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Oatsurae Jirokichi Gochi (Daisuke Ito, 1931)
I started watching the Digital Meme restoration of this flick a couple of days ago, and I have to give them props for what they've done with the print; it's a gorgeous restoration, given how old (and, likely, degraded) the original was. I had assumed, given that this film was made in 1931, that it started life as a talkie, however, and that the godawful voice-over was part of the original film. I was ready to tear it apart for this, talking all sorts of smack about directors who were enamored with sound but had no idea what to do with it yet, and then I fire up IMDB and find out that, yes, that was originally a silent film, and Digital Meme are to blame for the voice-over. Which leads me to strongly recommend that if you pick this up (and there's a segment of the population who definitely should, more on that later), you should absolutely, positively, without reservation watch it with the sound off and the subtitles on. The music, which is stock, is not at all worth having to put up with the terrible voice-over actor who unsuccessfully attempts to do different voices for the various actors. It's like listening to a really, really bad audiobook.
Okay, now that you've got the sound off, how's the movie? It's the story of a band of petty criminals, one of whom is the Jirokichi of the title (Denjiro Okochi). He and his pals befriend a naïve rich lass who's enamored with their lifestyle in order to swindle her out of her money, but as time goes on, Jirokichi finds himself having second thoughts about that. Or does he? Things come to a head when the group fractures, and Jirokichi must decide whether he is more attached to his life of crime or this hot young thing he's been hanging out with.
Sound kind of familiar? It probably should. There's more than a passing resemblance here to David Mamet's superlative House of Games, to the point where I wondered more than once if Mamet hadn't seen this at an early age and retooled it for what would eventually become his best film. Because of that, it's a no-brainer that if you love House of Games (and if you haven't seen it, hie thee to Netflix now if not sooner), you're going to want to take a gander at Oatsurae Jirokichi Gochi. But I should also point out that if Mamet did take this as a starting point, he improved on it immensely. (I was going to draw a comparison to Ozu, a contemporary of Ito's, but that would be as unfair as comparing Robert N. Bradbury, who made all those awful Lone Star flicks with early John Wayne performances, to Erich von Stroheim.) Th relationships in the movie never quite ring true, and for a movie that is at its base about an elaborate con, the relationships between the characters are essential. Thus, while it's possible to appreciate the story and see it for what it could have been, it doesn't hang together as well as it should. But it's an interesting, if minor, piece of Japanese film history. If only Digital Meme had killed that awful voice-over. **