Floating Weeds  [DVD]
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Floating Weeds is one of the final films directed by the legendary Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. A remake of one of his own silent features, it tells the story of a travelling Kabuki acting troupe, led by Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) who arrive in a small coastal town. There, Komajuro is reunited with his former lover Oyoshi and their illegitimate son, who is unaware that the itinerant actor is his father. But the reunion provokes the jealousy of Sumiko, Komajuro's current mistress, who plots a devastating revenge. Beautifully composed and superbly played, Floating Weeds is one of Ozu's most affecting, poignant and powerful films.
"Ozu's familiar combination of melancholy regret and buoyant comic gaiety is beguilingly in evidence. " --Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
"A poignant tale of everyday folk; their lives, loves and losses, rendered with exquisite care, compassion and no small measure of humanity by one of the masters of Japanese cinema. " --Film 4
"A thoroughly absorbing affair" --Total Film --This text refers to the Blu-ray edition.
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Floating Weeds from 1959 is a film from Yasujiro Ozu's final period, and also one of his first in color. He told the story before, in 1934, only that was a black and white silent film. But he followed the plot of the first film very closely.
The story has a mediocre traveling Kabouki troupe reaching a small port village in Southern Japan to perform. Their performances only attract a few townspeople, but to Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), the troupe's leader, the visit is an important occasion to meet his old lover, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) and their grown child Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), who is about to enter college and believes Komajuro is his uncle. When Komajuro's current lover, the pretty Sumiko (Machiko Kyo) learns about this, she blows in rage, and persuades another actress of the troupe, the pretty Kayao (Ayako Wakao) to seduce Kiyoshi. Kayao succeeds in the mission, so much so that she falls in love with Kiyoshi. When Komajuro learns about their relation, he doesn't take it so well (Komajuro repeatedly beating Sumiko and Kayo while shouting to them "you slut" are scenes that would probably not be filmed today), especially since he wants his son to have a life above that of a traveling acting troupe.
This is not the very best of Ozu (I put the so called Noriko trilogy there, one of the crowning heights of cinema) but is still very good. There are a lot of Ozu's characteristic style to watch here (the camera put at a knee's height, the so called pillow shots, etc). The movie includes a famous scene with Komajuro and Sumiko fighting and arguing over a street where the rain is pouring. The performances are terrific, especially those of Nakamura and Kyo. Chishu Ryu, who was in dozens of Ozu's films, has a bit role here as the theater manager.
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.
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