Sunday, August 8, 2010

I Was Born, But...

大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど (I Was Born, But...), 1932
Dir: Yasujiro Ozu

Looking up the phrase "I was born, but..." in Japanese, it seems to be some one of their comical whimsies wrapped in existential melancholy, which makes it all the more poignant for this film. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Ozu made the film after thinking about the phrase and its place in Japanese society. Or maybe it was just perfect for the film that he made, but then we're just getting into a whole chicken/egg thing.

I say "its place in Japanese society" because at its heart, this film is a satire of the culture of respect that has always dominated Japan. Being mostly about two boys who have moved to a new town, they have to deal with all the stuff that goes with that: new school, bullies and school work. They decide to play hooky after a while but are caught, and only start to make their way with the local kids after standing up to them finally with the help of an older boy (who sells liquor).

The boys' relationship with their father is really the crux of the film though. After getting to one of their new friend's families get-togethers, they find their father there but are soon extremely embarrassed by his behavior in front of the boss. Back at home they get sulky and even confront their father about it -- "You tell us to be somebody. But you are nobody!" A gigantic power-play and cultural taboo. They get spanked and scolded, but the direction that the film goes from there is what makes it absolutely brilliant. The father doesn't get a raise. He doesn't get a better job. Even at this early point in his career, Ozu's mantra of "Isn't life disappointing?" is already in place and this is something the kids have to accept.

Needless to say, the performances here are all pretty great. Tatsuo Saito, a figure in prewar Japanese cinema, plays the father of the film’s prepubescent protagonists. Tomio Aoki plays one of the boys, and it sounds a little weird, but there is definitely something bizarre and fascinating about his face. Even one of his schoolmates observes this – "he looks like a bug." I'm not quite sure why it was the first thing to come to mind, but it’s easy to think that Harmony Korine probably watched this movie a dozen times before making Gummo (1997) and picked Nick Sutton and Jacob Reynolds to be "two brothers" milling about a town based on their strange looks.

There’s plenty of other things worth mentioning, such as a nearly perfect example of Ozu’s later aesthetic with only a few brilliantly placed tracking shots here and there. In fact, these tracking shots seem to perfectly compliment the whole “kinetic” feeling that is the polar opposite of Tokyo Story (1955). Obviously, both approaches work for me, but it was still interesting to see that when Ozu was younger he at least attempted something slightly different than usual. There’s other things too, like the fact that the film is seriously one of the funniest things ever. It’s a comedy/satire, but in the exact opposite way that a silent film should be a comedy and I say that in the best possible way. There’s some Keaton-inspired gags too, but they are beautifully masked in Ozu’s universe. It all melts into an incredible masterpiece.

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