Director Series: Yasujirô Ozu’s Fighting Friends — Japanese Style (1929)

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As noted in the previous post in this series, many of Yasujirô Ozu’s early films are now considered lost, while others exist only in incomplete form. One film that falls into the latter category is 1929’s Fighting Friends — Japanese Style. According to Ozu, his frequent screenwriting partner Kogo Noda “thought up this story, about two men who fall in love with the same woman. It was such old hat we had to package it by adding ‘Japanese Style’ to the title.” Fighting Friends reportedly ran for either seven reels (per David Bordwell in Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema) or about one hundred minutes (per Donald Richie in Ozu), but only an abridged fourteen-minute version is known to exist at present.

The film, such as it is, tells the story of Tomekichi (Atsushi Watanabe), a truck driver, and Hozo (Hisao Yoshitani), his friend, roommate and assistant. (Those were the characters’ names in the subtitles on YouTube; both Bordwell and IMDb call them Ryukichi and Yoshizo, respectively, and as I can’t read Japanese, I don’t know which names are most accurate.) Some comedic breakfast-making business quickly establishes their teasing but solid friendship, as does a brief scene where they share a single cigarette broken in two. Then, while driving a truck for their job, they nearly run down a young woman, Omintsu (Eiko Takamatsu). (IMDb calls the character Omitsu, while Bordwell calls her Ogen.) She’s unharmed, but when Tomekichi offers to give her a ride home, she admits that she has neither a home nor a family. The two men invite her to stay with them, and she agrees to do so.

Almost immediately — the film is, after all, only fourteen minutes long — both men fall in love with their guest. They remain civil toward each another in her presence, but once at work, they get into a fistfight. (“Fighting is sacred! No intervention!” their boss shouts when some of the other employees try to pull them apart.) Their hostilities continue at home that evening, albeit in a less physical way, as do their efforts to win over Omintsu. However, she might not be quite as interested in them as they are in her.

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It’s difficult to judge Fighting Friends on the basis of this truncated version. The shortened film’s choppiness is obvious, particularly near the end. (Spoilers ahead.) In an intertitle, the audience is informed that Omintsu has met a student named Okamura (Ichiro Yuki) at a party, that they’ve gotten to know each other, and that they’re now in love — all of which, it appears, is supposed to have happened after the scene immediately preceding this announcement. (Said scene involves Hozo eating mothballs and drinking water out of a fishbowl, for the record.) Omintsu and Okamura are then shown walking together and sitting down in a field, where they’re spotted by Tomekichi and Hozo. Despite their heated rivalry for Omintsu’s affections, the two men don’t seem too upset by this discovery, and a handshake indicates that all is forgiven between them. Another intertitle follows, implying that Omintsu and Okamura have married. Tomekichi and Hozo drop them off at the train station and then drive parallel to the couple’s train. Everyone waves. The end. An anticlimax if ever there was one.

Notably, in summarizing the film, Bordwell mentions an episode that plays no role whatsoever in the existing short: “After [Tomekichi and Hozo] glimpse Okamura with a bar hostess, they forbid [Omintsu] from seeing him, but they learn that the hostess was only his sister.” Although it’s as unoriginal as the rest of the plot, it does raise questions about what else is missing. At the very least, a good deal of character development must have fallen by the wayside when Fighting Friends was cut down from feature length. Omintsu, in particular, is something of a mystery. The audience never gets much sense of her personality, nor do we ever learn how she became homeless, and her relationship with Okamura comes across as a kind of deus ex machina. In one otherwise humorous scene, she appears to start crying after Tomekichi and Hozo leave for work, which is intriguing — but then the movie abruptly cuts to another scene without offering any explanation for her sudden sorrow.

Omintsu

Tomekichi and Hozo may not be especially complex characters, but they do get to exhibit some personality. According to Richie, the film was modeled on a series of American comedies starring Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton, and Ozu’s characters do have the look of a comedy team: Tomekichi is tall and thin, Hozo shorter and stouter. Plus, even in this fourteen-minute cut, Tomekichi emerges as the leader, the more self-assured one, while Hozo — his assistant, not his partner (assuming that my subtitles were correct) — seems a bit resentful, a bit sullen. Thus, their physical appearances, personalities and jobs are all closely tied.

Unlike a lot of Ozu’s later characters, who tend to be upper middle class office workers, Tomekichi and Hozo do manual labor, carrying heavy freight around on their backs in addition to driving trucks. On the whole, there’s much more motion and action in Fighting Friends than is typically associated with the director — not just the fistfight, but also the scene in which the men almost run over Omintsu in their truck, as well as the conclusion, with the truck and the train running parallel to each other. The comedy, too, is more visual than in later Ozu films, some of it quite broad; witness, for instance, the men’s daffy expressions when they first find themselves attracted to Omintsu, and the way Tomekichi pats himself down in search of money. Still, in spite of these differences, there’s something quintessentially Ozu about Tomekichi and Hozo’s relationship. From Days of Youth (1929) to An Autumn Afternoon (1962), his films are full of male friendships in a similar mold. The men treat one another irreverently, joke around, play pranks, but underneath it all, they genuinely care about their friends’ welfare.

Fighting Friends — Japanese Style is more a curiosity than a great movie, especially in its current form. Perhaps a complete version will turn up one day. It may never have been a masterpiece, but it would be interesting to see what else Ozu did to liven up this “old hat” story.

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