I review the Criterion two-disc set The Only Son / There Was a Father: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu for the Turner Classic Movies website. It’s not my first coverage of these films (I wrote about them briefly for an Ozu retrospective in Seattle a few years ago and more in depth for another feature review of the set for this blog and for Parallax View, plus I wrote an essay on There Was a Father for a 2008 screening on Turner Classic Movies) but I tried to bring a slightly different approach to this feature, comparing the films and measuring the evolution of Ozu’s style from one to the other.
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 do reflect conservative Japanese ideals and mores but they are also utterly contemporary to their times. This double feature of pre-World War II Ozu is a beautiful match-set of dramas in duty and sacrifice, but the five years between 1936 and 1941 make all the difference in the world, for both Ozu the artist stretching himself into the sound era and Ozu the director doing his duty in the Japanese film industry.
The Only Son was his first sound film (he resisted making the transition longer many fellow directors) yet he makes the transition seamlessly and uses sound—and silence—effectively. In one scene, he even pokes fun at sound cinema by taking his mother to a “soundie,” a German musical that simply puts her to sleep. Like his best silent films, it has a quiet understatement and graceful formality, showing everyday life as a series of almost ritualistic greetings, conversations, and negotiations between peers, parents, and children. He shows collision of traditional culture and modern life as Ryosuke brings his mother into his cramped apartment and introduces her to the big city, he in his western-influenced suit, she in her traditional sari. And, of course, while the grown-ups suppress their personal desires under ceremony and social convention, Ryosuke’s son is a typical Ozu child: obstinate, cranky, and selfish, utterly unselfconscious and the opposite of the cultural ideal.