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This review is from: Floating Weeds  [DVD] (DVD)
Ozu is a world class director with a formidable filmography to his name, and this is one of his best movies. If you asked me who he was like, I would have to say that the nearest comparison would be with Jean Renoir, in that he is a director who loves his flawed characters - all of them, including the rogues - and he therefore has a life-affirming kind of compassion. But his style is all his own: characters always filmed from a fixed camera three feet off the ground, the height of a seated Japanese person; no pan shots; exquisite use of colour; only the most sparing use of exteriors; allowing quite important events to take place offscreen (here a robbery where the troupe loses all its money); punctuation with superb still life shots which are both a breathing space and tell you something about what has been going on.
Like so many Ozu movies, it's about the relationship between the older and younger generation. The story starts simply: a ragged troupe of strolling players (the floating weeds of the title) arrives in a run-down little port to give some shows. They come full of hope and excitement. The supporting players are looking forward to finding girls; the leader of the troupe, Komajuro, is visiting his ex-mistress and his son Kiyoshi (who doesn't know Komajuro is his father) for the first time in 12 years. Over the first thirty minutes nothing much happens, except to establish the characters, but by the alchemy of great film-making we are hooked into caring about these people. Ozu tells his story at his own pace, in his own time, and we go with the flow. Gradually the story gets more sombre. The troupe does poor business - it is not very good; the leading lady, Sumiko, finds out about the ex, and fears losing Komajuro to a settled life and thus the end of the troupe, so she sets the younger actress Kayo to seduce the son. Far from seducing him, she falls in love. The rest of the drama concerns whether Komajuro will settle, will tell his son the truth, whether Kayo will be accepted, and how the troupe, stranded and broke, will get out of the town - or will they break up?
The main drama is punctuated by a kind of chorus of the three supporting actors, drinking and smoking and wondering how they will get out (the only girl they get is a jolly local prostitute with dreadful teeth). There is an awful lot of drinking and smoking in this movie, and it's not surprising that Ozu died on his 60th birthday of lung cancer.
Within this gentle movie, there is a surprising amount of pain. Komajuro and Aiko, the mistress (a lovely understated performance from Hitomi Nozoe), finally agree to tell Kiyoshi who his father is, they will reunite and be a family again. Except Kiyoshi explodes that he doesn't want a father and pushes Komajuro to the ground. When the troupe is splitting up (sorry, I've given it away), they try so hard to put a brave face on it, drinking - again! - and singing. Except the oldest member, who has a small grandson to support, quietly slips away and weeps silently in a corner. His grandson, who loves the theatre and has little idea what is going on, follows his grandfather. He stands watching him for a few moments, while the singing goes on offstage; then he drops the apple he is holding and howls. It breaks your heart.
I watched this movie with my partner last night and we spent two hours talking about it afterwards. There are so many gorgeous moments: the reconciliation between Sumiko and Komajuro, a long tentative business over lighting a cigarette; their earlier raging quarrel conducted at a distance separated by bars and pouring rain; the last shot of a train disappearing with just two red lights glowing on the tail truck.
Red is in almost every shot; red for passion, red for life. It is used in the same way Constable uses it in his paintings, to link a composition and give it depth, and to express emotions that the characters can't or won't reveal.
Ozu is seen as the most "Japanese" of Japanese directors and his movies were not shown in the West till after his death. But there is little here that is impenetrable to an Anglophone audience. The performance the troupe is putting on is a kind of debased Kabouki, but it's quite clear that they're pretty dreadful in any language. There's a fetching mixture of East and West in actresses dressed in full kimono and lacquered hair sitting up at a bar, smoking and ordering a shot of hooch. The only thing which has to be taken on trust is the truly outcast status of the troupe. Actors are dangerous bohemians in most cultures, but you have to take it on trust that they are much worse than that in Japanese culture in order to accept the extreme reluctance of Komajuro to tell the truth about Kiyoshi's paternity, or of Kayo to marry Kiyoshi. And accept it you will, because you believe in the characters.
Only one thing mars the film, which is the awful Western-style music, alternately syrupy and jolly in the nudging style of a Carry-On movie. I have no idea if this was what Ozu wanted or it was imposed by producers in an effort to make the movie more commercial. But you can't mind too much, and the movie and its characters will resonate with you for a long time afterwards.
It's not a particularly original plot, but in cinema it's never the story that matters, it's the way that you tell it.