DVD Review Of Yasujiro Ozuís Floating Weeds Films
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/23/07
Yasujiro Ozu was perhaps the greatest obsessional filmmaker in history. Thus, itís no surprise that not only did he rework the same themes over and again in his films, but that he also redid earlier films of his own years later, such as 1932ís I Was Born But... as 1959ís Good Morning. The most famed examples of this trait are 1934ís silent black and white A Story Of Floating Weeds (Ukikusa Monogatari), written by Ozu and Tadao Ikeda, and 1959ís sound color film, Floating Weeds (Ukigusa), written by Ozu and KŰgo Noda. Both films, whose titular metaphor revolves around the lives of itinerant actors, tell basically the same tale, in slightly different ways, with differently named characters. They follow the ups and downs of the leader of a really bad theater troupe, on its last legs (not unlike the characters from Federico Felliniís first film, Variety Lights), who lands in a town and visits an old girlfriend who bore him a son. In both films, the son believes his father is really his uncle, and the major development in the films is how the fatherís jealous actress girlfriend tries to sabotage things by having a pretty young actress seduce the son, thus recapitulating the fatherís key moment in life, one the father believes ruined his chance at stardom and happiness.
If one is thinking that this is the stuff of pure melodrama, it is. But thatís true only on the surface. This is where depth and execution of an art come into play. It also abnegates claims that Ozu eschewed plot in his films for melodrama is about nothing if but plot. While itís true he did not strive for A to B to C narratives, and preferred Ďorganicí story growth, the fact is that all his films had plots, and good ones. But they were not plot driven, nor dependent upon the heavyhanded machinations most drama and films rely upon. The difference between having a plot and being plot driven is something most critics seem to not understand. Ozu simply removes the superfluous plot moments and adds contemplative, poetic, and metaphoric shots in their place, what are termed Ďpillow shots.í The emphasis is thus not on the driving, but the driver, of plot. After all, the tale of a parent who has a long lost child is not fresh, although the way itís told can be.
As for the films, the earlier one is actually the slightly better film, mostly because itís more concise- clocking in at 86 minutes vs. the two hour remake. What amazes about the 1934 film is not only the nearly pristine quality of the print, but how- as a silent film, the acting is not filled with the over the top expressions and emoting that Western silent films are filled with. Compared with the later film, the acting in the earlier film is superior. Itís not that the later actors are in any way bad, but the earlier film simply conveys more with less- less time, less sound, less dialogue, and no musical score to cue. The Criterion Collection DVD of the earlier film does come with an optional soundtrack, but it was made for the DVD release, is mostly over the top Western piano music, and is highly inappropriate, more resembling a Keystone Cops score more than an Ozu score. As a fan or the great silent film organist Rosa Rio, I can say with definity, that the composer, Donald Sosin, is no Rosa Rio, and one should not turn on that awful soundtrack when watching the earlier film. On that same score, the later filmís soundtrack by Kojun Saito is far superior, with a huge nod to the great Nino Rotaís carnivalesque work in many of Felliniís films.
In both films, the kabuki troupe arrives- by train in the earlier film and by ship in the later film, they filter out into the lives of the locals, they give a performance, and then they flounder, as their act is outdated and poorly acted. The leader of the troupe reacquaints with his childís mother- a sake bar owner, he bonds with his son over fishing, and then his lover puts her jealous plot into action. The problem, naturally, is that the actress she gets to seduce the son falls in love with him, and he falls in love with her. When he finds out of the treachery, the leader tosses his lover out of his life, and the mother wonders if he will give up his life on the road and settle down with them. But he fears that his son has Ďruinedí his life, as he felt he did with his former girlfriend. As the films draw to a close, the father attacks the sonís lover, the son defends her, and pushes his father to the floor, wherein the mother blurts out that he has struck his father, and that it was his father who sent money to pay for his education. The son orders his father to leave, sulks, and the father leaves, thus disappointing the mother. The son comes back, but the father has gone to take a train out of town. In both films he reconciles with his lover, who is also at the station. As they ride away there is a small boy sleeping on a train seat. Both films thankfully avoid the expected clichť of the son running after the father and reconciling.
The later film is only one of only four color films that Ozu did in his fifty-four film career, and the DVD transfer in The Criterion Collection two DVD package of both films is sterling. It has that rich, bright Technicolor glow, with radiant colors that evoke such contemporaneous films as Black Orpheus, and allow cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa to strut his stuff, in terms of color, composition, and poetic metaphor. Other than the years of completion, the use of color and sound, character names, and length, there are some other differences in the films that are seemingly veritable duplicates in terms of dozens of shots.
