Passing Fancy (Dekigokoro, 1933) is one of Ozu's pictures featuring Sakamoto Takeshi as the stubborn and illiterate, but goodhearted Kihachi. To be quite honest: this shomingeki is a sort of Ozu I like less than his great post-war films. On the other hand, it is fun to look back to the early career of a famous film maker and seek out the building blocks.
Passing Fancy is set in a dirt-poor working class district in Tokyo's suburbs. A single dad, Kihachi (Sakamoto Takeshi) works at a beer brewery and is raising a son, Tomio (Aoki Tomio). The kid is sharp-witted, but a bit unruly. The father has two friends, his co-worker Jiro (Ohikata Den), and a neighboring widow, Otomo (Iida Choko), who runs a small restaurant where Kihachi spends much of his time imbibing sake.
The story starts when Kihachi happens to meet a destitute young woman, Harue (Fushimi Nobuko), and helps her become a waitress at the restaurant next door. It is also a case of love at first sight. When Kihachi starts fancying the girl, the son becomes jealous of his father's attentions. In fact, the lovesick Kihachi looked rather familiar to me - I was clearly reminded of the later Tora-san! (And indeed, Tora-san was partly inspired by the figure of Kihachi in Ozu's films).
Happily for the boy, the woman is not interested in the rather boorish Kihachi whom she only sees as a kind uncle, but prefers his smart friend Jiro. The love-sick Kihachi no longer goes to work and seeks relief in sake, which upsets Tomio, the son. He throws his school uniform and books into a corner and stops studying. He calls his father a "fool who can't even read a newspaper..." and then, crying, seeks his father's love for without it life would be unbearable - and returns to studying.
To compensate for his inadequacy as a father, Kihachi now gives his son some money to spend as he wishes. Tomio eats himself sick on every kind of junk food imaginable and has to be hospitalized. Kihachi has to raise money to pay the hospital. Everybody wants to help, but Jiro manages to borrow the necessary sum from the local barber. To repay the debt, either Jiro or Kihachi must hire himself out as a laborer in remote Hokkaido, where high salaries are paid. As it concerns his son, Kihachi decides to make the sacrifice himself, leaving the son back in Tokyo, but just as the ship is leaving he is already consumed by feelings of homesickness and swims back (!) - a rare, active scene for Ozu. Whatever may happen, Kihachi decides not to break up the family.
The family melodrama is shot through with some mawkishness, but there is also much humor, such a sequence in the theater about a misplaced wallet that nobody wants as it is empty, until Kihachi gets it and notices it is larger than his own wallet. So he exchanges it - after which his old wallet, now empty as well, makes its way back to the owner of the first wallet. Kihachi also dislikes work and tries to dodge it as much as possible. He has a rather quaint way of getting out of his trousers: by stepping on them with his feet, and so pulling them down - in fact, he looks more comfortable in Japanese dress (as probably most Japanese did around that time).
The film has the authentic atmosphere of the working class neighborhood, grimy, but held together (at least in 1933) by a strong sense of community. The father-son relationship stands central and the film is full of warmhearted feelings.
The important message (also for our increasingly under-educated times) is that Kihachi, although he has to live from paycheck to paycheck, and is himself uneducated, attaches great value to the education of his son: the only way to escape poverty.