(Yasujiro Ozu, Japan)
I’m not sure if A Story of Floating Weeds is considered one of Ozu’s best movies, but it is one that I really loved when I saw it a couple years ago and it held up well to a second viewing a couple of weeks ago. Like so many of Ozu’s pictures, it examines the temporality of relationships and the desperation of loneliness without sappy melodramatic undertones. The silent masterpiece opens on a motley theater troupe arriving in a small town in preparation for a series of performances. The leader of the troupe, Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto), slinks away from his performers to see former mistress and her teenage son. No one but Kihachi and the boy’s mother Otsune (Chouka Iida) know that Kihachi is in fact the boy’s father. He has been sending money for his upkeep and education and visited occasionally as an uncle, not a father.
Kihachi’s nightly visits pique the curiosity of his current mistress Otaka (Rieko Yagumo), also a member of his troupe, who investigates and discovers the truth about Kihachi’s son. Otaka’s jealousy leads her to hatch a cruel plot that eventually forces all the carefully hidden secrets out into the open. I don’t want to give more away than this (which may already be too much for anyone who hasn’t seen the picture); this is a movie best approached fresh.
Like Vigo in L’Atalante Ozu exhibits a profound respect for working class people and privileges their stories and their relationships in a way few great filmmakers have (or do). Ozu reminds us that great drama is not confined to the halls of ornate palaces or among the rich and famous; a simple story among common people can be just as moving and piercing as anything in Shakespeare. His inherent humanism compels him to respect people of all class and situations and to faithfully tell stories that reflect the human condition. And in A Story of Floating Weeds he succeeds admirably in telling a story that is relatable not just in Japan but around the world.
Also like Vigo, Ozu finds visual beauty in unlikely places. A Story of Floating Weeds is beautifully photographed. Ozu photographs the prosaic surroundings of his poor characters with thought and care, finding visual poetry in the unlikeliest of places – bowls collecting rainwater from a leaky ceiling, a dusty dirt road and gnarled tree. There is an especially beautiful moment when Kihachi goes fishing with his son. They stand knee-deep in water, casting their lines into the quickly running water with the mountains stretched out behind them on the horizon. It’s a quiet, touching moment as we know Kihachi would like to open up to his son and tell him the truth, but he cannot. It is one of those perfect scenes – perfectly shot, edited and acted – that come to define an entire picture for me. But it’s only one of several throughout a masterful picture.
Kihachi didn’t abandon his son; he freed him and his mother from an insecure life. There is a young boy – the son of one of the members of Kihachi’s troupe – that travels and performs with them, often in a raggedy dog costume. Ozu allows us a glimpse at what Kihachi’s son missed or, more accurately, dodged. The boy cannot trust anyone, not even his own father, who he catches stealing from his piggybank. Will this boy have the same opportunity to attend school and get a good job? We suspect not and slowly come to understand that Kihachi was not being selfish in leaving, but he was sacrificing for the boy. Even later, when it looks like they will have the opportunity to build a father-son relationship, Kihachi still leaves, as though he knows that his life has been and always will be one of impermanence and transience and whatever they build will only crumble due to his own nature. This is one of Ozu’s first films that deal with family, relationships and sacrifice. Though many of the later are more polished, A Story of Floating Weeds is, for me, one of his perfect movies. It wasn’t even a close call when I was choosing the best picture of 1934.