Sunday 13 July 2008

There Was a Father (1942)

I've watched Japanese films for years, through the many different genres and eras that make up Japanese cinema: chambara, anime, kaiju, yakuza movies, J-horror, you name it. Yet I'm still missing a number of key names, and probably the most notable is Yasujiro Ozu. He is one of the most prominent Japanese directors in that country's long history of cinema, with many highly regarded films to his credit, including Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds and I Was Born, But... I've picked up the two Floating Weeds films on a Criterion DVD set but haven't had a chance to watch yet, so this TCM Import broadcast, titled Chichi ariki in Japanese, became my first Ozu.

It may not be the best place to start, given what I've read, but there are elements here that I was expecting from Ozu. It's a gentle film, as much as it can easily be construed as wartime propaganda, and Ozu made gentle films. It's also rooted firmly in very real everyday life, focusing on the relationship between a widower and his son. Beyond the natural lack of gimmicks and CGI to take the place of plot, there's not really any plot either, more of a theme: that of duty, something naturallly appropriate in a time of war.

The father is Shuhei Horikawa, a poor schoolteacher who resigns from his post after an accident on a class outing where one of his charges dies in a boating accident. He travels with his young son Ryohei to Ueda, where he was born, but once he gets Ryohei into boarding school, promptly moves back to Tokyo. The key thing to realise here is that he's not deserting his son in the slightest: everything he does is to further his son's education. They correspond all the time, they visit all the time and both hold those visits above everything else. They also continue into adult life, after Ryohei graduates from university and becomes a teacher himself at a technical school in Akita.

The point of the film is duty. This is Shuhei's duty to his son, to love him and care for him but to put his future above the convenience of living in the same home as him. Even when that potential opportunity arises, he fights it. At one point Ryohei wants to quit his job in Akita to live with his father in Tokyo, but Shuhei forbids him. Everybody's duty is to do what they do, and do it to the best of their abilities. Ryohei is a teacher in Akita and so needs to be the best teacher in Akita that he can be.

There are many forms of duty and this film works through many of them. Shuhei points out to his son that he's never taken a sick day in his life. Shuhei's own impact can be seen though a school reunion, to which his former students invite him. They all still respect everything he did for them: he did his duty to them. There's a wider duty too that can be seen at the same reunion. Even though this is less than ten years after these kids graduated, every one of them is married with at least one kid. So we have duty to family, duty to work, duty to elders, duty to country. The war itself is hardly mentioned but it does come up as young men including Ryohei pass their medicals and are approved for the draft.

I found much to enjoy here. The performance of Chishu Ryu as Shuhei Horikawa is superb, nuanced and touching and he ages very well indeed. I couldn't buy into that of Shuji Sano as his son Ryohei much though. While he had a few powerful moments, mostly on his own, to my eyes he mostly seemed static and amateurish when working with his on screen father. He often seems to be speaking through his teeth, as if he was wearing ill fitting dentures that hurt his mouth if he moved it.

The direction is excellent. Being my first Ozu I have no idea what comes off as something that stamps Ozu on the film, but there are a few things that would seem to fit with what tends to get called directorial trademarks. There's a lot of silence in the film and a lot of small sounds: a whirling abacus, ritual sounds at a temple, rhythmic working machinery. There are a lot of aesthetically framed shots that work as transitions between scenes. And there's a lot of dialogue that really defines a scene. As my first Ozu, this didn't stun me but it certainly left me wanting to see more.

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