In the later film, the role of the lover, called Sumiko (Machiko KyŰ, the female lead in Akira Kurosawaís Rashomon, and Kenji Mizoguchiís Ugetsu Monogatari) is far more compelling than her co-star, the leader of the troupe, Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), whereas the reverse is true in the earlier film, where the troupe leader, Kihachi, is played by Takeshi Sakamoto, and his lover, Otaka, played by Rieko Yagumo. Sakamoto invests his character with naturalistic tics and habits, such as scratching his ass and sticking his hand in his kimono, that make him more human than Nakamuraís version. Sumiko, in the later version, has a great scene at the end of the film, where she grovels to Komajuro for forgiveness, and offers him a light when he cannot find a match for his cigaret. He ignores her, and moves away from the light. A second match, however, he accepts, as well his lover. The earlier jealous lover is a bit more wooden. Also, the 1959 role of the leaderís old girlfriend, and mother of his child, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), is not as good as her phenomenal earlier counterpart, Otsune, played by Chouko Lida, whose expressive face transcends the limits of silent film. The two sons, in both films, are both excellent. In the 1959 film itís Hiroshi Kawaguchi as Kiyoshi Homma, and in the earlier film itís Koji Mitsui (who plays a small role as one of the troupe members in the remake) as Shinkichi. The lover of the son is especially good in the later version. Her name is Kayo, played by the beautiful Ayako Wakao, whereas the young lover in the earlier film, Otoki (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) is rather forgettable.
In defense of the later film, it has more humor (one character from the troupe claims his name is Toshiro Mifune- the great star of so many Akira Kurosawa films; a nod to Ozuís rival), and the sonís reaction to the news about his father seems a bit more mature and realistic than in the earlier film, while the mother seems more resigned to her loverís leaving, rather than being devastated- as in the earlier film. But the ending of the earlier film, on the train, is better, for when we see the troupe leader reunited with his love, and see the sleeping child, the earlier film leaves no doubt that the leader is wistfully thinking of his son, while the later film does not. Another plus that the later film has is its use of color and symbolism, which is far more striking. The opening scene contrasts a lighthouse in the background with a foregrounded bottle. It is a stunning visual image, and such phallic symbols abound in the film, as bottles are repeatedly seen, and there is a scene where the local prostitutes tease the male troupe members as they suck on popsicles. We then see the lighthouse from other perspectives over the course of the film. The earlier film is not set at a seaside town, but in a rural area, and the scene of the father and son fishing is superior in the later film, for there is no oddly stylized synchronization of the pair tossing their fishing lines into the river, over and again, as in the 1934 film, and what the duo speak of- their views on the fatherís approach to acting, is far more cogent than in the silent version, whose major moment is when the father drops his wallet into the running water. The later version also mimetically puts the father and son in the position of the bottle in relation to the lighthouse at the filmís opening. What this means, from a phallic perspective, is open to several interpretations. Another major difference between the two films is that the earlier film has more motion in it- literally. It was made before Ozu got caught in his tatami mat point of view mode, and therefore the emotion of the drama is recapitulated better in the earlier, more kinetic, film.
As for the two films on DVD- both are presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratios, and in remarkably good shape. The 1934 film is almost pristine, and looks like it could have been filmed as late as the 1970s, while the later version looks like it could have been filmed last year, even though it has more flickers and jumps than the earlier film. Both films come with their original trailers, and are subtitled. The earlier film has the silent intertitles with subtitles, yet somehow, it is so well acted that one can almost hear the charactersí voices. Both films come with audio commentaries. Japanese film scholar Donald Richieís comments on A Story Of Floating Weeds is passable, but nothing spectacular. He simply always seems a bit offput by doing commentaries, and uncomfortable speaking to a hypothetical audience. He is informative, but rarely cogent re: specific scenes or histories of the filmís participants. He does relate the film back to the 1928 silent American film The Barker, by George Fitzmaurice, and how Ozuís earlier, more frenetic style can be seen in the cuts that average five to seven seconds in this film vs. later films, and use of tracking and dolly shots. He also points out a small cameo appearance by Ozu regular, actor Chishu Ryu, who plays a man who shouts out during the kabuki show. Ryu would also make a bit longer cameo in the later film, as the troupeís local benefactor.
But, Richie tends to get a bit pompous when he tries to wax philosophic. He tends to fall into banal apothegms, such as stating that Ozuís style was not his creation, but himself, which is the sort of pap that only a non-artist could believe, much less cite. All art, of course, bears a relation to its creator, but all art is just that- an artifice. The Ďrealí Ozu, or any artist of worth, is something beyond a material expression, therefore beyond its mere Ďstyle.í But, if one wants to bathe in banalities, since substance usually has a deeper claim for the essentials of an art or artist, then the artistís style has to be a tool, an expression, and not something immanent to the creator. Even more banally, Richie claims that all genre art plays with ideology. While it is true that genre art can be ideological- politically, religiously, philosophically, the fact is that most of it is not, and there is certainly no imperative for it to be nor do so. Also, Ďhigh artí can be ideological, so that claim re: genre art is like saying all poodles have tails, as if other breeds of dogs do not.
