The Only Son/There Was a Father: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu (Criterion)
It’s a cliché by now to call Yasujiro Ozu the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors, even if it is true to a point. The restrained style and quietly contemplative tone of his family dramas are a distinct and deliberate break from the western conventions that informed the work of his contemporaries (and, for that matter, his own early films), a concerted effort to reflect conservative Japanese ideals and mores. But the cliché misses a defining component of his films, namely that they are utterly contemporary to their times.
Where Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi found international recognition with historical adventures and elegant period dramas about samurai warriors, royal figures, and fallen heroes, Ozu exclusively made contemporary films. His quietly understated family dramas and comedies take place in the modest homes and workplaces of everyday citizens trying to make a life for themselves and their children. His films are a veritable survey of Japanese society from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, a society straddling an age-old culture of expectations and codes of conduct on the one hand, and the stresses and demands of the modern world and its international influences on the other. The homes of our characters are models of simplicity and austerity, but just outside their windows are the smokestacks of industrial factories, roofs decorated with TV aerials, and webs of power lines and telephone poles hanging across the sky. These are the elements most often featured in his famous “pillow shots,” glimpses of the world around his characters which “cushion” the space between scenes which are among the most beautiful still life moments seen in 20th century cinema.
This double feature is a beautiful match-set of dramas in duty and sacrifice, but the difference in years in which they are both made and set (one is1936, the other 1942), in both the development of Ozu and the national character of Japan, creates distinctive contrasts in otherwise similar stories of widowed parents, only children, expectations and responsibilities.
There Was a Father (1942) is an indisputable masterpiece, a work of grace and simplicity that feels as timeless now as it was timely then. Chishu Ryu (Ozu’s longtime leading man and cinematic alter-ego) is Shuhei, schoolteacher and devoted single father to dutiful and adoring son Ryohei (Haruhiko Tsuda), who will follow in his father’s footsteps (national service aside, you gotta love a film where teaching the future generation is seen as one of the highest callings), even as that path separates them but for too few and too brief reunions over the next decades. Shuhei gives up teaching after one of his students drowns while on school excursion (Ozu’s direction is a model of restraint here: a shot of a shrine, followed by the calm lake, a capsized boat in the water, and then a funeral), a matter of responsibility for him, as is his son’s education. He moves to Tokyo for a job that will put his son through the best schools and the grown Ryohei (now played by Shûji Sano) takes over the responsibility of teaching that his father abandoned years before. Apart from brief visits that each anticipates with great excitement (which is, of course, expressed with all due restraint and dignity), that duty continues to keep them apart. Ozu’s direction is placid and restrained, but under the gentle rhythms and emotional suppression in the name of duty is a complex portrait of sacrifice and responsibility that is endured with obedience but little reward beyond a personal sense of accomplishment.
The Only Son (1936), which is also Ozu’s first sound feature (he resisted making the transition longer many fellow directors), is on the tragic end of the spectrum, a drama of disappointment in an era of economic hard times, where the only thing worse that professional failure is failing to live up to parental expectations. Disappointment seems inevitable from the quote that opens the film: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bonding of child and parent.” In this film, the parent is widowed mother Otsune (Cholo Iida), a poor textile worker in a rural town far from Tokyo, and the son a bright young schoolboy with an uncertain future: she can’t afford to send him to high school but is encouraged to make the sacrifices necessary to make it happen. “Be a great man and don’t worry about me,” she tells him in what will be their last time together for a decade. When they finally reunite in 1936, on a trip from her small factory town to the big city of Tokyo, she finds her grown son Ryosuke (Shinichi Himori) married, with a young son and a run down apartment in the grimy industrial section of the city, barely scraping by teaching night school. They stretch their means almost to the breaking point to show her a good time, which is only fitting. Ryosuke’s disillusionment with his life and his career is only compounded when he learns the extent of her sacrifice to put him through school.
There are no success fantasies in Ozu films—his early college comedies and depression-era silents notwithstanding, his films are generally about struggling working class or professional class workers whose idea of success is a good home, a general level of comfort and children placed in good marriages—but the level of disappointment and despair in this film is unusual and devastating. This is a Japan in serious depression and high unemployment and there is little of the buoyant comedy of his silent films of hard times (like Tokyo Chorus). Even the glimmer of hope for a better future seeded into the third act is all but snuffed out in the final images, as Otsune brags about her son’s success to her co-workers, then tells the true story when she shuffles off by herself and slumps into a heartbreaking resignation communicates a disappointment straight from the soul.
The reunions of There Was a Father stand in sharp contrast to The Only Son. They are joyous occasions of mutual delight, which Ozu communicates with sublime, serene restraint: the two fishing in a stream, their poles arcing upriver in unison and slowly drifting down, or simply sitting quietly in one another’s company, enjoying the moment in silence. Their peace and contentment in one another’s company merges with the world around them as if part of the natural order: a moment of perfection. Yet while Ozu respects Shuhei’s integrity and sense of accomplishment, and Ryohei’s commitment to teaching the next generation, he implicitly questions the high cost of duty, the lonely years separation from his son. Ozu’s art is in mixing the sadness with respect, love and memories of their time together, while reminding us of the unacknowledged regret of a lifetime apart with a simple, heartbreaking look. Both films are wound around the collision of traditional culture and modern life and presented with quiet understatement, graceful formality and a bittersweet inevitability. (For more on There Was a Father, see my feature article on the Turner Classic Movies website here.)
The original 35mm materials no longer exist to either of these films (common to pre-World War II Japanese cinema) and the DVDs of both films are mastered from surviving fine-grain 16mm prints. Despite extensive digital repair, the films exhibit extensive chemical deterioration, surface scratches and print tears, as well as missing frames and footage, and the soundtracks are scratchy hissy. Given that, they are quite watchable and as good as these films will likely ever look.
“I think that Ozu is the greatest director ever to work in the history of cinema,” says film scholar and Ozu expert David Bordwell in the first of two interview featurettes he presents with fellow scholar and writing partner Kristin Thompson. Their first talk serves as an introduction to Ozu and the transition of his style and his subjects from the silent comedies to the sound era while the second focuses specifically on There Was a Father and its place in its culture and its era, as well as Ozu’s personal concerns independent of the cultural demands of wartime filmmaking. Also features a 19-minute interview with Japanese film historian Tadao Sato and booklets with each film featuring new essays by film scholar Tony Rayns and archival articles by actor Chishu Ryu and scholar Donald Richie. And as a side-note, I have to praise the gorgeous cover art and illustrations by Adrian Tomine, who beautifully communicates the look, tone and feel of the films with simple, understated line drawings.