Monday, April 18, 2011

Good Morning (1959) - #84

Important things are difficult to say... Whereas meaningless things are easy to say.

My memory is a bit fuzzy on the date and other details, but I'm reasonably confident that Good Morning was the first film by Yasujiro Ozu that I saw. If it wasn't the first, it would have been Tokyo Story. But it was definitely the first Ozu DVD that I owned. I remember the occasion well, because I drove my family to a local independent book store that used to be unique around here for having the best stock of Criterion DVDs, back before Barnes & Noble swooped in and surpassed them in both quantity on hand and discount in price. The occasion was Fathers Day, maybe five or six years ago, and my kids told me that I could pick out a couple of Criterion discs to add to my then-small but growing collection. The other one I chose that day was M. Hulot's Holiday, if I recall correctly. And even if I'm mistaken, it's a nice memory to have, because these are two of the sweetest and family-friendliest films to be found in the Criterion Collection. So I'll stick with it, even if one of my children kindly points out that she or he remembers it differently!

Even though Ozu would only make four more films after Good Morning, it's not too surprising to me that this would be among the very first of the fifty-four he made in his lifetime that many of his Western viewers ever saw. Good Morning marks Ozu's debut on Criterion DVD (and I must admit, from the transfer to the packaging design to the lack of extras, it's one of their shabbiest efforts, badly in need of a Blu-ray upgrade), presumably because its Technicolor sheen and comparatively light-hearted subject matter makes it an easier introduction to the great master than the more subtle, serious and melancholy works upon which his lasting reputation substantially rests. As such, most reviews that I've found online for Good Morning read more like preambles to an appreciation of Ozu the director, with the writer setting the reader up to understand Ozu's distinctive style, his place in Japanese cinematic history, basically laying out the argument for what makes Ozu important and pre-emptively smoothing out any befuddlement that might occur for novice viewers who watch his patient, ambling, static scenarios and wonder, when the end titles fade to black, just what all the plaudits are about. Since I've been watching and writing about quite a few Ozu films over the past year, both here and in my Eclipse Series columns at, I'm not going to tread that well-worn path. Instead, I'll approach Good Morning as an intriguing follow-up to the two movies Ozu made in the preceding years, 1957's Tokyo Twilight and 1958's Equinox Flower. Both films are available in the Eclipse Late Ozu box, and you can read my thoughts on them both at the links provided. They're both rather somber works, particularly Tokyo Twilight, which endears them to viewers whose tastes veer into darker territories, since they go a little deeper into realms of bleakness and despair than Ozu's exquisite sense of balance typically allows. And it's the gravitas of this pair of late masterworks that makes the frivolous leaps into bathroom humor, sit-com whimsy and the cute for cute's sake aesthetic of Good Morning all the more interesting and refreshing for a seasoned Ozu watcher to enjoy. Watching the films in sequence, you can sense the artist throwing his audience a curveball, shedding the formulaic expectations of viewers who thought they knew what to expect from an Ozu film, showing them he still has the wit and satirical bite of his early silent films that he hadn't quite flourished as he approached old age.

As his second venture into the arena of filming in color, Good Morning also shows Ozu enjoying the opportunity to play around with the expanded palette. Clear blue skies dominate the outdoor scenes, vivid reds and greens jump out against the muted tans and browns in the interior backgrounds. A bedroom dresser, with each drawer painted a different bright hue, serves almost like a color wheel test strip, showing off the brightness that the film stock was able to capture and expressing the shiny newness and sparkle of the newly constructed, treeless suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Tokyo where the story occurs. Ozu's placement of the action in an area that had only recently been inhabited by Japanese citizens is deliberate, as his theme builds upon Equinox Flower's meditation on the erosion of traditional male dominance in postwar Japan to ponder how women and even children were now wielding the upper hand in the daily life of families.

The stand-out focal points of Good Morning are a pair of brothers, half of a group of four neighbor boys, whose interest in the new technology of television and the timeless camaraderie of juvenile peer groups serve to drive the action and provide indirect commentary on the foibles of the adults around them. Multiple facets of middle-class life seamlessly weave together to provide an entertaining tableau of generations in conflict, an Ozu staple of course, though in this instance of a fairly benign sort, inducing more chuckles of warm familiarity than the painful winces of regret and remorse that his other films so frequently stir up. Here the gaze of Ozu falls upon fairly trivial targets: gossipy housewives, mildly squabbling spouses, mothers exasperated by the sneakiness and snottiness of their sons, rapidly modernizing young swingers whose eagerness to assimilate Western fashions and attitudes into their lives is epitomized by the very current movie posters on their walls, advertising The Defiant Ones and Louis Malle's The Lovers, both scandal-triggering releases of 1958. Drunken old men are also called upon to supply reliable laughs, and there's even a memorable showdown between a vaguely sinister salesman who casually pulls out his pocket-knife when he senses resistance from a prospective customer and a wizened old grandmother who adroitly counters such crude pressure tactics with a bit of crafty oneupmanship of her own.

Besides serving as a preliminary course in Ozu 101, the other reliable observation to be made about Good Morning is how it functions as a remake, or more properly, a re-working of his 1934 break-through I Was Born, But... The common idea those two films share is of a pair of brothers who stage a short-lived strike in protest of what they perceive as their parents' failings. Beyond that, the settings of each film provide revealing contrasts in how far Japan had come since the years of the Great Depression, especially considering how much they'd suffered on account of the devastating Pacific War. I Was Born, But... also took place in a relatively new suburban development, but in that period, paved roads were still quite rare, the households and construction methods had more of a ramshackle appearance, and the kids, with the notable exception of "the boss's son," were dressed in much more homespun, scraggly attire. The late 50s Japan of Good Morning, on the other hand, was thriving in an economic boom time, and electronic gadgets, launching a trend that continues even more intensely today, were becoming the latest measuring stick of a modern family's connection to the steady flow of cash that constitutes society's lifeblood.

And not just the television that occupies a central role in Good Morning's plot, but also washing machines, appliances that are probably more overlooked because they're not so innovative or visually arresting (nor are they ever shown, though we see plenty of laundry on the line all throughout the film, including the final close-up of a boy's underwear flapping in the breeze.) The conveniences increasingly expected by modern Japanese women, and their husbands' presumed ability to provide them, informs the subtext of Good Morning, even as the film registers its loftier theme of how trivialized and evasive adults become as they conform to the seemingly modest but often emotionally crippling demands of conventional morals and social customs.

With the increasing comforts provided by a prosperous economy, and the endless stream of media-induced distraction, the older members of Good Morning's ensemble sense both the realization of a long-delayed dream, the ability to provide for the next generation from a position of relative abundance, and the loss of intimacy and simple connective dependency that comes when people are forced to huddle together, share resources and rely on each other across generational divides simply for the sake of strength and survival. Ozu had already made harsher indictments of the changes sweeping over Japanese society, and I expect that we'll see more of that melancholy tone come through in his final four features. But with Good Morning's ultimate triumph of the brats, as the parents set aside their skeptical wariness of both the television and their youngsters' insistence on setting the family agenda, Ozu is also reminding us that even as venerable old customs fade away, life's vitality finds new ways around the obstacles we so awkwardly impose upon it. With a reasonable homage paid to the past, as exemplified by the father's harrumphing imitation of discipline at his sons' exuberant outburst, familial and social connections stand ever ready to forge themselves in new ways, lubricated both by the banal small talk that helps us fill the time and silence, and the new technologies that open unexplored angles of perception on the world in and around us. 

No comments: