Japanese Cinema - #3: A Story of Floating Weeds
Usually silent films are slow and can be a bit of an exercise to watch. But I found Ozu's film to be both engaging and to have a very fast pace with many quick cuts. It felt concise, but not so much that anything was missing. At times I even forgot the actors weren't talking!
The actors brought such wonderful performances to this film, and told the story through their faces. It wasn't melodramatic at all either, they were able to convey emotions, often very strongly, in ways that I think too often today's actors rely on words for. The human face is an amazing thing, and there are emotions that words cannot express, but the face can, and Ozu used this brilliantly throughout a film filled with longing, pain, and desire.
The film also utilized many repeating visual symbols and gestures. Each character had several movements or objects that were particular to them, that revealed much about them. Each location too had it's own distinguishable visual descriptors. The film contains many shots of objects and details that tell you where you are. Rather than starting with a wide shot and closing in, Ozu chose to rather show you close-ups of many small details to give you a greater understanding of the whole, causing you to have to work with him to to understand the film, engaging you as an audience. A silent film doesn't have the luxury of words to tell a story, so Ozu expertly used the power of images to do more than words ever could.
Not only was this film told with excellent cinematography and striking images, but the story itself was gripping and emotional. By focusing in on everyday people, the film connects with you because it showcases emotions and struggles that all humans share. It also contained a plot that was a little surprising for the '30s. The main character was caught between his old lover and his now-grown son, and his current mistress, caught between his current life as a traveling actor, and the life he always wanted but could never have: a wife, a family and a home. Instead he can only see his son when he travels through the town and must hide the fact that he is the boy's father.
It's hard to know who to root for, however, because though this head actor must give up a wonderful life, it's because of his lifestyle and choices. And it's hard to respect a man who beats any woman who stands up to him or doesn't do as he wishes, even when he is in the wrong. Though he has always did his best to ensure that his son could have a good life, often sacrificing so that he can do so, most of his motivation seems driven by his own selfish desires and loneliness.
Can you forgive a man of this these things based solely on the love he appears to have for his son? It's hard to say. And I don't think Ozu is trying to give you an answer one way or the other either. He weaves multiple father and son layers throughout the film, and the juxtapositions between them all looks deeper and deeper into these relationships. Yet in the end, the central father and son relationship isn't mended. They must part, and though they strived to have a happy family, ultimately nothing can be changed in the situation. Most of the characters leave either the same or worse at the end of the film.
However, it seems that no one leaves the film alone, which is crucial. Though many painful things occur, in the end everyone finds someone to be with and share the burdens with. Though there are consequences for the characters' life decisions and choices, especially the main actor, even he ultimately finds reconciliation and love again, and leaves the film less alone, or at least more appreciative of those with him, then he came. In a sense he is finally able to look beyond himself, and though he cannot be with his son, I think is able to more fully love him as well.
Ozu understands what it means to be human, and appears to have a deep love for character, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future!