There Was a Father (1942)
User ReviewsReview this title
This was a completely novel thing at the time in terms of cinema - although it's supported by a rich Buddhist tradition.
Even Ozu seemed unsure how to handle it. Cultivating this took him time. It is possible for example, that being a young Japanese cinephile fascinated with modern Western culture, he thought for a time that he was only reworking Chaplin, a visual story, pared down to essentials. He dabbled for a time with a fluid camera, after Sternberg. He did a chamber drama, controlled, stagebound environment, very German.
But at some point, he must have suspected this had potential to go much deeper than anyone had envisioned at the time. I believe the key transition was Dragnet Girl from '33: a gangster film, very upbeat and jazzy, pure Sternberg razzle-dazzle, that is until the finale, where the modern movie night of danger and intrigue gave way to the clarity and stillness of the first morning light.
This was great. He had discovered the eye, a landscape painter's eye, but not yet the right landscape. He spent the next couple of films looking. It should be life, he knew this much, but what kind of life?
Now this. The story is about a teacher scarred by an accident he couldn't prevent, and efforts of his surrounding world to extricate him from the exile of self-imposed guilt. He sends his son away, to study, work hard and advance himself. He keeps himself away, somewhere in Tokyo, and only periodically surfaces back from we presume a frugal existence. At a class reunion with his former pupils, he is reminded, urged to consider, that the world is moving ahead, still turning. All his pupils are grown men, married, most of them with kids.
So what a change from earlier fathers Ozu portrayed, often itinerant bums, a source of dismay or embarrassment for their kids. Here's a father who is hardened, by his own failures no less, resolute, preaching to his son that "work should be considered every man's mission" and to "serve your country".
There is of course the obvious comment to be made about wartime allegory and the call for patriotic action, by itself not very interesting. Sons of Japan urged forward by a strict but well-meaning father. Incidentally, that same year was when tides of war started turning in the Pacific, blowing back towards Tokyo and destruction.
But there is more here, for the first time. Now if we only listen to the story, the father is a tragic hero and a model to emulate. The dutiful son goes away in the finale, presumably to strive to fulfil his father's wishes. The parting image is one of many poignantly still shots.
So far Ozu had favored dramatic resolution of that stillness - Floating Weeds, Tokyo Inn - and at first glance this is no different. But these images reveal a more complicated world beneath the story.
Consider the plot again. The traumatizing event occurs because the father is not there to see. This is understandable; we cannot keep the whole world in check. It turns independent of us, transient, impermanent flow. The event also happens away from our sight, but in place of it we have a perspective the father lacks. At the crucial moment, Ozu cuts away to a shot of an ornamental stone top on a vertical post of a bridge. Now images of bridges feature prominently in Japanese iconography, signifiers among other things of what the Buddhist understand as the floating world. Distances in old Japan were traditionally measured from the great Nihonbashi bridge, the center of a symbolic axis mundi.
There is no motion from this point of stillness in our film, although we know a plot is being set in motion in the flow of transient waters below, a life being lost.
How does the father handle this? Distraught from the tragedy, he takes off with his son on a train. Not having made his peace with the fact, he later removes himself from sight of his son, who needs him more than anything else. And how does the son? He becomes the father he's been effectively deprived of, this broken man infused with values from that loss. In the finale he sails off into the night, onboard another train.
Trains; man-made, mechanical structures of life, human karmas in motion.
On the other hand, an immovable spot above the waters, clarity, dispassion, centered vision.
The second of Ozu's war-era films -- and the first to feature Chishu Ryu as "star". This film starts with the story of a teacher and his young son (in the 1920s). After one of the students under Ryu's care drowns on a school outing (after disobeying orders), Ryu resigns as a teacher due to his "failure". Ryu and his son then must split up, the son to go to middle school and Ryu to go to Tokyo to pay for his son's education. Even when the son (now played by Shuji Sano) is grown -- and teaching in an agricultural college -- the two remain separated (except for very rare, very short visits) due to Ryu's fanatic devotion to duty, an attitude he presses on his son as well. This film has typically been viewed as supporting the Japanese government's promotion of hierarchical paternalism. But, frankly Ryu's rigidity seems a bit "over the top" -- and, in the final moments of the film, it seems that his son (now just married to the daughter of Ryu's best friend from his teaching days) may not accept the concept that duty requires the squelching of all emotional ties.
The son is portrayed as suffering deeply because of the separation, and this emotional pain is repeated in several scenes in which they are together again for short periods of time.
As the movie progresses, the son is portrayed as larger than the father, often filling the screen in interiors that have a very low ceiling. The son is always dutiful, (in contrast to the two students at the beginning of the movie); the father continually urges the son to work hard, to give it all he has, in order to get ahead. But the father appears pathetic in his subordinate clerical position; his emphasis on "giving it all one has" is countered by the son's simple desire to be with the father. Human relations trump the value of hard work.
I think this has been the slowest paced film from his earlier films I've seen so far, though I'm not really sure. The camera sometimes shows or focuses on places (for instance the shot in the building where the father works) and prolongs itself into them. Those takes might not add anything to the plot, but they surely give a more vivid feel to the film.
The film is really worth watching for all lovers of Japanese cinema; it is also the one I've liked the most from Ozu's earlier films. Needless to say, and as I've been mentioning in the other reviews, if you're not into Ozu's filmmaking style, then you shouldn't bother checking this out.
I guess I'm going to be the radical among all the reviewers and give this film a rather average score of 6--though it's very close to receiving a 7. Having seen quite a few other films by the famed Japanese director, Ozu, I realize just how similar but how inferior this film is compared to them. Like his trademark style, the film features many low angle and static camera shots as well as the occasional seemingly irrelevant transitional shots, though it did seem a bit less polished and professional in style than his later films. However, despite the similarity of style, the story itself just seemed rather unfinished and anticlimactic--like it was missing something. Because of this, I really think that if a person not familiar with and in love with Ozu's work saw this, they'd soon get bored and never seek out one of his films--which is a great loss. At no point does the film engage you like his greater works like UKIGUSA (FLOATING WEEDS) or BANSHUN (LATE SPRING). Those who are familiar with his other films, however, will revel in the familiarity and will probably not mind the weak story about devotion to duty above all else--which another reviewer astutely pointed out was meant to bolster the Japanese war effort.
FYI--The print shown on Turner Classic Movies was pretty rough and needs restoration badly. I doubt if a better version exists, as TCM usually shows the best available copy of each film.