Judge Dan Mancini reviews two takes on the same story by famed Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.
Everything changes. It's the way the world is.
1934's A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa Monogatari) was a turning point in the career of director Yasujiro Ozu. The silent feature marked his move from silly comedies to the restrained and earnest dramas that would establish his reputation as a world-class filmmaker. Most interesting about the movie is that the major technical and artistic hallmarks of Ozu's style all appear in embryonic form. With its abundant use of low camera angles, static shots, unflinching close-ups, hyper-deliberate compositions, and violations of the textbook 180° camera plane, as well as its elliptical style of storytelling and focus on an unraveling family, A Story of Floating Weeds became, to a certain extent, the prototype for the remainder of the films in Ozu's career.
Considering Ozu's artistic bent was the meticulous refinement and narrowing of his technique rather than a constant search for new approaches, there's a certain poetry in the fact that A Story of Floating Weeds—his first major artistic success—is the only one of his silent-era works he explicitly remade. Twenty-five years after its release, Ozu cut a deal with Daiei—he'd already made Good Morning (Ohayo) that year for his home studio, Shochiku—and shot Floating Weeds (Ukigusa). The remake was a talkie, of course, and one of only four color pictures made by the director.
This marvelous two-disc set from the Criterion Collection presents the 1934 silent feature (Disc One) alongside its 1959 remake (Disc Two). Seeing Ozu tell the same story—first in his early thirties and just finding his artistic voice, then near the end of his life and having already made his masterpiece, Tokyo Story—is a clinic in the director's artistic evolution. Academic considerations aside, though, both movies are wonderfully engaging pieces of human drama. That alone is enough to recommend them.
Facts of the Case
The aging leader of a traveling kabuki troupe returns to the little town in which his affair with a local woman nearly 20 years earlier produced an illegitimate son, who believes the actor is his uncle. It's not long until the old man's current mistress, the troupe's lead actress, figures out what's going on. Pushed to revenge by her jealousy, the leading lady pays a younger actress in the troupe to seduce the young man in an attempt to derail his plans for college and kill the old man's hope that his son might rise to a social class he himself could never attain. Meanwhile, seasonal rains that make performances impossible and their boss's refusal to move on to another town propel the troupe toward bankruptcy even as the old actor dreams of the possibility of retiring to a quaint and simple life with his son and former lover.
The experience of screening Ozu's two versions of Floating Weeds back to back reveals the director's genius in a way that the insightful analytical writings of Japanese film scholars Donald Richie (Ozu) and David Bordwell (Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema), or even screenwriter Paul Schrader (Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer), never could. A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds, you see, are remarkably similar. They're also remarkably different. The sense of theme-and-variation one experiences watching the two films together exemplifies and illuminates Ozu's style.
Structurally, the films are essentially identical. They each share a plot that, like all Ozu plots, seems to emerge organically out of character. Some critics call Ozu's films plotless, but that isn't exactly correct. While it's true Ozu so subordinates plot to character that we don't experience his stories as structured constructs, his lack of concern for genre conventions doesn't leave his films devoid of plot. For one thing, they're rigidly circular, building meaning by repetition of motif and invariably bringing the viewer back to the beginning of the film just before the end credits roll. That sort of precise narrative structuring reflects an existential truth that is, for Ozu, more metaphysical than mimetic—the events of real life may not align themselves with precise poetic symmetry, but they might as well since Ozu views human existence as a tapestry of universalities playing out in repetition across multiple generations. Both versions of Floating Weeds demonstrate this worldview in their many scenes of the complex and shifting father-son dynamic, played out between primary and secondary characters. The son's seduction by the young actress is a repetition of his father's seduction of his mother. The son, on the cusp of adulthood, often displays a man's authority, while the old actor's itinerant lifestyle has made him sometimes childishly selfish. During the troupe's descent into bankruptcy, one of the actors steals money from his boy's little bank, a small betrayal that reflects the larger betrayal at the film's core. Ozu allows all of these events to resonate against one another without editorial comment, the motifs functioning almost subliminally. The effect is a plot that feels like life, and not much like a typical movie. It's a brilliant illusion created by technique and the unflinchingly honest drafting of character.
In fact, describe the events of just about any Ozu film (as I've done above for both versions of Floating Weeds), and they sound remarkably like formula melodramas. And that's essentially what they are. It's only the filmmaker's rigorous technique and delicate sensibilities that prevent us experiencing them as such. By trusting his audience's innate understanding of melodrama's rhythms, Ozu succeeds, like no other filmmaker I can think of, in utilizing that genre's moments of explosive emotion while leaving them off-screen. With great delicacy, he gives us all the information we need to understand his characters' emotional space, then relegates the most intense weeping and gnashing of teeth to ellipses—if we know it happens even without seeing it, there's no reason, so far as Ozu is concerned, to waste time showing it. And this isn't an intellectual conceit for Ozu, a way to twist genre. By eliding scene-stealing moments of high pique, he forces us to drink in the greater subtlety and texture of his characters. It may sound counterintuitive, but his films are all the more entrancing and moving because of his emotional reserve. Ozu's narrative method is artistically challenging and dangerous because its execution requires an incredible amount of precision: show the audience too much, and the film becomes laughable melodrama; show them too little, and it becomes emotionally impenetrable.
