I remember a lazy afternoon wandering the South Bank and taking a punt on a screening at the BFI of Late Autumn, a film through which I discovered the singular work of Yasujirō Ozu about whom, dear reader, I have to confess I previously knew nothing (I know: civilian!). That film focused on enduring questions about family, loneliness and loyalty – never flinching from the inevitability of the distance that comes with age, other commitments… other loves.
As Dr Alex Jacoby from Oxford Brookes University explained in his excellent introduction, Ozu was also concerned with the additional stresses of modernisation on these increasingly fragile family units: the message in this film as others is perhaps to grab what you can. There was a point when I was willing the various characters to just turn around, swallow their pride and reach out but, parental sacrifice makes it impossible: the next generation must have the chance to move on.
These were lifelong concerns for the director of Tokyo Story and I was interested in watching one of his earliest films to see how the younger man was already being affected. All this, of course, in the week after it was revealed that perhaps Ozu’s greatest leading lady, Setsuko Hara passed away aged 95: the kindest eyes in cinema finally closed.
Setsuko would have been 14 when A Story of Floating Weeds (浮草物語) whilst Ozu was already an experienced film maker having started in 1927. He was still making silent film until 1936 and, a combination of Benshi-led resistance and technological limits meant that Japan had a uniquely halting route to sound with some directors going back and forth from silent to sound.
|Yoshiko Tsubouchi and Rieko Yagumo back stage|
Elements of Ozu’s stand-out composition, low-angled interior shots and tableau style are much in evidence in this film but his camera also moves in a couple of precious, well-chosen moments (so much for that received wisdom...). There cutting also seems faster than his later film with shots picked more for narrative value than otherwise necessary in a sound film. Needless to say, there are some gorgeous images.
|Meeting at the tree|
A boy rides his bike, there’s a girl standing beside a tree, small banners blow in the breeze dotted around the base of the tree, it’s a special tree and magic is about to happen… we’re pulled into the screen, aching to find out what. She’s there to make a fool out of him, to unknowingly wound the boy’s father but something far more interesting is taking place. You know it from the tree, the fact the girl is sometimes obscured, motive uncertain and the camera’s focus on the boy’s bike – a signifier of his momentum.
The cinematography of Hideo Shigehara is exemplary and his steadfast collaborator held off making a sound film until his cameraman had developed his own system.
As for the story… Donald Richie notes in his criterion essay that Ozu was more interested in creating character than story and he certainly fills this film with textured players giving his performers so much to work with and there are some astonishingly naturalistic physical performances from actors who fill the frame in such a relaxed way, scratching, stretching and smoking their way.
|I'll have what they're having...|
There’s also a lot of Saki drinking, which is always good, and lead character, kabuki troop leader and seeming nae-do-well Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto), is one of the chief consumers. He has led his band back to a seaside town as part of their subsistence cabaret circuit.
Only one performance is shown and the theatre is very bizarre… Kihachi performing as a partially-coherent drunk and his efforts undermined by a misbehaving boy-dog (Reikô Tani) and the arrival of the rain, which pierces their thin tarpaulin and ensures their stay will be longer and far less profitable than expected.
Kihachi has other things on his mind though, spending his days visiting an old flame, Otsune (Chouko Iida) and her post-graduate son Shinkichi (Kôji Mitsui) who, it transpires is his son (although the boy believes his father dead). It’s an odd triangle, as secret father bonds easily with oblivious son whilst the woman who knows them both, provides. It is a heart-felt performance from Iida, in fact all the women prosper in their roles.
|The train calls the traveler further onward|
Kihachi's secret isn’t kept for long and his current mistress Otaka (Rieko Yagumo) comes to investigate his strange set up with another actress Otoki (Yoshiko Tsubouchi). There’s a scene and Kihachi pushes her away… but Otaka hasn’t survived being his partner without a fair share of strength and cunning and she sets out a plan to humiliate him sending Otoki to the aforementioned tree…
Of course, the plan goes awry as the two youngsters fall in love and the cycle threatens to begin again: Otoki tells Shinkichi that she is not worthy and, once Kihachi finds out, he is certain of that too… but the young man is unshakeable and then incredulous when his “uncle’s” secret is revealed.
Can this group hold together as a family and will the young man’s potential for greatness really be undermined by love? Can the best contribution from father simply be his absence… there are no easy answers. One of the key sequences had father and son fishing together standing knee deep in a river re-casting in synchrony and having the kind of conversation men only seem to have when they're busy doing something else… for this time they are together standing against the water flow but you know that can’t last forever.
|Standing against the current, together|
A Story of Floating Weeds retains a sophistication that guarantees modern engagement - is this what would have happened elsewhere had sound not so rudely interrupted the silent party?
John Sweeney played along with a syncopated sophistication all of his own weaving his lines carefully around the delicate visuals with practiced ease and with music that touched on the universality of the characters’ experience.
|Ainu tribes people|
As is usual down in Kennington we were also treated to some extras in the form of an entertaining travelogue From Beautiful Japan (1918) which showed everything from geisha’s dancing to bears being strangled by native Japanese tribesmen… ritual and custom from the island’s original inhabitants the Ainu.
|Edna Marion and Neal Burns cut a rug...|
Then there was an American comedy from 1927 called Cash and Carry, set in a department store and starring Neal Burns as a shop salesman trying to work his way around his enemy the floor manager in order to win the hand of the bonny Edna Marion. All good clean fun with the work’s dance competition providing a new context for strictly come slapstick!
A Story of Floating Weeds is available along with Ozu’s sound and colour remake, Floating Weeds, from 1959 on an excellent Criterion set. It’s on Amazon of course.