Sunday, June 12, 2011
In the two years plus that have passed since I reviewed Yasujiro Ozu's A Story of Floating Weeds, I've seen and learned a lot more about the great director's films, reviewing ten other titles beside that one either here or on CriterionCast.com as part of my Journey Through the Eclipse Series column. Deepening my acquaintance with this wise and unique artist's work has been among the greatest pleasures I've experienced in this blogging project. Ozu's distinctive, highly refined style is now familiar enough, and actually quite comforting, to me that discovering a new film of his is like going to an orchid show and seeing a lovely new variety that bears all the distinctive hallmarks of being an orchid, and yet demonstrates how much exotic variety and beauty there is to be found even when so many of the elements remain consistent and instantly identifiable. There's something kind of breathtaking and wonderful in seeing the effects that minor adjustments to a time-tested formula can have in refreshing our vision and illuminating the hidden corners of our own lives in examining the crucial moments experienced by Ozu's characters.
That sensation of subtle permutations resounding through each repeated echo is even more apparent in Floating Weeds, Ozu's only declared remake, even though films like Good Morning and the yet-to-be-reviewed (by me, that is) Late Autumn are often regarded as such since they also revisit significant plot elements from Ozu's earlier films. Reading over my March 2009 review of A Story of Floating Weeds, there's not a whole lot that I would have to change about that summary in order to make it apply equally well here. So instead of going too far down that road of recapping the whole story line of Floating Weeds, I'm inclined to just comment on the effect it had on me as I experienced a bit of deja vu viewing it for the first time several nights ago, in a most delightful and transfixed way, I should add.
Komajuro, the head of a faltering itinerant kabuki troupe, has steered his crew into a small Japanese harbor town with a dual agenda. On the surface, it's just the next stop on an impromptu tour that has no clear destination or purpose besides generating enough revenue from the locals to cover their bed and board for however long the show will draw customers and enough to move them on to the next town after the final curtain drops. But this particular village also features a young man quite special to Komajuro, his son Kiyoshi, a 19 year old strapping young man who only knows him as "uncle." That's because it's what he's been told all his life by his mother Oyoshi, a woman that Komajuro never married, has seldom visited but who still seems to regard him with placid equanimity anyway. Maybe he's sent along enough cash from time to time to pacify any grudges she might hold? Or perhaps she's just philosophically or temperamentally inclined to take the disappointment and lack of support in stride. For a single woman raising a son, she's prosperous enough, with an established position of material comfort in life that must be looking kind of attractive to the aging kabuki master.
The "uncle" ruse was concocted way back when and agreed upon by Komajuro and Oyoshi, in order to spare the boy the shame that comes with thinking of his father out there somewhere, oblivious to whatever he's going through from day to day. We learn early on though that "uncle" Komajuro hasn't been around to visit for the past 12 years, a significant stretch of time to miss in the course of a young man's life, so there's not much of a shared sense of closeness between the two - Komajuro is obviously delighted to see what a handsome fellow his son has grown up into, whereas Kiyoshi probably sees him as just an eccentric older relative that he'll show due respect to while he's a guest in their house, then politely wave goodbye to and mostly forget about afterward.
Komajuro has to play his hand deftly then, not only taking the appropriate steps to avoid spilling his secret to Kiyoshi but also avoiding the meddlesome intrusions that are sure to erupt if his mistress Sumiko discovers where he's spending most of his time between performances. He's constructed another lie in order to buy himself some time and space away from her gaze, telling her that he's visiting "an important patron," presumably some high class benefactor who prefers to do business with the boss without any of his associates around. One gets the sense that Komajuro is pretty adept at this kind of thing, using his innate performing skills to cast illusions of trustworthiness and respectability as needed in order to keep his actors loyal, theatrical impresarios persuaded and the local audiences as amused as possible.
Of course, it's hard to sustain the excuse of going to see that "important patron" day after day without raising Sumiko's suspicions, but Komajuro can't help himself. He so enjoys spending time with his son and feels so comfortable in Oyoshi's obliging, non-judgmental presence that he can hardly stay away, perhaps complacently assuming that those around him are either too dumb or too intimidated by him to catch on to what's really happening. In the process of aging and his dwindling fortunes however, his utilitarian handling of the people around him has begun to take its toll. As his deceits become more threadbare, it becomes ever more difficult for him to conceal the crestfallen, appalled and desperate facial expressions that arise when he realizes the extent to which others have seen through his charades.
