In the 1953 film Tokyo Story (reviewed here), directed by Yasujirō Ozu, there is an exchange between two characters which has become one of the most famous moments in the history of Japanese cinema, possibly even ‘world’ cinema. Two women sit together discussing the reaction of the family to the death of the matriarch. Kyoko, the youngest child, is speaking to her sister-in-law, Noriko, about her family’s reaction to the death of her mother. At the end of the conversation she observes;
“Isn’t life disappointing?“
Noriko – played with warmth, elegance and beauty by the great Setsuko Hara – smiles and nods, then answers with blunt honesty,
“Yes, it is.”
This exchange has a simple profundity about it that is earthshattering. In six words, Ozu and his co-writer, Kogo Noda, sum up the disappointments of life that we have all experienced. It’s a conversation we have all had at least once in our lives, sometimes with others, sometimes with ourselves, and it comes with the realisation that the idealism on which we have built our lives is nothing but a house of cards.
Over 25 years before Kyoko and Noriko sat down to chat, a similar realisation was had by the two children at the centre of Ozu’s 1932 film, I Was Born, But…
The film centres around a family who have moved into a new home in the developing suburbs of Tokyo. They have moved because the patriarch, Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito), wants to get closer to his boss. Like so much of the world in the early 1930s, Japan was facing an economic downturn which had caused mass unemployment and uncertainty. Yoshii is a white-collar worker and his attempts at getting closer to his boss, Mr Iwasaki (Takeshi Sakamoto), are merely to ensure his continued employment at this most difficult of times. He is a ‘Yes-man’, a salaryman who is willing to kowtow to his employer in order to keep food on the table.
The main protagonists of I Was Born, But… are not the adults however, but Yoshii’s two children – Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) and his younger brother, Keiji (Tokkan Kozo). Like all children who move to a new environment, they must start at the bottom of the local hierarchy, and this initially does not go smoothly. When they meet a group of local boys, they fail to follow the ritual of kowtowing and subservience and instead come into direct conflict with them. In doing so they become victims of bullying and, to avoid getting beaten up, they skip school. In doing so however, all they are doing is putting off the inevitable. They are going to have to face up to the bullies at some point and they are going to have to be taught the importance of hierarchical life in Japan.
The group of boys are a mixture of classes, reflecting not just their standing in the group itself, but in their parent’s positions in society. One of the boys, Taro, is the son of Mr Iwasaki; another is the son of a poor vendor worker. The father of a third boy is a tailor, and so on.
When the brothers do finally integrate themselves into the group, they do so by getting help from an adult. When he sees one boy beating them, he intervenes and hits the boy back but refuses to do the same to Taro because his father is a good customer (in other words, he’s rich). The boys soon become part of the gang but never do they ingratiate themselves. They do so on their own terms. At this point, their idealism is still intact and they believe their father is an important man.
This is in contrast with the adults at work, who Ozu shows us only occasionally. In one scene, the camera tracks down a row of workers, including Yoshii, all of whom are yawning. The camera passes one man who doesn’t yawn, then, as if only just realising this, the camera tracks back to him, singling him out for not conforming with the group. He realises his mistake and fakes a yawn. The camera then continues its journey until we see the back of the supervisor. Whereas each employee looks small, the supervisor dominates the screen, visually highlighting the pecking order of the company.
The moment of realisation for the children comes when Yoshii is invited to Mr Iwasaki’s house to watch some home videos. On the screen, the two boys see their father making funny faces, much to the delight of Mr Iwasaki and the other attendees. Ryoichi and Keiji are horrified at this, and then more so when they see that Yoshii must ingratiate himself in a way that they have not. They of course approach all this from a child’s perspective. When Yoshii explains to them that he needs to work in order to put food on the table, their solution is simply not to eat until the situation changes.
This isn’t a film about childhood however, it’s a film about children’s perceptions of adulthood. Ozu claimed, lI started to make a film about children and ended up with a film about grownups.” It’s also a film about the changes that Japanese culture was going through at the time. The rigidity of the previous eras was still in place, but there was also a hope that the future would be more flexible. That the bonds that hold back the current generation would be loosened by the time the children grew up. It is a simple hope that was smashed for so many by the war that was less than a decade away. It’s the hope of change which seems to permeate many of Ozu’s films, a change that happened slowly as each generation questioned the previous one but was ultimately doomed to continue it. Like all coming-of-age films, it’s about the moment when a child is confronted by a truth that was previously obscured to them.
Just like Kyoko in Tokyo Story, Ryoichi and Keiji must learn to accept a simple truth about life – that it is simply not always fair and doesn’t always reflect your own idealism. The final exchange in the film is between the two brothers and Taro Iwasaki. They ask Taro who is the best father, theirs’s or his. They of course choose Mr Iwasaki because he has status and power. Taro however, tells them that their father is the best. Is this because he has gone through his own realisation that his father is not as great as he once had thought, or is he simply more mature and saying so because that is what Japanese society at the time dictated? Either way, it’s a nice moment to finish the film – the recognition that Yoshii has a certain stature, and he is respected, even if it is merely because of convention.
We see in I Was Born, But… the evolution of Ozu’s very distinct style of filmmaking. His long static shots are used sparingly here and there are none of his signature Tatami shots which dominated his style throughout the last decades of his life. Also, the camera moves quite frequently, something that would all but stop in his later films.
There is still a very real sense of space here which echoes the landscapes of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons or Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence. This was the birth of the Tokyo suburbs and the houses are surrounded by empty lots which in only a few short years, would be crammed with buildings. The roads are not yet completely paved and there are few decorous features. It is something that I have personally experienced in the bourgeoning suburb of Teifa, in Accra, Ghana. As I walked the streets there, I had a distinct sense of evolution and development, as if the environment was in the middle of a profound change, socially and spatially. This is wonderfully captured in I Was Born, But…
In 1959 Ozu would again focus on children in his film Good Morning, which centres around two brothers who are determined for their parents to buy them a TV. I Was Born, But… is a much more direct film than that, although it’s told with such humour and warmth that the central message is easily digestible.
There is an underlining darkness in the film, one that reflects the difficulty of the time and the inevitability of disappointment – a theme which laces much of Ozu’s work (just think of the final images in Late Autumn (reviewed here) when Setsuko Hara feels the first pangs of loneliness as she folds clothes; or the conversation between Hara and Chishū Ryū in Late Spring, when a father has to explain the realities of life to his daughter), but don’t let that put you off. There is a lot of humour in I Was Born, But… and the performances are great throughout.
For fans of Ozu, I Was Born, But… is essential viewing, and not just for the completist. This is an artist still learning and refining his style, which would soon develop into perhaps the most singular approach to cinema there has ever been. It may not be as appealing for casual film fans, however, if you’re looking for an example of the storytelling possibilities of silent cinema, then I would certainly recommend it.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 8/10