things got so out of hand that he gives us just about zero to hang onto. My sick zealotry wants to concoct some secret history, a reversal of the Hooper/Spielberg Poltergeist theory. The reality is more mundane and depressing, though. The movie just kind of sucks. So, okay. You got me. There is one bad Ozu film, and you’re looking at it. I’ll only put forth that it’s bad by virtue of it being a type of film that is glaring in its incongruity to what Ozu normally sets out to do, despite appearances. Directors are allowed to step outside of their comfort zones. I’ll choose to enjoy that he stepped right back in, and very quickly, after this.
I won’t go so far as to allow for the “it was a disaster only a genius was capable of” thing to take hold here. But let’s also remember that as misshapen and jagged as the film turns out to be, there are still little glimpses of what might have been. That ending still rings true to Ozu’s master plan of conveying simple love and affection for humanity and his wanting us to join in on that celebration. It has the quality of some ancient fable. Even the title gives that away. But he puts us in the maze with no path to that exit. It simply appears. He doesn’t even get the fable right. It’s as if the frog and the scorpion met on the road and decided to live in simple harmony with no further threat or any real explanation as to why the characters even had to be a frog or a scorpion in the first place. Even this simple fairytale ending is twisted and disjointed, since not all the characters agree to that harmony anyway. So I’ll just repeat the standard wisdom that we should allow our heroes their failures and allow ourselves to see them for what they are.
Or maybe this is Ozu cutting off his own beard to see what he’d look like without it. Maybe he realized that he was young and, having already found success, wouldn’t get too many more chances to just fuck around and see what was what. Because it should also be pointed out that The Lady and the Beard is his first to be fully and completely recognizable as An Ozu Film. The sad part is that this only makes the result all the more tragic in retrospect. But that also means we can take the final Lincoln quote that closes the film as both a mea culpa and a promise: “Shave it or trim it, a beard grows back no matter what.” In further keeping with the spirit of the film, I’ll mix the metaphors even further. As Ozu always equated his filmmaking to tofu-making, maybe he’d figured out the recipe but just got the heat levels wrong, or put too much in, or it wasn’t his kitchen…. See? Even here I’m at a loss.
The film does get one thing right, though: his beard really did look like shit.