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I Flunked, But… (1930)


Well, now, here’s a thing. Old Jack was hunting down a few more Yasujirō Ozu films, hoping for old age insights akin to Early Summer / Bakushû (1951), when a quick nose through the BFI Player brought up my ignorance: some time before he went all post war and insightful about the death of an older Japan, young versus old rather than the punishment of atrocities and the mentality that led to them, Ozu had some youthful comedies in his back catalogue. The influence of the American silents is immediately apparent, but it’s a ton of fun, and tells of a student and his buddies who run at exams with cheat sheets and skippy dances. It goes as well as you’d expect in I Flunked, But

It was Ozu’s fifteenth film in the three years that the 26 year old had been directing, film history fans. And it is funny! A small group of male students at college are in a large – familiar to all – exam room, gurning and winking in comedy of the moment whilst cheating at the exams they’re sitting. Teacher Ichirô Okuni – the one doff to a grown-up world – is big of moustache and grouchy of nature, rightly prowling the room for passed notes and whispered answers. He misses some remarkably obvious stuff, most brilliantly, one boy yanking up his jacket to reveal the answers written all the way up his shirt, whilst the kid behind cheats like crazy.

And then the students are outside, chatting, dancing (ahoy, Harold Lloyd) and kind of enjoying their immorality. But, it’s a comedy, so hey-ho. Old Jack here was loving it: so many juxtapositions: a ninety year old college in an environment that plays as western to this western head is shunted aside by the students suddenly in Tatsuo Saitô‘s lead student’s home. Expectations of old Japan are suddenly met: the clothes, the doors, the kneeling are all there. But, then, up pops smoking, flirting with proper subtlety with the girl next door, and dry cleaning. I was very aware – as you may be now – that I was skipping around assumption and prejudices, whilst Ozu was busy laughing me into a morality tale.

Well, again, of sorts. For the students get on with drafting up the answers to the next exam on the next shirt…and fate sends it off to be dry-cleaned. Yikes. Or, perhaps, ha! You cheating little sod, serves you right. Jigs and smugness won’t solve this once…

I Flunked, But… is an insight to the modern eye, instantly familiar in the comedy it goes for (Chaplin, Lloyd, Laurel, Hardy would all be at ease in the classroom), but telling of the time it was made. For our hero Student flunks, endures the shame of a child thinking this is success and craving grown-up funkiness, and the survivor guilt of staying on at college whilst his successful friends step out into the Depression. Jobs are scarce, absent money brings fear and struggle, whilst Saitô stays on in a safer, now less funny environment. Everyone is punished.

Give this one the hour it asks for: laughs and a quiet, directorial scowl make it a lively artefact of a different, mixed world of east and west combined. With sight gags and choreography.

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