|Apr/May 2007 Reviews & Interviews|
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Criterion Collection. 2000.
Of the Big Three Japanese film directors from last century, who were known in the West, Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, and Yasujiro Ozu, Ozu is by far the least well known, and this is because he was probably the least technically innovative of the troika. But that is not the same as saying he was the least accomplished. In fact, his 1959 social comedy of manners, Good Morning, set in a modern Tokyo suburban subdivision, is in many ways far more relevant than the more famed period pieces the other directors made for it has a definite Western sensibility. Ozu seemed to be obsessed with documenting history, but history as it was lived, not re-imagined. He was acutely aware of his role as a social documentarian, if in a fictive sense. It was also his third color film, and on the surface it would seem to narratively square very easily with the 1950s era American television comedies, as the central story of the film revolves around two brothers' silent protest over their clan's refusal to modernize and buy a tv like their friend's family has. It all seems very Beaver Cleaver, but appearances are not everything, especially when the patina is crafted by a master from another culture.
Most of the film is shot in Ozu's famed and unjustly derided low camera angle, with a static lens, lending the charge of 'minimalism' to his style. Yet, while that may be correct in certain technical aspects, the truth is that the film, written by Ozu and Kogo Noda, is very multi-layered, deftly weaving low comedy (such as excessive farting, and all the modernism that entails, as the boys play a game where one boy presses another's forehead and he farts in response) with deeper social commentary on alcoholism, the generation gap, unemployment, and the bile of social gossip. The seemingly carefree farting of the children is thus deftly contrasted with the often ineffective social mechanisms of the adults. The title of the film, in fact, has an ironic meaning, for Ozu casts it as being said mostly in a negative and perfunctory way.
The film revolves around the interconnected lives of several of the neighbor families in the subdivision, where people are so intimate and close to each other that they routinely enter unlocked doors, as if an extension of their own homes. Two brothers, Minoru (Koji Shidara) and the super-cute Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) Hayashi (cuter than any baseball capped kid in a Japanese monster movie), about ten and six years-old respectively, want the tv so they can watch baseball and sumo wrestling, like their wealthier and hipper friends do. When refused, they first throw tantrums, then rebel in subtler ways, until, after their father (Chishu Ryu) scolds them, they take their vow of silence, which is only broken when they talk to each other, but no time else, not even at school. This single main narrative thread, of course, has repercussions in other subplots, such as when their mother (Kuniko Miyake) is accused of losing a local women's club's dues, even though she has paid the mother of the local treasurer. The treasurer, Mrs. Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura), is suspected by other women of theft, for she has just purchased a new washing machine, then a grand luxury in Japan. But, it turns out her wily and wicked old mother (Eiko Miyoshi), who scares off salesmen with a butcher's knife, merely forgot the dues she was given by the boy's mother. After an argument between Mrs. Haraguchi and the boy's mother, Mrs. Haraguchi apologizes. But, the next day, when Minoru and Isamu refuse to reply to her hello, she assumes the boys' mother has not forgiven her impertinence, and instructed her boys to snub her. This sets off a funny chain of events where the mother is seen as unforgiving, so all the other women in the subdivision return things they borrowed, lest they be snubbed by the Hayashis. One of the flustered women even asks, 'Our cat stole her dried fish. Should I return it?' She does, at Mrs. Haraguchi's insistence.
It is Mrs. Haraguchi whose dialogue with her younger brother (Keiji Sada), an unemployed translator and English language teacher, forms the central core of the film. They have an exchange where they discuss the boys' silent protest having some import since adults say much of little consequence, as banal greetings act as a lubricant because the important things in life are so hard to say. This is evident from the fact that the brother is attracted to the boys' single aunt, Setsuko(Yoshiko Kuga), who lives with the Hayashis, but is too shy to speak his feelings. She returns his feelings, but, even by film's end, both adults are so paralyzed with niceties and fears that they simply stand on a train station platform and talk of the nice weather. The silence of the boys thus evinces the inanities of the adult world they resent, and it stings. That so little has changed in nearly fifty years, and half a world away, says a lot of the human condition and that Ozu evinces such depth from such a seemingly slight and light screenplay is a tribute to his excellence as a writer. Meanwhile, in the resolution to the boys' silent quest for a tv, their father relents and buys one—after protesting that it will turn Japan into a land of a hundred million idiots (prefiguring the claim of its creating a vast wasteland in America by a few years). Yet, if the youth of Japan are doomed to idiocy from tv, it might be an improvement from the drunkenness that afflicts many of the male adults in the subdivision, or the petty rumor mongering of the housewives.
Despite all that good technical and artsy stuff, the truth is that this film is simple because it's told from a child's perspective, and utterly dominated by the wonderful performances of Koji Shidara, as the older Minoru, and Masahiko Shimazu, as the younger Isamu. Shidara is neither a brat nor a wiseass in the sitcom and Hollywood movie way, and Shimazu is exceptional as one of the cutest kids to ever hit the big screen. He is far more engaging and 'real' than a kid actor like Haley Joel Osment, or any of the Culkin kids ever were. He also says the English words, 'I love you', at the funniest moments, and plays with a hula hoop. The two boys also do real, usually non-filmic, things, like pissing in public, and stupid things, like somehow swallowing pumice stone shavings to increase their flatulence, and then ridicule another boy who cannot fart on command. At film's end, they do the forehead gag, and when the other boy cannot fart on command he actually shits in his pants and must return home while walking to school. The film actually ends with a shot of the boy's cleaned and drying white underpants, flying in the wind, on a wash line, as if a symbol of the purity and triumph of childhood obsessions over adult idiocies.
Clearly, the inability of that boy to fart mirrors the adults' impotence at real communication, and, in an odd way, the farting of the boys is a far greater means to connect and bond than the words the adults are so inept at using. In this sense, Ozu is a merciless champion and critic of his culture. His closest counterpart in film might be the American director Woody Allen, who, despite his Jewishness, is the greatest chronicler of American WASP obsessions. Yet, perhaps the closest artistic affinity Ozu shares is with Russian Anton Chekhov, especially his short stories, where he similarly used low and high humor in an admixture with real drama and social commentary. The film is, in many ways, a remake of Ozu's earlier 1932 film I Was Born, But..., yet it is also more pop culturally and satirically sophisticated.
This Criterion Collection DVD was the first Ozu film they did (several other titles have since come out), and is thus very spare—no commentary and no trailer—only a brief essay by filmmaker Rick Prelinger. It is in Glorious Technicolor—I couldn't resist, and except for two brief glitches, it seems like it could have been made within the last few years, as the transfer from the original 35 mm print is terrific. Both urban Japan and urban Italy seem to have been stylistically far ahead of contemporaries in America in terms of architecture and other social conventions. Compared with American suburban films from later years, like Ordinary People, or even films made in the last decade, like The Ice Storm or American Beauty, this film does not seem dated, especially compared to American film comedies of the era. Compare it even to a typical Billy Wilder comedy of the era and Ozu's superiority is manifest, almost as much as a fart is to some meaningless bon mot. Ain't art wonderful?