Every time I put together one of these lists a movie by Yasujiro Ozu seems to slide in, usually somewhere high on the list, if not on the top. I always liked Ozu, but I never necessarily thought of him as one of my favorite filmmakers. However, the process of writing these lists has forced me to rediscover the quiet, but impactful stories Ozu filmed about everyday people struggling to live their lives in a world ill-suited for sentiment, nostalgia, or consideration for others. His movies chronicle everyday life without movie phoniness or gimmicky plot twists. For Ozu, the drama of day to day life was every bit as gripping as a Hitchcock thriller, Wellman war movie, or Muni biopic.
There Was a Father is only one of two movies Ozu managed to make during the tumultuous war years (the other being The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, an extraordinary picture that made my 1941 list). The Japanese military called Ozu up for service twice during the war and he spent the early years of the war in occupied China and the end of the war in Singapore. In the brief two years between those two periods of service, Ozu was in Japan and, despite the rigid demands of Japanese censorship and propaganda boards, he made Toda Family and There Was a Father.
Ostensibly the story of a stony-faced widowed father who sacrifices his relationship with his only son so he can get the education he needs, most viewers won’t be hard pressed to see this as a thinly veiled piece of propaganda arguing for shared sacrifice to ensure the continued safety and security of the nation, a particularly pressing subject as bombs began to rain down on Japanese cities. We don’t know if Ozu intended the story to be read along rigid propagandistic lines or if he inserted the nationalistic language to pacify Japanese authorities. While those authorities may have been pleased with the finished product, the movie can’t be written off as another parable for wartime sacrifice. Ozu carefully interrogates the effects of these sacrifices, sacrifices millions of people were making all over Japan. They may have been demanded, expected, and even to an extent appreciated, but that doesn’t mean Ozu had to celebrate them. He chose, instead, to probe the enormous toll those sacrifices were taking on the youth of Japan and how the emotional scars would linger for many years whether Japan emerged victorious or not.
The story is heartbreaking. In an effort to compensate for a past tragedy, schoolteacher, Shuhei Horikawa, leaves his job and devotes his life to sending his son Ryohei to the best schools, no matter what the cost. He does not flinch at sending his son to far away cities or moving even farther for better paying jobs. The movie covers the span of many years, rejoining Shuhei and Ryohei at their infrequent visits that always carry the faint hope that they can soon be together. But there is always a better school somewhere else. And those better schools cost more money, so Shuhei needs to go to bigger cities to get a better job. Even as an adult, Shuhei rebuffs his eager son’s plans to quit his job and move closer to his father because, he argues, the nation needs us all to fulfill our roles without regard to personal feeling. (This is, undoubtedly, one scene Japanese censors adored.) Ryohei says he understands, but is still crushed.
The genius of There Was a Father is the way Ozu manages to acknowledge two opposing forces that operate in wartime societies without condemning or advocating either side. The movie can be read, as many have, as a propagandistic plea for personal sacrifice. At the same time, Ozu recognizes the inherent unfairness of these national demands and the deep psychological scars they will leave. Less accomplished filmmakers would have ignored those problems, instead contenting themselves with a feel good flag-waving film. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, they would have ignored the realities and made an impassioned diatribe against the perceived need of any emotional sacrifice. Ozu brilliantly balances between both and, in the end, manages to make a movie that touches on real human situations that transcends the lessons of wartime Japan.