I Was Born But….  / There Was a Father (Ozu) BFI Blu Ray

Directed By Yasujiro Ozu by Shiguehiko Hasumi (University of California Press) 2024 – Translated by Ryan Cook.  ISBN 9780520396722


This Spring sees the BFI Blu Ray release of I Was Born But….  coupled with There Was a Father and the publication of a translation of Shiguehiko Hasumi’s book Directed by Yasujiro Ozu.  A dual event to celebrate.

These early Ozu films are compelling achievements and Hasumi’s writing is amongst the most insightful on this Japanese master of film.  Hasumi describes the nuances of a uniquely Ozuesque sensibility and these two films explore themes central to Ozu, the respect of sons for fathers and the tensions of childhood.

I Was Born But…  (Such a great title!) is a silent made in 1932.   Ostensibly a comedy it’s also a harsh critique of parental authority.  The Yoshi family have moved to the suburbs close to where father’s boss lives.  Father is becoming more and more obsequious towards his employer.  His two sons Keiji and Ryoichi are bullied at school and play truant.  They explain to father that going to school is alright and coming back is fine.  It’s just the bit in the middle that they hate!  Father (who they admire) tells them to return to school.  However their respect for him is badly tarnished after a home movie get-together with family and work colleagues.  On film the brothers witness father acting the fool and grovelling towards his boss.  This causes Keiji and Ryochi to go into a deep tantrum.

I was Born But…  is a very amusing film.  The brothers are assertive and vulnerable, both having a street urchin rebelliousness.  Ozu never sentimentalises them.  He learnt a great deal from silent comedy technique, especially Keaton, in order to choreograph their natural boyish physicality, especially in the fight scenes with other kids; how they carry their packed lunch on their heads and the Chaplinesque incident where they eat sparrows eggs to be strong enough to fight a gang from school.

Two thirds of the way through I Was Born But…  the tone darkens when the brothers cruelly reject their father.  In defence of his deference to his boss Father explains that such kowtowing keeps him in a job and enables him to feed and look after the family.  It’s an admission of uneasy compromise that eventually persuades his sons to forgive and regain respect for their father.

The full title of Ozu’s film is An Adult’s Picture Book View – I was Born But…  that for me contains an ironic play on a image of childhood (Keiji and Ryochi can be seen as adopting a father role to chastise their own father for his childish and humiliating behaviour filmed outside and within the office).  Whilst the brothers’ fights with other kids are not just a rite of passage about infant power but a depiction of an inability to reason things out.  And that in adult life such aggression is repressed, so as to get by,

rather than getting on, in your, often routine, job.  Unfortunately you are born into a complicated world where a simpler picture book view of life might need to be adopted in order to survive – where lessons have be learned by young and old.

If that makes I Was Born But….sound over-serious then it’s below the surface, for this is a subtle, charming and engaging study of growing up in pre-war Japan.  Beautifully acted and directed.  The film is as masterly as anything else in Ozu’s remarkable output.

There Was a Father (1942) is another father / son relationship film.  A widower and maths teacher (played by Chishu Ryu, a regular Ozu actor) feels guilty, and blames himself, over the accidental death of a pupil, on a boat trip, during a school excursion.  He quits teaching and moves, with his ten year old son, to another town.

His son (Shuji Sano) never gets over this and hides his hurt: at the age of twenty five he wants to leave his teaching job and go and live with father in Tokyo.  But father rebukes him for not doing his duty.  Though father and son greatly love one another their differences are never worked through and resolved.

Children struggling with duty and strict social codes is very much Ozu.  Intimacy and feeling taking a backseat to what is socially accepted behaviour in forties Japan.  We deeply feel the pain of great disappointment and rejection.  Feelings and needs are blighted.  There Was a Father is a film full of tender sorrow for what might have been.