The 1959 film differs from the 1934 film in part because Ozu had honed and perfected his technique during the intervening quarter-century. Floating Weeds runs more than 30 minutes longer than its antecedent, partially because dialogue slows things down, but mainly because Ozu uses motif with greater authority and density. We see more of the kabuki actors, for instance, their sake binges and hustling of local women. While it makes the 1959 movie feel less narratively direct than the 1934 movie, the actors' aimless lifestyle reveals something of the genesis of the old actor's relationship with his former lover, and the conception of his son.
Casting may have also played a role in the increased emphasis on secondary characters. Hiroshi Kawaguchi, who plays the son in the 1959 picture, is a much weaker actor than Koji Mitsui, who played him in 1934 (Mitsui plays one of the troupe in the later film, the only actor to appear in both versions). As a result, the son in the 1959 version occupies the same thematic space but is given less screen time and feels flatter. In fact, watching the two films together gives one a solid sense of the extent to which Ozu allowed actors' performances to color the characters and, consequently, the tone of the film. Much like Hollywood remakes of European art films (Georges Sluizer's two versions of The Vanishing come to mind), Floating Weeds trades big name stars for the original's character actors. Machiko Kyo, a major star who played the female lead in Kurosawa's Rashomon as well as Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari, is more sympathetic as the lead actress than Reiko Yaguma in the earlier film. Haruko Sugimura, famous for her work on the stage as well as frequent turns in Ozu movies (Tokyo Story, Good Morning) and other classics such as Kobayashi's Kwaidan, turns in a more resigned and stoic performance as the young man's mother than, Choko Iida (The Rickshaw Man), her counterpart in A Story of Floating Weeds. And Ganjiro Nakamura, who was most famous for his work in kabuki but would go on to have roles in Kwaidan, Imamura's The Pornographers, and Ozu's Early Autumn, is wearier, less childlike, and less sympathetic as the troupe boss than Takeshi Sakamoto (I Was Born But…, An Inn in Tokyo) in the 1934 version.
Unlike most Hollywood remakes, though, the higher profile of Floating Weeds's stars wasn't driven by crass marketing concerns, and Ozu didn't trade substance for style. The remake is every bit as subtle and dynamic, the shuffling of cast producing variations in emphasis and tone, rather than dampening or simplifying them. The main difference between the two movies is a more vibrant energy overall in the remake. Dramatic moments are slightly more dramatic, without straying into melodrama. There's more humor. Character dynamics have a different energy. Along with the change in players, some of these differences can probably be attributed Ozu's age when he made each film. A Story of Floating Weeds is the story of a man exiting middle-age, as told by a man who has not yet entered it; Floating Weeds is the story of the same man, as told by a filmmaker roughly the same age. As a result, the characters in the remake are less desperate and more resigned to their circumstances. Perhaps this muting of the original's sorrow is why Ozu allowed his actors to give the dramatic moments a bit more punch in the remake.
Of course, the presence of sound and color in Floating Weeds distinguishes it in an obvious way from A Story of Floating Weeds. The later film was lensed by Kazuo Miyagawa (a Daiei employee), who'd found international acclaim nearly a decade earlier for his groundbreaking cinematography for Kurosawa's Rashomon. Still, Floating Weeds's compositions are characterized almost entirely by Ozu's unique visual sensibilities. On a formal level, original and remake are obviously kin.
In bringing them to DVD, the Criterion Collection began with a fine-grain master positive of A Story of Floating Weeds, and the original camera negative for Floating Weeds. Both films are presented in full screen transfers of their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios (Ozu refused to adopt either the academy or scope ratios). A Story of Floating Weeds displays occasional flickering, a single scene in which the film wobbles considerably in the gate, and some minor source-based damage. Contrast is excellent, grain is appropriate, and detail is amazing, though. The video quality is nearly on par with Criterion's release of Ozu's Tokyo Story, which is stunning considering A Story of Floating Weeds was shot prior to World War II. Floating Weeds sports gorgeous, vivid color (a hallmark of Daiei's pictures), and a fine layer of grain that adds to the beauty rather than detracts. It also displays some source damage, but all of it is isolated and minor. Both transfers are wonderful.
Typical of all Japanese films of the silent era, A Story of Floating Weeds had no official score. Standards were played live during its original theatrical exhibition. As a remedy, Criterion commissioned Donald Sosin to compose and sequence a music track for the DVD release of the film. The single-piano score is presented in a beautiful Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround track, and can be turned on or off via menu or the audio button on the DVD player's remote. The 1959 film features a strong restoration of its original mono track, completely free of shrill high end or distortion.
Donald Richie, the Grand Poobah of Japanese film scholars from the West, provides an entertaining and highly informative commentary on Disc One. Roger Ebert, the Grand Poobah of film reviewers, lays down the talk track for Disc Two. Richie's knowledge of Japanese films easily outstrips Ebert's, but as with his track for the DVD release of Citizen Kane, Ebert's passion for cinema shines through, and he does a fine job of simply talking about why what we're seeing is so damned good.
In addition to the two commentary tracks, the set offers the original theatrical trailer for the 1959 film, and an insert essay by Richie called, "Stories of Floating Weeds."
The best thing about this set is that both films are masterpieces worthy of a stand-alone DVD release, but seen in tandem, they enrich each other immeasurably. Criterion has served up yet another must-own for movie lovers.
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Scales of Justice, A Story Of Floating Weeds
Perp Profile, A Story Of Floating Weeds
Distinguishing Marks, A Story Of Floating Weeds
• Optional Score by Donald Sosin
Scales of Justice, Floating Weeds
Perp Profile, Floating Weeds
Distinguishing Marks, Floating Weeds
• Commentary by Roger Ebert
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.