Talking pictures came relatively late to Japan: it would be 1930 before a feature-length Japanese talkie was released, and silent films continued to be produced throughout the decade. Yasujiro Ozu's 1933 drama Dragnet Girl (Hijosen no onna, is no exception: in fact, it doesn't even feature a musical score. Dragnet Girl's power, however, derives from its consistently stunning imagery and distinctive mise-en-scène. Music and dialogue are definitely surplus to requirements.
The story revolves around Joji (Joji Oka), a washed-up boxer turned hoodlum. Joji's former glory and current infamy has won him an admirer in the form of impressionable young 'Lefty' Hiroshi (Koji Mitsui), who has abandoned his studies and taken up smoking and snooker in order to emulate and ingratiate himself with his hero.
Hiroshi's foolish lifestyle choices have upset sister Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo, only 16 at the time), a record store employee who opts for traditional kimonos and get-a instead of pencil skirts and high heels. Kazuko appeals to Joji, asking for his help in convincing her brother to straighten up and fly right.
Her visit does not sit well with Joji's ultra-modern girlfriend, office girl Tokiko (Ugestu's Kinuyo Tanaka), who immediately senses competition. The jealous Tokiko, however, is not entirely faithful either: she's recently accepted a ring from her boss's son, who's clearly interested in her for reasons unrelated to her skills as a typist. Can Tokiko fend off his advances and keep her man away from Kazuko, or is a tragic ending inevitable? Dragnet Girl stands in stark contrast to Ozu's lighter family-oriented fare of the period (Tokyo Story; I Was Born, but
). It's been suggested that Ozu could have carved out a significant career as a noir stylist; based on the evidence herein, that's likely true.
Elements of the classic film noir — a trapped hero, the interplay of light and shadow, the smothering atmosphere of a big city — abound. Dragnet Girl's world is one where smoky pool halls and boxing clubs sit on every corner, and where the printed English language is oddly ubiquitous (boxing, the walls tell us, is "the manly art of self defense", and signs advise pool players not to drop cigarette ash on the tables). Lucky Strike cigarettes and Nipper the RCA dog are also featured.
In fact, Dragnet Girl could be set in any large American city's Little Tokyo. Whether or not this was Ozu's intent — or whether the director was merely acknowledging the influence of the American gangster film — I don't know. There may be a simpler explanation: the film is set in the port city of Yokohama. Perhaps those pool halls and boxing clubs were built with American sailors in mind.
Cinematographer Hideo Shigehara bolsters Ozu's story with fluid camera work and an impressive mastery of deep focus. Space, structure, and inanimate objects (including clocks, scales, boxing gloves, gymnastic rings, and a very suggestive pool cue) are prominent features of Shigehara's work. Scenes in Tokiko's office echo King Vidor's The Crowd (1928), while some exteriors anticipate Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (L'année dernière à Marienbad, 1961).
Not until the advent of the post-war yakuza genre — pioneered by Akira Kurosawa in such films as Stray Dog (Nora Inu, 1949), and further developed by directors such as Seijun Suzuki and Yasuzo Masumura — would gangsters again assume such prominence in Japanese cinema. This is where it all began, but Dragnet Girl is much more than a yakuza potboiler: it's simply one of the best silent films you'll ever see.