Yasujirō Ozu has earned his place in film history as the most serene of directors, telling subtle stories of everyday joys and sorrows with (and, let’s be honest, requiring) incredible patience — movies like Tokyo Story, Late Spring, Good Morning, and the rest. So what if I were to tell you that the best film I’ve ever seen from him, maybe one of the best I’ve seen from anybody anywhere, was a tense crime thriller that comes and goes in barely an hour?
That Night’s Wife was made when Ozu was still young, still establishing the style that would make him famous. He was paying his dues — this was one of seven movies he’d make this year alone, though only three are still easily available. Watching this one, it’s hard not to wonder how many equally great early Japanese films have been forgotten just because their directors didn’t go on to become one of the most acclaimed filmmakers on the face of the earth.
One of Ozu’s trademarks would become his fascination with the traditional teapots that appear all over his mature films. There’s one in That Night’s Wife, but Ozu’s more interested in the coffeepot, and that could be a metaphor for the whole movie — almost classic Ozu, but not quite.
In his Great Movies review of Tokyo Story, Roger Ebert writes, “He almost never moves his camera (it moves once in Tokyo Story, which is more than usual). Every single shot is intended to have a perfect composition of its own, even if that means there are continuity errors.” Well, the camera moves constantly in That Night’s Wife, which is full of smooth, beautiful tracking shots that are all the more striking for coming at a time when Hollywood filmmakers were so tentative about the new sound equipment that all but a few moved it as little as possible. (Ozu was fortunate that the Japanese silent era lasted in until the kinks in the technology had been worked out, thanks in no small part to the popularity of benshi, live narrators who would often add their own witty commentary and poetry recitations.) And Ozu has written that he stayed up nights worrying about all the possible continuity errors that come from filming almost a whole movie in one cramped apartment.
But Ozu fans will find plenty they recognize here. Even with his brief running time, he still finds time for the things most filmmakers would pass over. A mother crushing ice for her sick daughter. A police captain taking out his false teeth before he leads his men on a chase. The milkman taking down yesterday’s empty bottles.
There’s a lot of close-ups in That Night’s Wife, but Ozu seems almost as interested in hands as faces. The string a police officer has tied around his finger to remind himself of something we never learn about. The nervous protagonist clenching and unclenching his fist or fiddling with a handful of gravel.
There’s even time for what Ebert calls “pillow shots,” a concept he borrowed from the “pillow words” of Japanese poetry. These moments solidify the cozy, domestic atmosphere of Ozu’s later films, but here, the shots of streetlamps and dark alleys evoke a much more shadowy, dangerous world. Noir before noir.
Maybe Ozu’s able to embroider his frame so much with so little time because the frame itself is so simple. A gorgeously disheveled man named Shuji robs a government building to pay for his daughter’s medical bills. A detective named Kagawa trails him to his home posing as a cabbie, but Shuji’s wife, Mayumi, holds Kagawa at gunpoint, beginning a battle of wills that will last all night and into the next morning. The banner image comes from a promotional still — there’s nothing that stylized in the actual movie. But it conveys beautifully the sense of doom that hangs over the whole story.
The enigmatic title suggests we’ll see a change in Mayumi, that in a moment of crisis she becomes a different wife that night than she’d been the day before. But the real change seems to be in Detective Kagawa. When he first appears, Tōgō Yamamoto plays the policeman with frightening callousness, both cruel and cold, an impassive force of law and order like the Man With No Eyes in Cool Hand Luke or the sheriff in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Even seeing what drove the man to his crime doesn’t seem to move him from his unbending pursuit. But over the course of the night, something changes, and Yamamto conveys it all with nothing but a few small gestures and a slight softening in his facial expression — like the best silent filmmakers, Ozu knew intertitles are for cowards.
Mayumi tells Shuji to run when the detective apparently passes out from exhaustion. When she closes the door, she sees Kagawa standing behind her. “You presumed I was asleep, correct?” he says. “I wasn’t really trying to let the culprit get away,” and there’s a hint of facetiousness on his face. But it doesn’t matter. When Mayumi opens the door again, her husband’s still there, too honorable for his own good, agreeing to turn himself in.
Ozu cruelly dangles the possibility of escape in front of the hero and the audience from this and other avenues, and that tension between the justice system and moral justice makes That Night’s Wife incredibly compelling. The first time I saw it, I was upset at Shuji for sacrificing himself to his own legalistic conscience, but now I see the logic behind his decision. He’s abandoning his daughter, yes. But better to abandon her for a few years than abandon her for the rest of his life while he’s on the run.
But still, every step he and Kagawa takes towards the police station, you hope the detective will let Shuji go. The film ends with the pair disappearing around a corner, and you can’t help hoping Kagawa unlocks the cuffs somewhere beyond our sight. The same year, Ozu made another movie that ends with a criminal agreeing to do his time. It’s called Walk Cheerfully, after the words his lover tells him as he’s led away, encouraging him to take pride in paying his debt to society. There’s no walking cheerfully in That Night’s Wife. The characters plod towards the station, slowly, mournfully, fatalistically, Kagawa no less than Shuji.
Neil Brand’s new score for the Criterion edition wasn’t part of Ozu’s original vision, but it’s still a major part of the film’s emotional power in its current form, especially the heartrending accordion motif Brand works into the saddest scenes. Ozu also couldn’t have planned for the effects age would have on his film over time, and Criterion hasn’t given That’s Night Wife the restorative spit and polish they have for better remembered films. But I can’t complain. The blots of faded and congealed chemicals seem to dance across the screen, and they have a beauty all their own. And it’s hard to imagine any presentation, even a half-melted laserdisc, could dull the power of this extraordinary film.
That Night’s Wife is available on The Criterion Channel