All the acting is superb but it’s the towering performance of Chishu Ryu as Shuhei, the father, that most sustains the drama of the film.  He’s magisterial in his facial expression and body language: delivering dialogue in such a defeated, but never quite revealing it, stoical tone and manner.  And Ozu convinces you that far from being a failure Shuhei has lived and loved his son according to rules he believed to be perfectly correct.  Ozu doesn’t judge but shows.

Although There was a Father is not as perfectly realised as I Was Born But…  The problem lies in a somewhat undeveloped script.  Yet as a companion piece to the early silent it’s fascinating and often very moving (This version is a full 8 minutes longer than what was previously available.  It includes an extended scene where a nationalistic poem, written by Shuhei, is read out to his now grown up pupils.  Great stress is placed on the notion of “fidelity”, applicable to Sushei’s own morality, however I felt the scene to be overlong and strident).

If you want to examine Ozu further after viewing this BFI double feature I would strongly recommend reading Shiguehiko Hasumi’s book Directed by Yasujiro Ozu.  There can’t be many, if any film books, whose chapter headings are a list of 11 points of social observation.  Negating, Eating, Changing Clothes, Inhabiting, Looking, Holding Still, Radiating, Getting Angry, Laughing, Being Surprised, Conclusion : Pleasure and Cruelty.

Hasumi explores these activities with an acute philosophic eye to forensically describe the Ozuesque experience.

Hasumi leaves out biographical information about Ozu.  Instead he chooses to write Directed by Ozu as an immersive experience.

“…it hardly even matters whether Ozu was a genius as a filmmaker.  The task is not to establish consensus about Ozu’s relative greatness in film historical perspective.  What is important is to train our gaze on the movement of light and shadow across the cinematic surface, and at the point of film experience to feel in the raw what cinema can and at the same time also cannot be.”

It’s the freedoms and constrictions of filmmaking itself that fascinate Hasumi.  He goes against the grain of conventional academic film theory by attempting to make us see what is really happening in the life of an Ozu film.  His claim is that Ozu’s art is neither traditional nor avant-garde.  “but a filmmaker who transcends such kinds of conceptual oppositions to intersect in unmediated fashion with cinema itself.”

Saying that would make you think that Ozu is challengingly experimental.  Not so.  What appeals to me is the essential purity of Ozu’s cinema.  The bare domestic essentials.  The pared down intimacy of family harmony and conflict.  The minutiae of life observed with a soulful precision.  Such emotional economy makes Ozu comparable to Dreyer or Bresson.

There’s also a sense of life and emphatic situations and dramas in Ozu that make you feel you’re watching not a film but viewing real life where the screen has been removed – something that frequently happens with Renoir.  In fact Hasumi employs the Renoir film title The Rules of the Game to describe the details of the social transformations that occurred in middle class Japanese life between the late 1920’s and the early 1960’s.

Directed by Yasujiro Ozu is a dense read.  It’s a difficult task to make you feel that you are both inside and outside of what’s happening in an Ozu film.  You may want to selectively read chapters and then watch a late Ozu film to test Hasumi’s ideas; examine what’s happening when characters are eating, looking or changing clothes.  That there’s a not so obvious subtext always avoiding melodrama and pointing us towards formal abstraction – so many shots of still objects appear in his films (Clocks, umbrellas in a passage way or a kettle in a kitchen) not so much symbolic but made to be indicative of change and the passage of time.

Taking the films Story of Floating Weeds, Passing Fancy and There was a Father Hasumi even goes so far as to discus “the subject of unidirectional looking, where the mere sight of multiple eyelines extending into the distance in parallel is sufficient to stir cinematic sensitivity, regardless of the aesthetic qualities of the thing being looked at.” That this looking astray is another game or ritual suggesting the development of an Ozu drama.

Directed by Yasujiro Ozu is an important and now legendary book.  First published in 1983 it’s considered essential reading for Japanese film students and cinephiles.  Now we have Ryan Cook’s translation with its beguiling fluidity.  Directed by Yasujiro Ozu is destined to become a serious handbook for enhancing and deepening my understanding and enjoyment of Ozu’s unique cinema.

Alan Price©2024