Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I Was Born, But...


I Was Born, But... is an utterly charming, hilarious silent comedy of childhood by Yasujiro Ozu, displaying the lighter, more playful side of his sensibility. The film concerns itself almost exclusively with the child's point of view, focusing on the perspective of young brothers Keiji (Tomio Aoki) and Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara). The boys have just moved to a new town with their father (Tatsuo Saito) and mother (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), since their father has moved to the suburbs so as to be closer to his boss. The film's genius is the way Ozu keeps unceremoniously cutting away from the film's adult dramas — the father's desire to advance at work and make a good impression on his boss — to follow the kids instead. It's like there are two entirely separate worlds coexisting here. When the father goes to visit his boss on the weekend early in the film, Ozu watches just long enough to establish that he's doing a little sucking up, looking obviously subservient with his stained jacket and nervous mannerisms, and then the camera chases off after the boss' son Taro (Seiichi Kato) as he runs away with some friends to go bully the new boys.

These scenes have an exuberance and energy that's nearly irresistible, as Ozu traces the way that small dramas can be of big consequence in a child's world. Keiji and Ryoichi must adjust to their new home, to new challenges from a bully and the gang he leads. They are dogged, too, by their father's insistence that they do well in school, even though they don't even want to go because of the bullies there. When asked if they like school, the boys immediately respond, "we like the walk there and the walk home, but in between is no fun." There's a real sharp wit in this film, a sense of pitch-perfect comic timing that's as present in the physical comedy as it is in the sporadic dialogue provided by the titles. When the bullies confront the two boys, it's staged like a dance, with each side stepping forward a little bit at a time, hesitantly posturing for one another, the leader gliding forward and the others behind him nervously inching up to support him or at least to see what's going on.

Ozu has great fun with all these scenes, enjoying the kids' mugging and goofing around, the way they make faces and stand on one foot, try to find sparrows' eggs because they think it'll make them stronger, and play a funny game of raising the dead, gesturing to make a kid fall to the floor, then crossing themselves and holding their hands out to bring him back to "life." There are plenty of wonderful comic set pieces and characters, like the beer delivery boy (Shoichi Kofujita) who teases the boys by pretending he'll forge a good grade on their faked homework assignment, then drawing a backwards character instead. Later, the boys convince the delivery boy to help them beat up the bully who's bothering them, because they tip him off when their mother wants to buy beer. Helping him get a sale earns the boys his temporary loyalty, but it's not enough to get him to also take on Taro: as he explains, Taro's family buys much more than Keiji and Ryoichi's family. This is a first indication, though the boys don't understand it at the time, of the concept of social status and hierarchies.

Their understanding of hierarchies is limited to the idea of who can beat up whom, of who's bigger and stronger, who's tougher. They don't get that the adult world has different priorities, that money and class dictate the separations and relationships between people once they grow up past childhood. Once the boys dispense with the bully, they take over leadership of the gang, including Taro, who becomes their friend and lackey. To them, they're equals at least, so it's puzzling to get some hints that things might be different for their parents. This conflict comes to the fore in the film's final third: after spending an hour dealing with light slapstick and goofy little set pieces involving the kids, Ozu unexpectedly introduces a note of pathos and drama when the boys see some amateur movies of their father acting like a fool at work, making funny faces and trying to amuse his boss. They had worshiped and respected their father, believing him to be an important man, defending him in the usual kids' arguments about whose father is the best. When they see these movies, they suddenly see him in a totally different light, as a clown, as someone who has to be obsequious with Taro's father, constantly bowing to him. And when their father tries to explain that he is only an employee, that Taro's father is above him in rank, the boys are only even more devastated, understanding in a flash that the world does not work the way they thought it did, that their father was not the "great man" they'd thought he was.


The film's final act is moving and nuanced in its treatment of this theme, replacing the humor of the earlier scenes with an honest, direct look at class and honor. The father sighs that coping with the limits of status, with settling for being just a lowly employee, is "a problem kids these days will face all their lives," suggesting that he sees a future, sadly enough, where his own sons will grow up to be just like him, cogs in the machine rather than truly important men. He watches them sleep, with tears drying beneath their eyes, and urges them to strive to be better, not to settle for a working man's life and status the way he had. It's deeply affecting, to see this man struggling with his emotions as he realizes how badly his sons' confidence in him has been shaken. He briefly sinks into despair, grabbing a bottle of liquor and threatening to drown his sorrow in it. Ozu captures this low point quite effectively, framing the image with the father leaning against the doorway in the right side of the frame, the liquor bottle in his hand hanging down into the foreground, as his wife sits in the center of the frame in the background. It's a wonderful image of resignation and sadness. It is also the payoff to Ozu's decision to stage the film so completely from the kids' perspective prior to this: this sudden shift to the father, to his long-subdued frustration and mild shame at his limited position in life, is striking in its emotional impact.

