(The Criterion Collection)
Studio: The Criterion Collection
Cast: Chishu Ryu, Shinichi Himori
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Release Date: September 8, 2010, 10:45 am
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 02h:49m:55s
"I never thought I'd have to do this in Tokyo. But things turn out the way they will." - Ryosuke (Shinichi Himori), in The Only Son
Movie Grade: A-
DVD Grade: B
Yasujiro Ozu may be the Edmund Burke of filmmakers. That is, he's classically conservative—not in a Sarah Palin kind of way, but in a Reflections on the Revolution in France kind of way: things are bad and getting worse, all human endeavor is an exercise in futility, things might have been better once, but they're no good any more. (Hey, wait, maybe he's really a Japanese Joni Mitchell—you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone, and all that.) It's a dreary and dispiriting world view, undercut, happily, to some extent, by the fluidity and grace of Ozu's filmmaking. You can claim too much for Ozu—some do in this very box set, for instance (more on that in a minute)—but these two early films, not especially well known in the West particularly, are lovely, lyrical expressions of his essential ennui.
The Only Son, made in 1936, could almost be a Joan Crawford weepie on the other side of the Pacific—it's about a mother's relentless sacrifice for her boy, and about how little they both end up to show for it. Otsune cares nothing for herself, and labors only for her son, Ryosuke, for whom she has big plans. It's a movie essentially about the boy not being able to carry the mantle of his mother's aspirations. She wants him to go to all the best schools, to move to Tokyo, to take his place in the leadership, to bring pride to the family name. She has to settle for a remote young man full of secrets and shame—a promising student, Ryosuke gets waylaid by life, in a way.
Mother makes a surprise visit to her son in Tokyo, and everybody has big and embarrassing secrets. Ryosuke's onetime mentor, a middle school teacher who fanned the flames of his young intellect, has been reduced to selling pork cutlets; we're in a world of sacrificing parents and thankless children. Ozu also takes a dim view of urban life—everybody wants to move to Tokyo, but nothing good happens once they get there, and there's a lot of pining for what's past, what's rural, what's pastoral. And nothing is more decadent than the West&@8212Ryosuke wants to show off and takes his mother to a talkie; she is horrified by what she sees.
As a filmmaker, Ozu is brave enough to be boring—he's so invested in the emotional lives of his characters that he doesn't feel it necessary to give us visual pyrotechnics. But that also means that sometimes his movies can be, well, boring. How else to characterize a scene, for instance, in which we see little more than three characters sitting and eating bowls of ramen noodles?
Act Three provides some small opportunities for redemption, but given the grandeur of the aspirations of our characters, these are very small indeed. We're not convinced, and you almost sense that Ozu doesn't expect us to be. And the second film in the double feature, There Was a Father, travels on much of the same territory. It's a more sprawling story, and takes place over decades of the lives of a widower and his son; the accompanying material suggests that the film was celebrated in its time (it was made in 1942) for bringing a sense of nobility to the sacrifices of wartime.
And yet, in a funny way, this is really a father/son love story. There are no Oedipal complications in Ozu; instead, we get a 25 year old man saying to his father, "I can't stand living apart like this." Love is pure in Ozu, but it's always eclipsed by loss; this is a movie about a father and son retreating from the city to ferret through the shards of their family's disgrace, and then attempting to recover some modicum of self-regard. As you might guess, they are at best modestly successful. So, you know, these are graceful motion pictures, but they ain't exactly feel good.
Ozu scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, in 2010 interviews, offer thoughts on both films—Bordwell insists that Ozu is the greatest director of all time, and though I disagree with him, it points out how silly it is to argue about those kind of superlatives. And Japanese film scholar Tadao Sato, on the first disc, provides some biographical background on the director. Each disc comes with an accompanying essay by Tony Rayns; and dean of Japanese film scholars Donald Richie has a profile of actor Chishu Ryu in the booklet accompanying There Was a Father. Also, though we're fortunate to have these on DVD, these are among the worst Criterion discs in terms of video quality that I have ever seen—it appears as if the source material is hopelessly compromised and unrecoverable, and really, there's something about that that I think the films' director would appreciate.
Jon Danziger September 8, 2010, 10:45 am