Other Noteworthy Performances: Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca), James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy), Ronald Colman (Random Harvest), Gary Cooper (The Pride of the Yankees), Noel Coward (In Which We Serve), Brian Donlevy (The Glass Key), Errol Flynn (Gentleman Jim), Henry Fonda (The Male Animal), Jean Gabin (Moontide), Michael Redgrave (Thunder Rock), Sabu (The Jungle Book), George Sanders (The Moon and Sixpence), Monty Wooly (The Man Who Came to Dinner), Monty Wooly (The Pied Piper)
Many actors can thank a good director for enhancing a performance through insightful direction and creative editing, but few actors can trace the bulk of their good work and most of their career back to one director. Chishu Ryu, however, can. He wasn’t the best actor in Japan – both he and his long-time collaborator director Yoshujiro Ozu agreed on this – but his work in Ozu’s films verges on great. At first glance he appears to simply exist within Ozu’s intricately detailed compositions, but as we look closer we realize that his performances brim with subtle subterranean pathos. Over the years his characters moved and talked within those sparsely composed shots, but he also emerged as an essential part of them, no more or less important than a shot of closed umbrellas lined up along a wall or raindrops gently dripping off of a leaf. Ozu’s spare direction helped Ryu bring out emotional depths of his characters, emotions that Ryu admits he didn’t always understand or feel himself capable of until he was actually in the process of performing. Ozu would simply tell him to look at his hand and then look up and say his line. Or wait several seconds before turning. There was, it appears, little to no discussion of motivation or method and, under this system that would have terrified most actors, Chishu Ryu thrived.
His performance in There Was a Father, with an able assist from Ozu, is one of Ryu’s best, and it is certainly the best performance by a lead actor of 1942. I’ve already discussed the movie here, but I purposely avoided discussing Chishu Ryu because I knew I would be taking the time to talk about him here.
While there are other actors that pulled off extremely good performances (Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy come to mind), none affected me as completely as Ryu’s stoic father sacrificing his relationship with his beloved son to fulfill his duty to the boy. That he could have lived with his son at any time, that he could have taken a lesser paying job or had his son go to a less prestigious school is unthinkable to the man who can’t comprehend any other course, especially after a tragedy on a lake at the beginning of the film.
The film opens on Ryu’a Horikawa Shuhei working as a teacher. He is out with his class on a field trip to a quiet, idyllic country lake. As Shuhei sits with the other teachers inside, playing games and relaxing, one of his students drowns on the lake. Overwhelming guilt causes Shuhei to resign his post and concentrate his attentions on his son Ryohei, unwilling to let another failure of surveillance, another failure of probity to hurt his son. He accepts that he has to leave his son at a boarding school and take a better paying job in Tokyo because, well, that is what a father who wants better for his son does.
Ozu doesn’t give Ryu any showcase, emotional meltdown scenes, like Agnes Moorehead’s incredible moment at the end of The Magnificent Ambersons; that wouldn’t gel with the character or the tone of the film. But Ryu doesn’t need a scene like that to convey the emotional and mental core of his character. And while we see his commitment to duty, both to his son and, by extension his country, we always feel an overwhelming sense of loss, by what could have been and what could be now. He isn’t unfeeling, heartless, as his actions might suggest to Western observers. Even the scene when his now adult son suggests he leave his job and move closer to his father and Horikawa passionately lectures him for even thinking of shirking his responsibilities when his country needs him for something as frivolous as wanting to be closer to family is both rousing and heartbreaking.
Few actors could have managed to find the balance between their own talent (or lack thereof) and Ozu’s sparse, minimalistic designs. Many actors would rail against Ozu’s strict directions, eager to show off their range and ability. Perhaps Ozu chose Ryu because of his acting limitations, because he knew he would be able to mold Ryu’s characters in ways he wouldn’t with better and more accomplished actors. And maybe, when acknowledging Ryu as the best actor of 1942, it would also be appropriate to acknowledge Ozu as well because he had as much to do with the success of Ryu’s performance as Ryu himself.