Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I Was Born, But...

Ozu Yasujiro may, as his critics have claimed, only made one film -- a criticism not entirely without merit: he reworked a large portion of his early monochrome silents into colored talkies and many of the titles of his films blurred together, such as Early Spring, Late Spring, Early Summer and the like -- but at least he made damn sure it was a great one. On the basis of his beloved 1932 silent I Was Born, But..., however, I can no longer gently agree to the criticism; at all times recognizably one of his works, I Was Born, But... nevertheless stands in sharp contrast to the dramas whose unifying aesthetic and themes make them so difficult to tell apart sometimes.

But is this bouncy, youth-friendly comedy so different from Ozu's static lamentations of Japan's rapid modernization? As is typical in his work, the action in I Was Born, But... centers on a family: the Yoshii family moves to a Tokyo suburb at the start of the film. The father works for one Mr. Iwasaki, and the Yoshiis new home rests conveniently close to Iwasaki's, allowing the dad to schmooze his new boss every morning. A traditional man, the father, Chichi, displays deference to his superior and commits himself to his work; his work ethic influences his relationship with his two young sons, Ryoichi (the eldest by no more than a year) and Keiji, from whose perspective the story is mostly set.

Chichi impresses upon the boys the need for them to make the highest marks in school, just as he did as a child. Yet Chichi is no longer a child and thus does not have to face the suspicion and derision that accompany the unexpected arrival of fresh blood in that most unforgiving of environments: the playground. Terrified of the bullies, the boys ditch school and enjoy an early lunch in a nearby field. At one point, Ryoichi stops gobbling his food long enough to absent-mindedly state, "I was supposed to get an 'E' in calligraphy today." Thus, he takes out a sheet of paper, draws his characters precisely and forges an exemplary grade; it's the perfect plan... until we see Chichi walking home and conversing with the teacher.

Ozu ekes some of the funniest silent comedy I've ever seen out of these situations: the petulant kids constantly ducking the bullies yet always ready for a fight (Keiji is so experienced with getting into scrapes that in seconds he pop off his wooden shoes and place them in his hands for extra damage), Chichi's stern home life undermined by his sycophantic professional behavior, the interactions between father and sons. Yet Ozu uses the lighthearted nature of the film to asks the same piercing questions as such dramas as Tokyo Story.

The common theme of the West's effect on Japanese culture runs deeply in I Was Born, But...: the children wear baseball caps, and Mr. Iwasaki plays tennis with some of his colleagues. Chichi and the boys' walk to school through the idyllic village is interrupted daily by a passing train that break the calm of the city. In an unexpected tracking shot -- the camera moves more in this film than all the other Ozu movies I've seen combined -- the director moves back and forth over a line of Chichi and his co-workers, who yawn in succession, trapped in the ennui of the bureaucratic suburbia that is rapidly altering Japan's economic landscape.

Unsurprisingly, this cultural shift primarily affects the younger generation, who will grow up knowing only a Japan influenced by the West (more so following the occupation after World War II). Even though the boys ditch class and get into trouble, they respect their father and genuinely wish to do right by him. But they find their loyalties tested by the growing influence of capitalism on their forming minds: they interact with Taro, Iwasaki's son, and a group of the kids and argue whose father is best by comparing the cars they own (one child boasts that his dad's is the fanciest, only to be shot down with the response, "That's because it's a hearse").

Symbolically, Ryoichi and Keiji's opinion of their father shifts drastically when they watch a home movie at Mr. Iwasaki's house. As they marvel over the Western invention, they recoil when they see their father on-screen, his stern and composed demeanor dropped briefly for a bit of joshing around. This has a perverse effect on the boys: instead of chuckling at their dad having a good time, they read it as proof that he's unimportant to Iwasaki's company, essentially his boss' dancing monkey. At home, their childlike ignorance leads them to ask Chichi brutally blunt questions about his job. Why does Iwasaki get to boss him around? Because he's got money, Chichi responds. "Does money make you important?" Ryoichi and Keiji pressure Chichi until he explodes, spanking the elder son viciously in a terrifying frenzy. His actions are so frightening that even his wife, seen heretofore merely performing the duties of a "good wife," quietly questions the need for such drastic measures. Chichi tells her that he reacted so strongly because he agrees with the boys: he hates genuflecting before his boss and grinding away at a desk. As the couple sits over their sleeping children, Chichi asks his wife "Do you think they'll lead the same sorry lives we have?" and gently whispers to the boys, "Don't be an apple-polisher like your old man."

Even though Ozu charts the developing influence of capitalist, borderline Randian values of monetary worth as a reflection of personal value, the director eschews sending them down the path to becoming their dads: I Was Born, But... runs parallel to the rest of Ozu's canon in many respects, but it's sentimental and genteel depiction of the younger generation stands out against the lamentation of the paradigm shift of Westernized youth. He depicts growing trends in the behavior of the suburban children -- a recurring gag involves the alpha male pretending to shoot the other kids and "reviving" them with what appears to be a Catholic blessing -- but Ozu never loses track of the grand innocence of their behavior. The most insidious and foreboding moment of the film involves that tracking shot of the yawning workers; Ozu contrasts the toil of the workplace with a similar rowdiness in the classroom, suggesting that schools only serve to program children to become good members of society. Outside the school, Ozu lovingly celebrates the peevishness of children; Iwasaki even tells Chichi that "all young boys should have some mischief in them." The film ends with the children reconciled with their father, and Ryoichi and Keiji overcome their sudden capitalist fixation when they ask Taro who's father is best. The other child thinks, and finally tells them that they have the best dad. The boys smile, then politely state that Mr. Iwasaki is better. Even if they'll grow up in a Western world, this display of mutual respect reveals that tradition may just survive after all.


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  2. Whoa! I did, too! You're the man now, dog!