At some point in time, most countries have had a national equivalent to Charlie Chaplin: France had Jacques Tati, Italy had Totò and Mexico had Cantinflas, while Japan had Shigeru Ogura, a silent era performer whose appearance strikingly resembled that of The Tramp. Initially regarded as a Chaplin imitator, Ogura was able to secure starring roles in a succession of Shochiku Kamata ‘nonsense films’, although the fact that only a few have survived has prevented Ogura from taking his place in the comedic pantheon. Many of these films were shorts that were supposed to supplement main features, but often proved more popular than the attraction at the top of the bill, resulting in repeat screenings which reportedly wore out the prints of Ogura’s slapstick triumphs. Regardless of whether this is really the case – a lack of concern for preservation that is characteristic of the Japanese film industry could also be to blame for the loss of these shorts – Ogura was one of the most popular comedians of the silent period and Kid Commotion shows that his skills were suitably aligned with the sensibility of director Torajiro Saito, who sought to imbue pratfalls with social satire. Although he directed films until the early 1960s, Saito’s career peaked relatively early as he was referred to as the ‘God of comedy’ in the silent era but struggled to adjust to sound. Kid Commotion is a testament to the talents of Ogura and Saito which raises laughs out of a potentially tragic scenario.
As the original title of Birth (Out of) Control indicates, Kid Commotion was intended as a satire of birth control, particularly the ideas of sex educator Margaret Sanger who visited Japan in 1922 to promote her views, including the opinion that poor families should not have children. Although the title may have been changed to Kid Commotion due to commercial concerns, the frenetic events that occur in its thirty-three minutes do not show any sign of further studio censorship. Mr. Fukada (Ogura) is the unemployed head of an impoverished family and has a reputation around town for not paying his bills; Mr. Fukada and his wife (Yaeko Izumo) already have six children and are expecting a seventh, but Mr. Fukada would rather play games with his offspring than go out and get a job. Some of the problems associated with poverty can be solved; when the water supply is cut-off, the well is used to wash rice, and when the gas is cut-off, the dinner can be cooked over an open fire. However, when his wife goes into labor and a midwife is urgently needed, Mr. Fukada must swiftly raise some money, with his quick-fix schemes ranging from the borderline heroic (rescuing a child from a burning house based on the promise of an incentive), to the morally questionable (selling his daughter to a geisha house), to the downright criminal (stealing from a disabled beggar) and the less-than-hygienic (trying to catch a runaway pig in order to receive the reward money).
Saito is keen to point out the mounting costs associated with modernity – after the water and gas are cut-off, the electricity supply is also stopped due to non-payment and the family cannot afford to cover school fees – but the director also has a lot of fun with Mr. Fukada’s plight and creates plenty of opportunities for Ogura to demonstrate his physical dexterity. Whether risking his life for a hand-out, dealing with a broken arm, being hit by a beggar, or swimming around a flooded kitchen, Ogura makes his everyman most endearing, even when resorting to increasingly desperate measures to pay for the midwife, culminating in a splendid set-piece in which the pursuit of the pig converges with a rugby match. There is certainly some cynicism underlying the proceedings – the pregnant pig of a rich local baron receives more attention than Mrs. Fukada and the incident with the beggar prompts Mr. Fukada to observe that, ‘the bad economy has given rise to various businesses’ – but the resolution is sufficiently heart-warming for Saito’s social critique to be considered sharp rather than scathing. Kid Commotion is available on DVD as part of the lovingly resorted Talking Silents series from Digital Meme, who have paired it with Saito’s earlier feature-length effort The Dawning Sky (1929). Anyone who is able to attend the Shinsedai 2011 screening will have a special experience as the film is being shown with the accompaniment of live sound effects provided by foley artist Goro Koyama. Hilarity will surely ensure.
Kid Commotion screens Saturday, July 23rd at 2:30 PM at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto as part of the 3rd Shinsedai Cinema Festival. Tickets for this screening can be purchased here.