Expectations The filmography of Yasujiro Ozu is perhaps the biggest blind spot in my knowledge of cinema. Few filmmakers are as highly respected as Ozu within the critical community. Aside from Akira Kurosawa, and perhaps Kenji Mizoguchi, Ozu is the most widely beloved of all classical Japanese directors, and his trademark minimalist aesthetic has left an indelible mark on the styles of modern masters ranging from Hou Hsiao-hsien to Jim Jarmusch. Since I consider myself an admirer of all of the aforementioned filmmakers, as well as a number of the critics (such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, Roger Ebert, and Donald Richie) who consider themselves Ozu enthusiasts, I am a little bit ashamed to admit that I’ve mostly been bored by the few Ozu films I’ve seen. Even Tokyo Story (1953), the director’s signature work, which is often cited as one of the greatest achievements in cinema, mostly registered as a dull chore to me when I saw it in college (though that was long enough ago that the film is probably due for a re-viewing). I can respect naturalism and minimalism in film as long as the story, characters, and/or setting are interesting enough to keep the work compelling, but whatever makes Ozu’s projects special (beyond his undeniably distinctive tendency to frame his shots from the perspective of someone sitting on a tatami mat) has completely eluded me at this point.
Perhaps Ozu’s famous films of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s are simply not for me, but rumor has it that his silent era work is in quite a different style, less slow-moving and more comic than his well-known understated sound dramas. I recently attended a screening of A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), the only silent Ozu film I’ve seen at this point (he didn’t start working with sound until 1936), and was pleased to find that it was much more entertaining and, from my perspective, much more evidently lyrical than his sound films that I’d previously seen. Floating Weeds still seemed a little too minor and rudimentary to me to qualify as an important work, but I was more engaged by it than I was by the later Ozu films that I’m familiar with. I’m hoping that the oddly titled I Was Born, But… (1932), which is generally the most highly regarded of Ozu’s silent films, will be the one that finally makes me understand what I’ve been missing in his work.
Responses to the Film In comparison to Ozu’s sound films that I’ve seen, I Was Born, But… is fairly conventional on a stylistic level. Where late-period Ozu films like An Autumn Afternoon (1962) stubbornly refuse to divert from their highly specific yet blandly rigid shot compositions and painfully slow editing patterns, I Was Born has a relatively fast pace that feels entirely appropriate for the child-eye perspective of its narrative. The film follows two grade-schoolers (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara) as they ditch class while trying to hide their clandestine activities from their father (Tatsuo Saito), whom they look up to and fear in equal measure. The boys’ view of their father is irrevocably altered when they see him behaving submissively in front of his boss and colleagues. Misunderstanding the necessary compromises of adult life, the children begin to view their father as a weakling, which brings the father’s own latent feelings of inferiority and disappointment to the surface.
One of the most striking things about I Was Born, But… is how genuinely natural it seems. It is rare to see such life-size storytelling or acting in a film from the silent era, but everything in Ozu’s film feels plausible and lived-in. Ozu’s later work can sometimes seem like it is straining too hard to appear unadorned and realistic, but I Was Born offers a convincingly low-key look at the world of schoolchildren (and at the world of adults as viewed through the eyes of schoolchildren). On a pure laugh out loud basis the film can’t compete with the silent era work of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but Ozu isn’t providing jokes here so much as he is bemusedly observing the behavioral patterns of young children, while also casting a cutting yet sympathetic light on the absurdities of the grown-up world of business. When the film becomes a bit more melancholy and serious in its last thirty minutes, the effect isn’t remotely jarring, because the understated performances of Aoki, Sugawara, and Saito undercut the script’s potential for melodrama as surely as they prevent the earlier part of the film from feeling like an extended episode of Little Rascals. Whatever the film lacks in obvious, easy entertainment, it makes up for in bittersweet insight into the pleasures and pains of growing up.
Afterthoughts I Was Born, But… is not the type of movie that necessarily impresses right away, despite being more conventionally entertaining than some of Ozu’s other well-known works. But it is a movie whose truly realistic tone and casually insightful comparisons between the world of schoolchildren and the business world of adults has stuck with me days after watching it, and that I suspect I will continue to think about for a long time to come. Aoki and Sugawara are an unforgettable duo, full of charisma and charm even though (or perhaps because) the film never goes out of its way to make them seem adorable. Saito is completely credible as their father; one can see how he would be both a beloved patriarch at home and a man who has resigned himself to a slightly boring life as a modest businessman. The film’s understanding of the relationship between its three central characters is the source of all of its humor and drama. Perhaps if Ozu ever went for jokes or pathos he would’ve made a more obviously “hilarious” or “moving” picture, but the film’s bemused, observational tone got in my head in a way that a more calculated movie would not have.
I can’t say that I Was Born, But… has made me a full-blown Ozu fan, but it is hands-down the best of his films that I’ve seen. It creates a genuine sensation of realism, whereas some of Ozu’s sound era films seem to underline their modest style to such a degree that they become unconvincing (as well as dull). I used to avoid seeing Ozu movies for the most part, but I can now appreciate his silent era aesthetic, and I look forward to seeing such movies as That Night’s Wife (1931), a film that has been described improbably but intriguingly as “Langian,” and Tokyo Chorus (1931), one of the film’s that challenges I Was Born’s title as Ozu’s most popular silent film. Maybe it’s time to give Ozu’s more famous sound era work a second chance as well. Good Morning (1959) is actually a partial remake of I Was Born, But…, so that might be a good place to start, but there are certainly many other highly acclaimed films to choose from.