September 8, 2009
Goodbye, summer. The heat dissipates and a nostalgic sadness creeps into my mood. Call it the ghost of “back to school” blues, the end of youthful freedom. My adult self is staunchly anti-summer, averse to damp undershirts and the fetid stench of perspiring garbage piles. So outwardly I celebrate the great cooling-off, no longer having to hear the words “weekend getaway” or feign interest in another’s banal sunbathing/soaking/tanning plans. But there’s an insistent twinge in the human part of my heart, a vestigial sense of loss that the good times are over, it’s time to get back to work. I try to ignore it, but I might as well admit it’s there. As with most things regarding people and their damned emotions, Yasujiro Ozu has a lot to say.
So in honor of the season, I cracked open the cases of I Was Born But… and The End of Summer (both available in Criterion’s Eclipse line of DVDs). The first, a silent from 1932, is a salve for the schoolkid in me, detailing the illusions and pranks of two young brothers as they try to mesh in their new suburban home. The latter, from 1961 (his penultimate film), is for the sentimental old coot I’m prematurely becoming, a story about a childlike father and his stumblingly mature sons and daughters. The former is set in the beginning of the school year, the latter, well, read the title. An arbitrary start and end, 29 years apart.
I Was Born But… starts in a rut. Specifically, it’s a wheel spinning in mud on a country road. Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) and Keiji (Tomio Aoki) are with their salaryman father Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito), riding to their new home in a moving truck. After some fruitless spins in the dirt, there is a cut to Yoshii looking perplexed, instantly associated with stasis and weakness. His kids stare at him with suspicion. Then Yoshii tells them he’s off to visit his boss, and sends them on home with the driver, ambling off frame left in the sparse, electrical-post lined landscape. In these opening three minutes, Ozu sets up the themes that thread themselves throughout the rest of the feature. There is the move to the country, and the upheaval that will cause in the children’s lives. Then there is the conflict between father and sons, as the boys become increasingly aware of their father’s less than illustrious station in life, including his need to kowtow to his superior. The economy of expression here is astonishing.
But what I’m concerned with here is the bereft look on the kids’ faces as they approach school. The end of summer for Ryoichi and Keiji means the end of their previous lives. Now they have to adapt to the weird new suburban kids, with their own rituals and games. Keiji starts annoying people straight off, initiating a gang war with his transcendent oddness. Aoki’s performance, filled with testicular scratches and exaggerated mugging, is probably the most entertaining child performance I’ve ever seen. His taunt (seen to the left) as he leaves his tiny antagonizers is a move of balletic slapstick.
He’s moving too, as he apes Sugawara’s every move in their tantrums. He’s always a step behind his brother, but his loyalties are ironclad (unless a rice ball shows up). These pantomimes of his reminded me of my lapdog relationship with my older brother. I camped out by his side and honed my interests to match his, whether it was spending hours pricing baseball cards or constructing a basement city (called Hudsonville), I strived to meet his approval at every turn. I always attempted to maintain a facade of independence with subtle variants, as we grew older he liked Pearl Jam, I chose Nirvana. He liked Metallica, I listened to Megadeth. Keiji doesn’t even attempt to mount even that minute kind of differentiation. He is Ryoichi’s disreputable mirror. Where Ryoichi is stern and commanding, Keiji is disheveled and confused (there is always a bit of white dress shirt sticking out of his fly). But they act as trusted confidants and pranksters, sharing a hive mind of youthful rebelliousness. Their faux-pouting stare as their parents try to ease them out of a funk (brought on by their father’s obvious lack of status) is both heartrending and hilarious. They are being brutally awoken to the inequalities in the world, but they carry it with impish humor, a quality one hopes they carry into old age.
If Keiji grew up and had a family, he probably would have turned out a little like Manbei Kohayagawa (Ganjiro Nakamura), the playful patriarch in The End of Summer. Manbei is a widower who is attempting to marry off his remaining single daughters, Akiko (Setsuko Hara) and Noriko (Yoko Tsukasa). He’s a gregarious sake brewery owner with active eyebrows, who has recently re-ignited a relationship with an old mistress in Kyoto. The repeated refrain of his children is, “I wish he would act his age.” But what does that mean, exactly?
This childhood-in-adulthood aspect of the film is dealt with throughout, variously treated as a defect and a blessing, a reflection of happiness and selfishness. Ozu never chooses one side of these contradictions, but lets Manbei loose in all his irresponsibly engaging glory. He prances along, alienating and bewitching his children and mistress in equal measure. Nakamura plays him with a similar mischievousness as Aoki’s Keiji, playing endless rounds of hide and seek with his grandson before sneaking out to a rendez-vous at a race track.
In a conversation with Noriko, Akiko echoes the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog (made famous (for me) in Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin) by saying that it’s possible to change a man’s actions, but never his character. This statement echoes throughout the film, rendering any attempt to “change” this old coot as absurd. This aging Keiji is disreputable, perhaps, but chasing happiness with seemingly more energy than his concerned children. Akiko and Noriko are the only other two characters with designs on a free life. Setsuko Hara, Ozu’s greatest actress, radiates a self-assured wisdom, completely secure in her widowhood and unwilling to sacrifice her life for the sake of a cow-loving, Ralph Bellamy-type husband.
Circling around these characters though is a motif of smoke, a symbol of dissipation eventually awaiting all of these characters. At this point in his career, Ozu has settled into his serene late style, with low-angle framings and little camera movement. It’s startlingly different from the fluidity of I Was Born But…, which includes witty tracking shots matching a line-up of schoolkids with yawning office workers, but his images are still layered with action. These images of smoke originally seem incidental, as in the shot heading this post. The incense in the foreground is only one aspect of the family home. But its unobtrusive presence slowly accretes meaning, its insubstantial wisps a growing reminder of the body’s slow demise, and the flimsiness of our everyday complaints. Ozu frames it in his famous “pillow shots”, framings held after characters leave the screen, empty rooms with traces of a human presence. Then the smoke billows around Manbei’s body, his final lament, “Is this it? Is this really it?’ shooting up the chimney.