The commentary for Floating Weeds, by famed film critic Roger Ebert, by contrast, is outstanding, and far better. Ebertís years in front of a television camera have taught him how to perfect a conversational tone so that you feel heís whispering into your ear at a movie theater. He is knowledgeable, with a broader knowledge of film, in general, than Richie, and never gets too discursive nor too far afield from what is in front of the viewer. He also eschews the fellatric sort of commentary that too many film stars and filmmakers reflexively fall into. Were his actual written film reviews as incisive as his commentaries on the DVDs (such as Citizen Kane or Dark City) he has done, he would rank as the top published film critic around, not merely the most famous. Unlike Richie, Ebert never delves in to masturbatory film school minutia nor theory. Instead, he debunks much of it that Ozuís work embodies the opposite of, and talks about Ozuís use of Ďpillow shots,í which, as mentioned, are stylistically beautiful shots that do not advance a story, but merely allow the viewer a momentís aesthetic rest between the dramatic situations. This contrasts greatly with the Hollywood obsession with having merely everything advance the action of the film.
Both Richie and Ebert, however, reiterate the clichť that Ozu was the Ďmost Japaneseí of filmmakers, but while that may be true in certain ways, they leave out the more manifest fact that he was really the most cosmic of that nationís great directors. Ebert is far more thorough and detailed than Richie in explaining Ozuís technical style- how he violated almost all the film theorists ideas, and was correct in doing so, such as switching perspectives in a scene, so to have people and props appear to switch sides as they are viewed from a different side of a room, for example. He also goes on of Ozuís violation of strictures re: matching eyeline shots during conversations, which is a rather simplistic, silly, and nonsensical dogma of most film theorists. Ebert details it this way, in his own review of the 1959 film:
He [Ozu] once had a young assistant who suggested that perhaps he should shoot conversations so that it seemed to the audience that the characters were looking at one another. Ozu agreed to a test. They shot a scene both ways, and compared them. ĎYou see?í Ozu said. ĎNo difference!í
And Ozu was right, for such things are not noticeable at the pace most films go, and with the attention most viewers pay to the screen. Humans, after all, have a tendency to unconsciously fill in information that their senses leave out. But, even if there were some cogent reason to be more concerned with such minutia, given that shots are more often than not from different perspectives, the very idea that eyelines should ever match is patently absurd. Ebert also comments, correctly, that Ozu does not care for Ďthe production of meaning,í for he felt that things had their own immanent meaning, and by simply putting things on film, that meaning would be conveyed, even if only subliminally. In short, Ozu trusted the intelligence of his audience, whereas most filmmakers do not. Similarly, Ebert states a point Iíve often made, that tales that are merely plot driven are simplistic and do not hold up to multiple tellings, whereas films and tales structured more organically will offer new treasures upon each experience of it. He does wrongly state that the mother in the earlier film is more angry than her later counterpart, but itís not really anger that grips her, rather itís desperation. That slipup aside, Ebert gives one of the three or four best audio commentaries for a DVD that Iíve ever heard.
But, his most cogent point is made when he reveals Ozu always wrote his screenplays with the dialogue being written first, meaning that the exterior place where the Ďactioní unfolds is unimportant. This is true, as the basic tale in either versions of the films is unaffected by its setting in a rural area or by the sea. Iíve always felt that Ozu was not, as many critics contend, primarily concerned with the physical patterns of the outside world, but rather the interior patterns in the world of the charactersí minds. This anecdote Ebert relates points to my conjectureís correctness, and the primacy of the written word in even the visual medium of film; despite the hubris of visual film theorists. Yes, the visuals of an Ozu film- the lack of pans, tracking shots, fades, and dissolves, has import, but the word has primacy over all of it.
Thus, even wordless moments which are scripted have a great power, such as in the 1959 film, where an old man- part of the troupe, upon hearing of its dissolution, walks off in agony, and sits down, restraining tears, as his grandson asks whatís wrong. Without a reply, the child bursts into tears, not understanding the reason why he does so, merely understanding that itís the right emotional thing for that moment. Ozu even enhances that moment by not immediately intruding upon the old mournerís privacy, and filming him from behind, so the audience has to imagine the strictures of his grief- a smart technique picked up on by later filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman. Another example of the great script merely being enhanced by the visuals comes at the end of the 1959 film, when the parents, caught in their lies, are towered over by the son, whose head is cut off by the framing of the shot. That bravura touch would be little more than gimmickry were the writing that led up to that moment not so superb.
Both A Story Of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds are proof that not all obsessions result in negativity, a thing one might remind oneself of the next time someone speaks ill of that trait. They are also fine examples of what made Yasujiro Ozu a great artist, even if the art in them might fall just a bit shy of overall greatness. Viva obsesiůn!?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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