Ozu and his fellow screenwriter Kogo Noda skillfully reworked all the major elements that informed A Story of Floating Weeds 25 years earlier to tell a story rings as universally true then as it does now. The period elements of 1930s or late 1950s Japan add a little bit of texture (though Floating Weeds seems much less interested in scrutiny of the modernizing upheaval of cultural traditions than do films like Tokyo Twilight, Equinox Flower or Good Morning that preceded it), but the essential predicament, of adults who've resorted to convenient but deceptive short-cuts to avoid uncomfortable disclosures of truth, is timeless, and one that anyone who's lived a few decades can relate to, either because we've done that kind of thing ourselves, or had our eyes opened to the lies that others have fed us, or both.
The power of Floating Weeds then, and Ozu's films in general, is found in his ability to bring to the surface such easily overlooked (or repressed, depending on how much benefit of the doubt you're inclined to give) aspects of human nature. He's a purveyor of truthful observations more than a counselor who would advise us what to do should we find ourselves confronting similar dilemmas. And he's more interested in portraying the behaviors, and the reactions of others to them, which in turn set up even more intriguing and complicated conflicts, than he is in using the dramatic conflicts as leverage to set up more cataclysmic events that play out on the world stage. Thus we never see Ozu making films about larger than life characters who declare war or go on wild crime sprees or strive to enact monumental social reforms as a result of the inner drives and demons that they wrestle with individually. He chronicles the lonely meandering journeys that the vast majority of human lives travel, anonymous to history and even to most commentators of the times in which they live. Here in Floating Weeds, each of the main characters has to wrestle with painful choices about how to respond to each other as they each experience rejection, betrayal, manipulation, disappointment and loss in their own ways, with everyone else around them too busy grappling to find their own reconciliation and thus unable to offer much by way of support.
But even with all the low-intensity, swept under the rug heartbreak going on, so indicative of the hazards that accompany everyday life, Ozu refuses to offer up or justify howls of protest. That's just not in his makeup, however justifiable or entertaining such bursts of existential outrage may be in the hands of other directors or artists in other media. The particular currents on which these Floating Weeds travel meanders through some rough and choppy passages, leading once again, in an almost cyclic repetition, to the reenactment of the ancient Oedipal crisis when Kiyoshi is slapped by his father, brushes the blows off manfully, then almost without effort, pushes the old Komajuro down to the floor. It's only after he's delivered that gruffly nonchalant rebuke that his devoted mother Oyoshi reveals the longstanding secret of his parentage, in a circumstance of such pain and moral confusion that it conclusively dashes the long harbored fantasies of the estranged parents to one day experience, somehow, a happy family reunion.
Rather than milk that crisis for all its worth however, or to end on that seemingly tragic note, Ozu escorts us through the full unfolding of incidents like these, to a point where equilibrium is reached, with the painful lessons of our weaknesses and the failures of others to compensate for them now freshly consigned to "the past" so that we can again move with some degree of confidence into the future - that tomorrow will be, if not exactly better, at least a bit easier to take than those bitter moments we've managed to survive and dread ever having to experience again.
As for the film-making itself, Floating Weeds is an immense pleasure to watch, preferably on a big bright screen, from a purely visual standpoint. My enjoyment was nicely enhanced by Roger Ebert's commentary which draws attention to the numerous subtle touches that Ozu brings to his on-screen compositions, with helpful insights into the side characters and production details as well. Ozu made this film through the Daiei Studio, rather than Shochiku, so there's a slightly different emphasis on color here that came with the technical crew Daiei assigned to the shoot. Still, having learned a great deal on some of the little things to look for, I'm sure that when I do go back and revisit the Ozu catalogue (and I most certainly will, for these are among the most rewatchable and satisfying films of all the Criterion stuff I've been watching the past few years) I'll be even better equipped to savor the finer details of his world, and through that experience, be ever readier to discern and appreciate the finer details of my own.