by HELEN GEIB
The Lady and the Beard, directed by Yasujiro Ozu and starring Tokihiko Okada, is a charming light comedy about a young man who graduates from college, falls in love, shaves his beard at his lady’s suggestion, and finds a job. It’s very charming, and very light. Even my brief summary suggests more plot than actually exists. The film is largely a series of comic vignettes about a vibrant young man and three young women of differing temperaments who take an interest in him.
Beard is less true to life than Days of Youth (1929), though the difference is one of degree rather than kind. Days lacked even a hint of contrivance, whereas the scriptwriter’s hand is evident in Beard in the hero’s small adventure with a small gang of petty criminals (especially their pretty woman leader). Nevertheless, the predominant tone in Beard is an engaging and unforced naturalism. Ozu’s early comedies are sometimes compared to Harold Lloyd’s ‘twenties features, and though the comparison can very easily be stretched too far, there is a resemblance to Lloyd’s boy next door persona and his films’ lighthearted comic misadventures arising out of quotidian urban living.
The film benefits tremendously from Okada’s wonderful comic performance. Okada has a natural charisma, expressive face and gestures, and fine comic timing. This is the kind of performance that makes you wish you could see every movie the actor made.
Films like Beard offer another source of interest to today’s audiences, one entirely incidental to the story and unintended by the filmmakers. Filmed on city streets, using ordinary furnishings for the sets and everyday clothing for the costumes, the movie makes for a fascinating documentary record of everyday life in Tokyo between the wars. Though a necessarily limited window on the past, it’s nonetheless fascinating and evokes the period in a way that written history cannot.
We are introduced to the hero at a kendo (traditional Japanese fencing) match and next see him striding down the street dressed in a kimono and geta (robes and wooden sandals; as pictured in the still). It’s meant to be funny that such a young man should present himself in such an old-fashioned way, and his traditionalism makes him distinctly unwelcome when he arrives at the birthday party of his friend’s sister. The family is wealthy and has adopted many foreign fashions: western furnishings; western cakes for refreshments; western music and ballroom dancing for entertainment. But the western elements coexist easily with the Japanese: the son of the house wears suits; his sister wears kimonos; some of her guests wear kimonos and some dresses.
The hero’s modest room is furnished in traditional Japanese fashion, as is to be expected from his penchant for traditional clothing, but even he has a poster of a Hollywood movie on the wall, and he easily doffs his preferred Japanese garb and dons a suit to go job hunting. The heroine wears kimonos and lives in a traditionally furnished apartment with her mother, but works in a modern office. In a deliberately comical presentation, the woman criminal and her two confederates affect the dress and manners of one of the seedier quarters of bohemian Paris.