Judge Brendan Babish likes material success, even if it doesn't substitute for familial ties.
Nearly lost treasures from the Japanese filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu
Yasujirô Ozu was a pioneering Japanese writer and director, probably best known for his masterpieces Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds (among others). Less well known are his early films—though he was prolific, up to and even during World War II (however, many of these have been lost). Criterion is hoping to highlight this under-appreciated period of his career by remastering and releasing two rarely seen Ozu films: The Only Son, originally released in 1936, and There Was a Father, originally released in 1944. This is their first appearance on home video.
Facts of the Case
• The Only Son, Ozu's first talkie, details the relationship between an ambitious son, Ryosuke, and his long-suffering widowed mother, Tsune. Tsune slaves away at her menial factory job to ensure her only son receives an advanced education that will assuredly bring him prosperity and happiness. However, Ryosuke suffers under his mother's (and his own) expectations, so when his she pays a surprise visit to his modest home in Tokyo he spares little expense convincing her that her sacrifices were not in vain.
• There Was a Father has a similar theme: Shuhei (played by Chishu Ryu, a favorite of Ozu's) is a young widowed father who works tirelessly to ensure his only son, Ryohei, can go to college. Shuhei's plans are complicated when he quits his teaching position after one of the children in his care dies in a boating accident. He moves to Tokyo and sends Ryohei off to boarding school, where both have the solitude to work hard without the needless impediments of family. Father and son both achieve success in their careers, but as they grow older the distance and fidelity to their careers put strains on their relationship.
Though Ozu is well known for his unique style and technical innovation, he is also credited with making Japan's first piece of cinematic social critique (1932's I Was Born, But…). While there is much to be appreciated in the craftsmanship of these two films, produced not long after the infancy of the Japanese filmmaking era, it is the social commentary within that is not only most striking, but most relevant for modern audiences.
Ironically, The Only Son, despite being the older of the two films, will probably resonate most. This is because the film implicitly addresses Japan's depressed economy, which has obvious similarities to our current recession. In particular, Ryosuke does everything right yet still struggles to provide for his wife and young child. The resulting shame is exacerbated by the appearance of his mother. This is a scenario probably playing out in millions of households across the country and around the world. That gives the film a poignancy and timeliness that is not always present in older movies from disparate cultures.
What is also interesting is what I assume is a uniquely Japanese take on Ryosuke's struggles and Tsune's sacrifices. There is so much effort at subterfuge by nearly every character in the movie, and when they finally do begin honestly expressing themselves, their feelings might seem wholly alien to contemporary Americans, yet these are still reasonable and largely sympathetic characters. This insight into a culture so foreign from our own, though suffering from similar problems, is one of the most compelling aspects of The Only Son.
There Was a Father has similar plot and themes to The Only Son and—not surprisingly—similar strengths. Though there are several differences between the two movies, most notable is that in this movie the son is successful. However, as Ozu wisely depicts, material success is no substitute for meaningful familial relations. At issue here is the slavish devotion both Shuhei and Ryohei have to their careers. For Shuhei, one's life derives meaning through hard work, and any time for relaxation or family bonding must be reduced to a rare luxury. Ryohei apes this mentality to please his father, though it proves unfulfilling to him—and perhaps his father as well.
Like The Only Son, There Was a Father evinces a mentality that is probably not exclusive to Japanese, but is certainly one of the country's hallmarks. Unlike The Only Son, There Was a Father seems far more critical of its subjects, which was probably a brave stance for Ozu to take while his country was in the midst of an existential war. There is much to admire about a strong work ethic, but this film eloquently depicts the pitfalls of putting your career ahead of your family.
That said, though these films both have depth and nuance, their messages are telegraphed a little too directly. Also, with the running times of both movies running under 90 minutes, Ozu seems to be telling his stories as efficiently as possible, which can give the impression that they are one-note morality plays. This isn't surprising, as these films both come relatively early in his career, and relatively early in the history of cinema. Still, there is amazing talent and wisdom on display here, and these movies can be appreciated by fans of Japanese cinema, foreign cinema, or even cinema in general.
As commendable a job as I'm sure Criterion did in restoring these films, there's no denying the prints have had a lot of irreparable wear and tear. Strangely enough, The Only Son, the earlier film, has been better preserved. There are still scratches and splotches on every frame, as well as several instances of overexposed negatives, but the damage is not too great to take you out of the narrative, especially once you get used to it. The same problems bedevil There Was a Father, though the damage seems greater and there are instances of odd jump cuts indicating missing film.
The sound is presented in mono and is mostly clear, though some scenes have a slight hiss in the background. There are also instances in There Was a Father where the sound and video aren't synched correctly. That said, the dialogue is clearly audible and is probably about as clean as you can expect from such an old film.
Both films feature interviews (totaling about 25 minutes each) with film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. They provide context on the movies within Ozu's career and, in the case of There Was a Father, in wartime Japan. Film scholar Tadao Sato has an interview on The Only Son, providing a Japanese perspective on the film and Ozu in general.
Though these films are not as ambitious as Ozu's later films, they are well-told stories providing valuable insight into both Japanese society and the human condition in general. While that might be a grandiose description of two films with such straightforward plots, Ozu is a gifted storyteller and social critic who imparts his ideas with great depth and feeling. These movies are probably not the best place to start if you are unfamiliar with Ozu, but certainly worthy additions to his canon.
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