The rather short film (more about that later) is a simple tale about the poor Japanese college student Ryoichi (Ogawa Ureo) and his sister Chikako (Okada Yoshiko). Chikako works as a typist to pay for the study of her brother (apparently, there are no parents anymore and brother and sister live together in a shabby aprtment). Unknown to him, her daytime salary is not sufficient, so she also works in the evenings as hostess and prostitute (we are shown that she accompanies clients when so requested) at a sleazy local cabaret - although she pretends to be helping a professor with translation work.
Ryoichi is in love with Harue (Tanaka Kinuyo), who also lives alone with her brother, but here the roles are reversed as the brother works as policeman. Harue hears from him that Chikako seems to be a hostess - the police are investigating her for illegal prostitution - and she informs Ryoichi. Angrily, he confronts his sister with this knowledge when she returns home, and even gives her a severe beating (a "patriarchal duty" in the old Japan). She acknowledges the facts, and Ryoichi runs into the street. He feels so full of shame that he doesn't know what to do and just keeps walking around. The next morning, his body is brought home. He has committed suicide. The two women sit together at the side of the body and refuse to answer questions by two rather nasty reporters. Finally, the reporters leave and decide "this is not something worth reporting on."
The reason the film is so short may have been that part had to be cut out. Originally, Chikako seems to have been doing her night-work not only for her brother, but also to donate money to the Communist Party. But in 1933 the authorities clamped down on leftists and all scenes referring to leftist politics had to be cut out of the scenario and were never filmed.
The film is extremely compact and grim. We only see the protagonists in enclosed, confined spaces. The theme of the strong, supportive woman and the weak male is more characteristic of Mizoguchi than Ozu. But on the technical side, there are lots of typical "Ozu shots." As he said himself: "A certain compositional style of mine began to emerge from this point on." In fact, more than for the mawkish and seemingly truncated story, it is for seeing the development of Ozu's style that this film is interesting.
Some cultural points:
- In the ideology of the Meiji-period (which in fact was influential until the end of WWII), it was considered natural for an older or younger sister to work themselves to the bone in order to help educate the oldest son or brother. The sacrifice of a woman often formed the basis for a man's worldly success, and that was considered as right. So we see Chikako not only working in an office, she also manages all the household affairs, she cooks, cleans and toils so that Ryoichi can completely devote himself to his studies.
- Like a surrogate mother, she also gives Ryoichi some pocket money so that he can go to the cinema with Harue.
- Ozu pays homage to Ernst Lubitsch by having Ryoichi and Harue see the scene of The Clerk from If I Had a Million when they are in the cinema.
- Telephones were still rare, so Harue has to visit a shop in the neighborhood to receive a phone call. This is a shop selling clocks, and there is a nice Ozean switch from Harue looking at the clock on the wall, to a whole wall full of clocks.
- Note the white gloves of the policeman (you still see them today on taxi drivers and politicians). He also wears a sword, the symbol of authority until the war years.
- Also see the oil stove in the room of Ryoichi and Chikako. The top is flat, and is used for putting on a kettle for boiling water. A nice "ecological" solution.