There are hints of this sympathy to the father's perspective earlier in the film, too. Ozu's editing frequently suggests the continuity between father and sons even before the theme comes up explicitly in the film's denouement, by drawing parallels between the generations through juxtapositions of images. At one point, the camera pans (a camera move much more frequent in silent Ozu than it would be later in his career) across a row of office workers hunched over their desks, writing. Ozu then cuts to a cluster of students at their desks, learning calligraphy while a teacher admonishes them for goofing around or staring off into space, and finally the camera pans across an open field where the two kids cutting school are sprawled out, also writing as they lie in the grass. In all three shots, the camera move is the same, even as subtle shifts in the angle calls attention to the cutting, preventing a smooth transition from one shot to the next. It is purposefully disjunctive and jarring, suggesting both that the generations are linked by similar behaviors and situations, and yet that there is some necessary break, some trauma, that leads from childhood to adulthood. That break, perhaps, is the children's later realization of their father's place in the social strata.

Ozu chronicles the changing relationship between father and sons throughout the film by returning several times to a particular primal scene, the father and the two boys leaving the house together in the mornings, walking together as far as a train crossing before splitting up, the boys going off to school and the father to work. When this scene recurs at the end of the film, after the boys have started to come to terms with their father's place in the world, it mirrors the earlier ones, in which the boys had unquestioned respect for their father. But there's a new emotional undercurrent here, a hint of hesitancy that's cleared up when the boys give their father permission to go greet his boss, confirming that they now understand and have once again gained respect for him, albeit a new, more realistic respect, one founded on simple love rather than a mistaken belief in the father as an idealized "great man." It is a poignant and warm ending to a wonderful film in which Ozu affectionately, sensitively explores the nature of familial bonds and the role of honor in a new world where social class is calcifying into a rigid hierarchy.

6 comments:

Jake said...

I was going to take a Japanese film/literature course this semester, but it turned out the class was this absurdly in-depth modern history class that, while interesting, demanded way too much for an elective and I had to drop it lest my core grades suffer. But I did see this movie before I dropped and I absolutely adored every second. I don't want to play this game having seen so few of Ozu's works, but it's definitely my favorite of his so far.

What I love about his decision to constantly break away and focus on the kids is how he routinely contrasts both the ways that nothing ever changes as well as how a kid's life is so much better. Yeah, they spend half their time beating each other up, but once they have a nice slug-out they all get along. Power shifts on a weekly basis, but once you've proven yourself you're an equal anyway.

I especially love those tracking shots, so jarring to see when all your other Ozus have been the talkies. It is pure silent cinema when he tracks over the workers yawning, passes by one who doesn't, then returns to him until he yawns. Hell, the whole movie is hilarious; regardless of how well it ties into Ozu's auterial themes (and it certainly does), it's simply one of the funniest comedies I can recall seeing.

Sam Juliano said...

At its heart this great work of the silent cinema is an elegy to the lost innocence of youth, that informs a clash between the idealism you so impressively discuss here with the more sobering realities of the adult world. This is a them that Ozu examined thrughout his career, but the stylistic template was set in this early film, withits eschewing of fade outs and fade ins, and a general simplification of the film grammar. His trademark low angle shots capturing the private scenes of domestic life, and the employment of the internal dynamics of the family unit to draw out broad generalizations about society as a whole are again brought to the table, and there's a universality underpinning to the seeming innocuous youthful behavior on display here that in effect is a playing out of the life cycle.

If it qualifies as soap opera, then it's soap opera of an exceedingly profound level, that unearths a number of truths.

This is one of the greatest films of the silent cinema, and the first truly great films by one of the greatest directors (and its foremost adherent of humanism) of all-time.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Indeed it is, Sam. This is Ozu's first Absolute Masterpiece.

Ozu was the poet of the then-merging white-collar class. He's also the greatest of all directors of child actors. The scene of the father in the doorway that you cite, Ed, is a key one dramtically. But Ozu's touch is sosubtle and so sure you can find its like throughout the film.

The theme of child-like adults, and children discovering adult-like responsibilites, continues on in different forms throughout his career.

Ozu's Ohayo is a partial reamke of I Was Born But. . . It's not as socially sharp but its light comedy is is just as satisfying.

Jake Savage said...

Whenever I'm less busy and less lazy I'll read this, I promise, but from what I skimmed through it looks like we are in agreement: one of the best films ever. (!)

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. This film, so early in his career, already has everything I love about Ozu: the social commentary expressed indirectly through the experiences of one family; the low-key humor, as rich here as it'd ever be in his work; the formalist rigor that allows him to express complex emotions and ideas simply through the arrangement of objects within the frame. I agree with Jake that the focus on the kids emphasizes how much more socially fluid the kids' world is than the adult world, and with Sam that this is a great humanist work that reflects themes Ozu would continue exploring throughout his career, and with David that Good Morning is a worthy remake, not as socially sharp perhaps, but arguably even funnier than this film.

Bat Mite! said...

This was the first Ozu film I saw, and Jake, it was also in a Japanese film/literature class that was an elective (but ended becoming my major as I switched).

What I love about "I was born, but..." isn't just how Ozu presents the rigidity of social hierarchies, but also places where they break down, only to become internalized.

The scene where the father gives up his egg (a hard fought luxury for the working class)has such a formal tone to it, that the one place where all stratification can crumble is within the framework of family.

Anyway, I'm rambling. Thanks Ed, loved the reading.