Commitment was always important to Ozu. Whether that be to a job, another person, an ideal, or anything else that may have been on his mind from project to project, he was always interested in exploring what it meant to give yourself over completely to someone or something else. More often than not, this theme would come through as an illustration of how far we’re willing to go in service to that commitment. This theme would come up again and again over the course of his filmography, sometimes as explicitly plot-related, but more usually in building his characters and showing us how this trait could motivate or intentionally derail his plotting, pushing things into other directions entirely.
Of his earliest surviving features, That Night’s Wife is perhaps one of the slightest overall, but doesn’t hold back when it comes to digging into this idea. It is notable, also, for being one of the best early examples of the director playing with genre and tone as a means of getting us where he needs us to be emotionally before pulling back to reveal the bigger picture. In this case, that means turning his would-be noir caper into an early example of Farber’s “termite” picture, allowing his dashing stick-up man to square off against the unflappable detective not in a spectacular shoot-out or a brooding game of cat and mouse, but in a tiny cramped apartment over the course of a single night where everyone takes turns accidentally falling asleep.
Because let’s be clear: this is not Ozu’s attempt at noir, as some like to dub it. If anything, he’s internalized the methods and plot devices that would come to be fully incorporated into the more standardized American and British noir films that would appear soon after. Here his motivation isn’t to inhabit that world as it is but to take apart the relationship between that world’s ideals themselves. The crime that kicks everything off is almost instantly neutralized within the story by a bone-deep weariness that, while certainly evident in specific noir stories and characters, is here an example of Ozu’s uncharacteristically weighted, oppressive design, a kind of rough draft toward the more polished worldview threaded throughout several of these early features. It’s a little corner of the world rarely seen in his work and, if I’m being honest, isn’t quite as successful as later family dynamics explored in his films. Still, it’s an interesting “what if?” game to play, imagining a full-on Ozu heist film.
So – back to that crime. The robbery and getaway scenes take up relatively little screen time, but are shot and edited in such a way that we could be forgiven for thinking this will be the story of the daring, quick-thinking crook outwitting the bumbling police forces on his tail. This is a bit of a goofy setup, certainly considering where we are by the time we fade to black. To look at this in terms of writing and structure, it may appear as if nothing is really happening onscreen for much of its runtime following the blitz of action that opens the film. But Ozu finds a way to connect the panicked exhilaration of the armed robbery and subsequent foot chase with the final moments of acceptance and dignity he closes with.
Ozu was a master of visual storytelling. Even in smaller silent features such as this, he was able to communicate everything he needed from the viewer with only a few little shots and notes towards the larger story happening outside the frame. In the case of That Night’s Wife, this comes in the form of several well-timed close-ups. We see gloves, notebooks, handcuffs, etc., each repeated expertly so we can first see them in one context before grounding us into their more specific importance to his characters. And each time these shots repeat, it is for the same purpose. He wants us to look but, more importantly, he wants us to see what his characters are seeing, and how they’re seeing each item. He wants us to see through their eyes. Here’s where that commitment – and commitment to commitment – comes sharply into play. We learn of the sick young girl, in “critical condition,” and her tired mother who has been up all night tending to her. We see their shabby, cramped apartment, with its clotheslines taking up much of the space, makeshift hanging water bottles suspended above the bed, and only a hint that there was ever anything but worry and want hanging over this family. So we immediately see how dire these circumstances are, and understand the context of the robbery. What we don’t expect, even from Ozu, is the ending.
The double- and triple-fake-out, while a little silly, works for us. Because we finally understand the depths of the family’s connection. We don’t know whether this is the husband’s first attempt at working outside the law to provide for his family or if we’re merely seeing the one night he finally got caught. We do however see that he’d be perfectly fine doing it all again, night after night, for as long as it takes to make sure his child is cared for. Likewise we see the wife, turning the tables on the detective, promising him she won’t go down without a fight.
The final moments hinge on a tricky turn from Ozu, something that easily could’ve come out of nowhere and still been relatively satisfying, if a little false. But it’s a sign of the director’s early and complete grasp of plotting and character that all of these bits are set up piece by piece over the course of the long night as we sit and wait for the doctor to arrive. The detective probably could’ve overpowered the wife, tackled the husband, and gotten his man. But he defers. I’d bet he had a hint of where this all might end up the second he stepped foot in that apartment. This wasn’t the lair of an arch-criminal. In fact, the room is set up so that the first thing he would have seen upon entering would’ve been the sick child. Dostoyevsky may have had his detective take one look at this set design and decide this is all the reason he needs for the man’s immediate and swift arrest. There is no such cynicism to be found in Ozu’s cinema. Here, even the cops and detectives have hearts. More importantly, they’re made to follow them.
