The most immediately obvious and striking quality of Ozu’s early comedies is his cinematography. While his more celebrated late period work employs the consistently nailed-down and grounded style he’s well-known for, I Flunked, But… and other films of the late twenties and early thirties, from his student comedies to his family dramas, shift wildly but fluidly in their visual grammar and pacing. The tracking shots through the classroom and up and down walls and staircases, courtesy of frequent early collaborator Hideo Shigehara, while not necessarily synonymous with his name, have influenced generations of filmmakers. This can most clearly be recognized in later works by Vigo, Truffaut, Scorsese, Spike Lee and Wes Anderson. Seen today, you could make a one to one comparison between certain shots and sequences that become almost blatant in a side by side analysis. But Ozu’s style was also an assimilation of his own influences, even as far back as these earliest pieces.
This is not to say that he was the father of these techniques and was simply copied (at least, not always). But rather that his love and appreciation for Western cinema was reflected and refracted back outward, as much of what he was doing here as well as in his more “mature,” subtler films became ingrained into the very DNA of modern filmmaking. His love for his craft is apparent not only in his personal vocabulary but through his characters. Everyone’s always talking about going to the movies; students hang posters for Speedy and Charming Sinners on their boarding house walls; he even has his cast mimic tics and performances (often for comedic effect) of more well-known stars. The early comedies, then, function now almost as a nexus point for what came before and what would come later, both in his own work and through others’.
Ozu could also be deceptively experimental in his storytelling, I Flunked, But… being a prime example. These early, sillier stories would often be built around the same sorts of minor but escalating conflicts that would power his dramas, but in the case of these formative silent features we often don’t get any explicit reference to what that even might be until we’re already knee-deep into it. Here, we get what appears to be an almost abstract, time-looping series of events with no clear point of origin, which then morphs and evolves until it quickly becomes clear that he’s thrust us into the headspace of these characters without us even realizing it. As the students in the film go through the motions of studying, cheating, and worrying about their exams, the sense grows steadily that the pure adrenaline and exhaustion of their experience is just bubbling over to the point that they probably couldn’t tell you what day it is. Ozu even lets us in on this little trick via the bit of business with the student repeatedly checking his watch as a distraction so the professor won’t notice the numerous ways in which the entire class seems to all be cheating together, as well as the repeated shots of alarm clocks going off and sunlight brightening and fading against windows and walls. Later, he would use similar techniques to portray a more somber, bittersweet depiction of the passage of time. Here, it’s pure momentum and panic. But that rush is also background noise, since as usual he’s got other things on his mind than pure plot.
Structurally, the film could be described as a mixture of Kurosawa’s The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail and The Andy Griffith show, or, maybe closer to Ozu’s own heart at that time, the Our Gang comedies. Kurosawa’s film is notable for essentially being a one act story with extremely brief opening and closing sequences setting up and winding down the action. Ozu’s film functions as the inverse reaction to this idea, with the setup and payoff (such as it is) seemingly springboarding out from the center, with the general air of nostalgia almost ghostly, like it’s been beamed in from some vague, amorphous “past.” This is true for us now, nearly a hundred years out from the film’s release, but it feels baked into the filmmaking as well, as if this is Ozu making a film about his own boyhood by placing it squarely in the present of the time. This was true also of Griffith and Hal Roach, who both spoke often of how their intentions to create that sense of a sweet, good old days-style innocence was rooted in their choices to depict their own respective pasts without having to go to the trouble of creating a period piece. They may look to us now as more or less accurate – or, at the very least, standard – cinematic depictions of their eras through certain sets of eyes, but this is also a testament to how well that trick actually worked, at least for their intended audiences. None of these filmmakers were without their various problems (some more glaring than others) in their choice of where they chose to aim that lens, but nevertheless their point seemed to be that this sunny haze of how things used to be could be translated universally. My sense is that Ozu does the same here, imbuing his little student life morality play with that same sort of “simpler times” wholesomeness. This point of view would never fully leave his work, but would later evolve into a more resigned recognition that, while the way things used to be may be what we yearn to return to as a way of trying to understand our place in the world, the past also belongs in the past. You can see him wrestle with this throughout his career, and it’s fascinating to watch these films as longform diary entries from a man working through what it means to grow up and grow old.
And as morality plays go, I Flunked is almost comical in how quickly it blows past that notion of judging its characters at all in order to get to the heart of Ozu’s bigger concern: forgiveness. It’s played first as a joke, as a way of softening the circumstances of the plot for the benefit of the only actual child in the film. Ozu is speaking to us directly here, letting us know that while the fates of his main cast are on the cusp of splintering into two distinct groups, they are simply separate, not right or wrong. He never comes down on anyone for cheating and even the scene where a student must grovel before the headmaster to finally acquire a passing grade is played (mostly) sincerely. It’s funny seeing this confident, carefree guy having to face the music, but we also genuinely feel for him. And the result is that we get a glimpse into how things could’ve easily played out differently for everyone involved, depending mostly on pure luck.
But it’s the relationship between the Student and the Landlady that sticks with me. We don’t see much of it, but what we get is so tender and easy that it could nearly be dismissed as being beside the point. She knows he cheated, she knows he won’t graduate, and she knows what this means for his future. As he tries limply to explain it all away, she simply says, “I know everything.” She does this while holding onto the one object in the film that Ozu uses to communicate all this ambition and eventual downfall, the shirt scribbled with cheat sheet notes that has been haunting the boys throughout the story. She sees the evidence, and has certainly heard from the other guys what happened. The shirt is another important piece of Ozu’s handiwork, a device linking the ridiculousness of the opening act with the minor tragedy of its ending. It sits on the floor, filled with answers that couldn’t help anyone. And as she holds it and reassures him that things will be okay, we see relief on the student’s face. After all that struggle and eventual failure, he gets a moment to breathe.
Other directors may have just ended the story there. But we get more. Not a denouement, exactly, nor is it the sort of lyrical coda he’s become famous for. The final scenes function more like a mini-sequel, as we meet an entirely new cast of characters alongside the original boys, all going about their lives. It’s a new semester, and there are new exams, new job opportunities, and new stresses. This is the crux of the Ozu fantasy, the place where he finally lands and says, this is just something that happened. All that nostalgic glow is gone, and even the photography shifts in a way that signals that we’re firmly outside of those good old days now. We see many shots repeated from earlier in the story – boys yelling from windows, leaning against walls, having a smoke, and sitting on curbs. But this time there’s a distance to them, something hard to place but clear as day. I don’t think Ozu would ever argue that you can’t go home again. On the contrary, I think he’d say the opposite, but with the caveat that you better know where you’re going and why. I Flunked, But… tells us there’s a difference, though, between returning to those sweet days of youth and being locked in with them.