“Although I may seem the same to other people, to me each thing I produce is a new expression, and I always make each work from a new interest. It’s like a painter who always paints the same rose.”
“Someday, I’m sure, foreigners will understand my films. Then again, no. They will say, like everybody else, that my films aren’t much of anything.”
Born: 12 December 1903, Tokyo, Japan.
Died: 12 December 1963, Tokyo, Japan.
Directing Career: 1927 – 1962.
Movement: ‘Golden Age’ of Japanese Cinema.
Traits: One of the most distinctive directors in Japanese cinema or film history, Ozu’s style can be immediately recognised for his typically stationary camera filming his characters from a low-angle, his meditative still-life shots in between scenes, his eschewing of traditional continuity editing, his elliptical narratives, and his visual playfulness. Despite a few early genre films ranging from slapstick comedy to gangsters, his theme has predominantly been a chronicle of Japanese society in transition with a particularly poignant awareness of the flow of life and the strains of parent-child relations as generations move on .
Collaborators: Setsuko Hara (actress), Chishu Ryu (actor), Kogo Noda (writer), Yuharu Atsuta (cinematographer), Tatsuo Hamada (art director), Yoshiyasu Hamamura (editor), Tadao Ikeda (writer), Haruko Sugimura (actress), Kuniyo Miyake (actress), So Yamamura (actor), Takeshi Sakamoto (actor), Choko Iida (actress).
Related Directors: Mikio Naruse.
The Only Son
“Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child”
— Ryunosuke Akutagawa
One evening in 1923 in a small rural Japanese town, after her day’s shift at the local silk factory, a widowed mother (Choko Iida, one of Ozu’s stock actresses) makes a promise to her only son: she’ll do whatever it takes to pay for his education into secondary school, be that more slavish toiling and even sending him away to board in Tokyo. All she asks in return, she underlines, is that he makes all this worthwhile by becoming a ‘great man’.
Cut to thirteen years later. 1936 is a seismic year in Japanese history. The country is suffering from unemployment and other economic repercussions of the Great Depression. The 226 Incident, a failed military coup (an event dealt with in cinema several times, explicitly in Gosha’s Four Days of Snow and Blood, more abstractly in Mishima’s Patriotism and Yoshida’s Coup d’Etat, and in the background of Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses), ends up handing even more power to the Emperor to pursue his militaristic expansionism. The Anti-Comintern Pact is about to be signed with Nazi Germany. None of this deeply significant history of 1936 in Japan is stated in the film, but it’s there in the Japan Ozu is depicting, a Japan where those left behind by the state’s failed promises of modernisation and monomaniacal focus on warmongering have no chance of catching up.
The mother, now working an even more menial job as cleaning lady (the economic crisis dealt a great blow to the textile industries) and having had to sell her home, brags and boasts to her workmates of how her son, now in his mid-twenties, has made good. Possibly for face value, but even she wasn’t expecting things to be the way they are when she hoists a surprise visit on him in Tokyo. It’s not just that he has a wife and baby son he hadn’t yet told her about. It’s the fact he works as a night-school teacher on slim wages, rather than the more prestigious jobs the mother had envisioned. He lives in the wasteland suburbs of Tokyo, near a garbage incinerator. The mother speaks of all the fancy sights her son takes her to on her trip, but Ozu never shows them to us — that’s not the Tokyo he’s interested in depicting here. This Tokyo that we see is one of crowded unhappy lives in the expanding outskirts of the city, locked in a fierce competition for jobs that will end in disappointment for so many — having a sacrificial mother who allowed you to study in Tokyo is not enough to make good.
So the realisation hits home in this film of Ozu-esque quiet epiphanies: the son has failed in his professional life but succeeded in his personal one. He is not a ‘great man’, but a good one. He is a kind, generous man, and a giving father and husband. But is that enough for the mother? Stuck in her lonely life miles away from her son, she does not even have the consolation of being able to enjoy prideful satisfaction in her son’s social status. The son himself has feelings not just of disappointment but of guilt, the guilt that indebtedness brings when we feel unworthy of the offering awarded us (Nietzsche wrote about this indebtedness in the context of the sacrifice of Jesus as one that inflicted a burden of indebtedness that could never be lifted on all Christians). Consequently, the son feels he owed a greater return for his mother’s sacrifices. This no doubt has much to do with him being an only child — compare and contrast with the lack of filial obligation felt by the siblings in Tokyo Story as they pass their elderly parents among each other like an unwanted burden. Not many films in 1936 feel so true in their unsentimental awareness of human lives — Mizoguchi’s two masterpieces made that year, Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion being among the few rivals.
But to watch The Only Son is also to witness that ‘Ozu touch’ being perfected, after several sporadic appearances in an already long list of films. It is there in the way Ozu introduces scenes with his playful associative chain editing, linking shots by cutting to a different view of an object we saw in the previous one, engaging us in a fun game of trying to guess where he’ll take us to next and what will link the two shots. It’s there in the two pivotal conversation scenes between mother and son, filmed from his trademark angle and height — while Mizoguchi’s masterpieces positioned his humans at a distance from us and often behind doors and sliding screens, Ozu puts his at the forefront and centre of the frame in medium shots. Finally, it’s there in the contemplative closing shots suggesting the melancholy inner life of the mother, undercut by a jaunty tune on the soundtrack — the bittersweetness of life that nobody could convey quite like Ozu. (July 2018)
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