The father has made his choice. He will do whatever it takes to take care of his family. The mother tells the detective to his face that she will stay up all night, for as long as it takes, to make sure no harm comes to their family through him. This is a family burdened by isolation and poverty, struggling already, we get the sense, before their child’s illness had even shown up and turned their lives upside down. When the detective finally gets the upper hand, he holds steady… until he sees them clearly for the first time. It’s that pure, human clarity of vision that Ozu holds in such high regard. He sees who they really are. Again, he’d gotten a whiff earlier, but, bound by his duty (as he says) he’ll still take the father in. By the end of the story, everyone knows the score, knows the jig is up… but then it isn’t.
Why? Does the detective recognize something in the husband? Something similar to himself, bound by some honor or duty to protect something? As he says when told that the father has been out all day, it’s his duty to stay and wait until he gets home. Likewise, it’s the father’s duty to watch over the others and ensure their safety and security. Ozu doesn’t falter here, even if his characters might be mistaken for doing so. This isn’t weakness on display, but kindness. The detective was willing to let this all slide. We can imagine him back at the station, reporting that he never found his man, knowing the others will have to continue their search and eventually bring the father in to be processed and jailed for his crimes. But he won’t do it. He sees these people. The father, also, knows himself, and as such won’t let this go, even if it would’ve meant just one more day of freedom. He committed to his task and he knew the consequences. He says, “I’ll go with you now and I’ll be out again later.” But this was an armed robbery. This won’t be an overnight stay in a jail cell downtown somewhere. He’s in real trouble. But that was the choice he made, knowing this was one possible outcome. He wouldn’t have chosen it, but he’s prepared to follow through.
This is no masterpiece. Ozu was a slippery director, always teasing out little avenues of narrative and story that may lead any number of places, even in his leaner and less fully-accomplished films. But for all its minor weaknesses, That Night’s Wife still stands as a pretty spectacular piece of craftsmanship. With a flimsy plot, bare-bones characters, and something akin to a cop-out of an ending, this is material that lives or dies by its performances and direction. But all of it works, sometimes surprisingly so, because all of those elements are actually there. He didn’t need to make a full-on noir, nor did he feel his plot had to elevate itself to some grand statement on crime and punishment. It’s enough that the punishment was built into the crime. For these characters, every choice, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, dictates every minute of their lives. Certainly this should be true for any character in any film, but with Ozu’s light easy touch we get the impression of a world where every choice is a difficult one. He would go on to make stronger films, sure, but even in these early experiments with tone and form, we feel the pain behind these characters, and we feel for them.
In the final moments, as her husband is being led away, we get a flash of something across the wife’s face. Betrayal? Disgust? It’s the first hint we’ve gotten since the father first came home with that stack of cash earlier in the film, right after the robbery, that she may not always be one hundred percent onboard with this dive into the criminal life. But she’s also fully aware of why this all had to be. But here, as she says goodbye, we see that face again. It’s a look of disappointment more than anything else. She’s angry, but she doesn’t let that color her, not here and not earlier. There’s an acceptance mixed into the hurt feelings, something Ozu worked into almost every family dynamic he’d portray from here on out. And it’s our most obvious example that Emiko Yagumo’s is the most important performance in the film. It isn’t the most flashy. She doesn’t get to run down alleyways or get any little business to do with cigarette filters (she does get to point a gun at a cop for a bit). But it’s her face we remember as the father is being led down the block, on his way to pay for the crime of providing for his family.
So the cop gets his man, the bad guy goes to jail, the little girl gets better, and the mother is left alone. Everything gets a nice little bow on it, and we know where everyone is and where everything stands by the end of the film. Despite its thematic and emotional complexities, it’s among the tidiest of Ozu’s endings from this period. This led to that and now here we are. It’s the way these events are all framed as a lesson in understanding, almost a manifesto on the nature and necessity of empathy, that make them unmistakably the work of the Master. He’d reach greater heights in almost every measurable way later. But even here, Ozu’s core message is crystal clear. He wants us to see each other.