A appealing 29-minute O. Henry-like vignette, modest in ambition but notable both for Naruse’s mastery of gag comedy and for its fluid transition from comedy to tragedy. FLUNKY’s protagonist is an impoverished insurance salesman (Isamu Yamaguchi) who acts unjustly toward his son Susumu (Seiichi Kato) in his desperation to sell a policy to the mother of Susumu’s well-off playmate Hiroshi (Hideo Sugawara). (The two boys would trade social status the next year in Ozu’s similarly-themed I WAS BORN, BUT…, where Kato played the boss’s son and Sugawara the employee’s.) Naruse, who wrote the script, invests the project with visual gravity and a typically bleak vision of family and poverty. His camera style is a bit more restrained than in his other extant silent films, no doubt in deference to the requirements of physical comedy, but he still indulges in a good deal of visual experimentation: not only a mobile camera that tracks in repeatedly for visual emphasis, but also extreme low-key lighting in serious scenes, and even one-off effects like the use of a distorting mirror to express the salesman’s anxiety.
Chaplin’s influence on FLUNKY, as on much comedy-drama of the time, is pervasive. Until the story’s turn toward pathos in its final third, the gags are pretty much wall-to-wall, and all the film’s serious observations about poverty and work are put over via comedy. The salesman, who competes aggressively with a rival in accordance with the silent comedy tradition, is placed in a number of debasing situations, but he’s in perpetual motion, and generally dominates his adversaries physically, like Chaplin. There’s a funny early gag where the salesman’s bitter wife (Tomoko Naniwa) compulsively sweeps up valuable objects: first the framed photo she has knocked over, which the salesman rescues, and then a doll. Panicked, the salesman snatches up the couple’s infant to save it from his wife’s broom. The most rewarding gag sequence builds from the salesman allowing the rich kids to leapfrog over his back, but becoming too distracted by his rival’s machinations to perform his slavish role properly. The delicious capper, shot in a low-angle closeup unusual for Naruse, has Hiroshi good-naturedly push the salesman back into leapfrog position after his failed attempt to bribe the kids with pocket change: a class humiliation worthy of Losey and Pinter.
The film’ pivots on the harsh scene of the salesman’s unjust punishment of Susumu, ending in a lovely and sad long shot of the crying boy’s retreat through a sunny field. When the salesman reaps the unhappy consequences of his business zeal, Naruse suddenly fragments the screen with crazy geometric wipes and accelerated montage to render the salesman’s anguish and apprehension of his guilt. Once Naruse has established the subjectivity of the image via this obtrusive effect, he reprises it in different forms throughout the film’s melancholy last movement, most movingly as a surreal vision of white airplanes superimposed on a darkened hospital room.