A friend of mine once summarized the conceptual continuity of Yasujirō Ozu’s cinema by saying to me that one could, quite reasonably, “put all of his films together” so that his body of work played out as one, very long movie, and that it would all “make sense, synthesized together in this way.” His reasoning behind this assertation was quite simple: Ozu’s filmography, taken in its totality, represents a copious and invaluable document of Japan in the mid-twentieth century, beginning as it does before the war, continuing up through the war and its devastating aftermath, and finally lingering on the bustling modernity that swept through the country in the 1950s and early 1960s. This Bazinian approach to Ozu’s work as a kind of indexical social document is, of course, not a conventional reading of his films; we usually discuss these movies through the terms of interpersonal relationships, most often parental or familial ones. I’ve written previously in the pages of this blog about my feeling that the idiosyncrasies of Ozu’s cinema have become somewhat muddled or misunderstood by his prevailing reputation for austere domesticity, so I was unsurprisingly intrigued by my friend’s atypical perspective on one of the key figures of cinema. It now seems to me both responsible and accurate to say that the comprehensive richness of Ozu’s work may account for both of these readings and that, more precisely, the truth about what this filmmaker is up to may in fact reside in the play he enacts between fiction and documentation, as well as between traditional and modern strains of expressivity.
Ozu’s 1932 silent film I Was Born, But… (he doesn’t venture into sound cinema until 1936, with the release of his first talkie The Only Son) has long been thought of as a kind of problem child in his filmography, one of those prickly works that complicates our usual understanding of an artist’s sensibilities and preoccupations. In terms of genre, the film is a tragicomedy, marked by that distinctive blend of emotional catharsis and well-observed humor which mysteriously links Ozu’s ‘30s work with that of the American filmmaker Leo McCarey. As with many Ozu films, the plot may be easily summarized – his complexity arises not out of a frequency of narrative incident, but through the mysterious plurality of ways these incidents might be read or interpreted. I Was Born, But… is comprised of a series of revelations observed through the eyes of children, in which two young boys’ sense of social and familial hierarchy gradually becomes corroded as they discover their beloved father groveling before his wealthy employer. The proceedings here include slapstick humor and socioeconomic commentary (which, in the logic of the film, are often one and the same thing, as in the shifting power dynamics that the boys experience vis-à-vis the other neighborhood kids living in their suburb of Tokyo), as well as a certain degree of visual expressionism and camera movement, all qualities which aren’t typically associated with Ozu as we’ve come to know him in the postwar years.
Though the film comes relatively early in Ozu’s career, and remains in some respects an atypical work, one could easily contextualize its central concerns within an intertextual, broadly auteurist project: he’s already interested here in dealing with some of the more dire implications of middle-class desperation. Though the father’s kowtowing is understandably seen as dishonorable by his own children, Ozu extends enough empathy toward his characters to show us that even he has his reasons for doing this – he’s trying his best to support himself and his own in the competitive and increasingly capitalist world of contemporary Japan. Ozu’s cinema always seems to betray a kind of scathing anger toward certain aspects of both the traditional and the modern: on the one hand, it’s the deeply entrenched, rigidly hierarchical attitudes about class that ultimately fail the family and engulf them in social humiliation, but these issues arise out of the father’s attempt to integrate himself and his family into modernity, with all of the economic demands that this painful uplift implies.
For all his status as a conservative director whose interest lies in the economics of the home and in the possible meanings of domestic ritual, Ozu also deserves to be regarded as a global figure, equally interested in the great disruptions and upheavals that societies underwent during the twentieth century. These two aspects of his work are structurally placed into a kind of dialogue with one another, intermingled to the point of being inextricably linked, and this is perhaps what makes his cinema seem more relevant and contemporary with each passing year. Ozu’s films are always pervaded by a deep sadness, but they never resort to uncomplicated cynicism.
I Was Born, But… previously screened at the IU Cinema on January 17 as part of its current series, 5X Yasujirō Ozu: Transcendental Cinema. The series continues on March 14 with Ozu’s first sound film, The Only Son. All of the films are being presented in 35mm.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.