The Record of a Tenement Gentleman
(Nagaya Shinshiroku) (1947)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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Sometime shortly after the end of the Second World War, Tashiro (Chishu Ryu), an impoverished fortune-teller, finds a boy, Kohei (Hohi Aoki), who has been abandoned by his father. When Tashiro's roommate, an unemployed actor named Tamekichi (Shohichi Kawamura), refuses to let the child stay with them, he is taken in by their neighbor, Tané (Chouko Iida), an aging widow who lives alone.

While The Record of a Tenement Gentleman is far from being Yasujiro Ozu's best film, it is, nonetheless, far better than are the great majority of movies that have been made. It is, whatever its shortcomings, a generally engaging and often touching work.

The director's depictions of the lives of his characters are consistently nicely realized. Although Ozu reveals the squalid conditions in which they survive, the difficulties they have obtaining even simple items, and the simplicity of their desires, he never allows the viewer to think that these people are overwhelmed by such deprivation. Instead, in various scenes, the director shows how such individuals gather to sing and drink when the son of one of them wins some money from the lottery, how Tané and Kohei enjoy a visit to the zoo, where the latter asks the former if tanuki really can change shape, and how Tané entertains and gossips with the mistress of the local geisha house.

What is more, the persons participating in such events are generally well delineated. Tané, in particular, is a scowling, bad tempered delight. She is gruff and ready to criticize the young boy she has permitted to stay at her home, but, at the same time, the moviegoer is made to realize both that she is not truly hard-hearted, as she does not throw him out, even though she does try to run away from him once when she is unable to locate his father, and that, as time passes, she is growing to care for him. Her neighbors are nearly as engaging as she is. Tashiro is kind and amiable, and Tamekichi is an irascible eccentric, but he is still somehow likeable. All are wonderfully human and imperfect. When Tashiro first arrives with Kohei, for instance, none of his group want to take responsibility for the boy, though none are so callous as to simply turn him out. In fact, perhaps the only character who is not enthralling is Kohei, although his lack of personality does give him a certain sense of authenticity. The boy is never really more than an observer of the events his presence sets in motion. At most, he contributes to them by means of his thoughtless habits and bodily functions. He, thus, angers Tané by doggedly following after her, even when she tries to scare him away, by wetting his bed, or by apparently stealing food from her. Even if he is not fascinating, however, the characters who surround him are all truly enjoyable to watch.

Regrettably, the director's inclusion of a number of uncharacteristic didactic elements does diminish the appeal of his work. Ozu, on more than one occasion, brings out the harshness of life only so that he can remind the viewer of the worth of compassion. The point he makes at movie's ending is especially painful and obvious. Not only does the director insert a sermon into the mouth of one of his characters, but he then reinforces this message with a series of images clearly intended to move the viewer and make him aware of his need to care for those less fortunate than himself. While I completely sympathize with the director's agenda, I am not so stupid that I find his fictional evidence to be convincing. Ozu's surprising and awkward preaching does, consequently, diminish the value of his film.

Lastly, I should note that, like all of Ozu's movies, The Record of Tenement Gentleman is subtly and beautifully filmed. The director creates throughout a sense of intimacy that allows the viewer to inhabit the same world as do the story's characters and to participate in their various troubles and joys. Moreover, he brings out the loveliness even of the most commonplace objects and the poorest of settings.

The Record of a Tenement Gentleman is the least accomplished of Ozu's movies that I have seen, but it is still so frequently poignant that it is a pleasure.

Review by Keith Allen

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