Saturday, September 8, 2012

Yasujirō Ozu | Ukigusa monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds) and Ukigusa (Floating Weeds)

abandonment: two versions by yasujirō ozu
by Douglas Messerli
Tadao Ikeda and Yasujirō Ozu (screenplay), Yasujirō Ozu (director) Ukigusa monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds) / 1934

Kogo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu (screenplay), Yasujirō Ozu (director) Ukigusa (Floating Weeds) / 1959

In a bow to his cinematographer, Hideo Shigehara, who was developing a new sound method, Ozu directed in 1934 what is perhaps one of the last silent movies to have been shot. Yet given Ozu’s dramatic methods of the time, his face on, low positioned camera into which the characters do not so much utter their lines as create dramatic scenarios of face and body, A Story of Floating Weeds, loses little of its dramatic intensity by remaining silent. I first tried watching this film, however, in the complete silence of film only, but there was live music performed with the original, and I began over after a few moments with the new score Criterion hired Donald Sosin to create, an appropriate solution to the kind of funereal silence of “pure” film version. Ozu loved Schumann, of whom the composer made appropriate use.

     The plot’s trope is not an unusual one, a traveling kabuki troupe has entered the provincial seaside town in Northern Japan. Evidently the troupe has played there years earlier, but Kihachi Ichikawa (Takeshi Sakamoto), the popular entertainer and head of the troupe, has long desired to return, we so discover, since his former lover, Otsune (Chouko Iida) lives in the town with her son Shinkichi, Kihachi’s son. In an attempt to allow Shinkichi a life away from the theater, Kichachi and Otsune have kept his parentage a secret, telling the boy, now a student and almost grown young man, that his dead father was a civil servant.

   teaser   Part of the joy of Ozu’s film are the character types of the sleazy Kichachi’s traveling company. We see only a part of a performance, wherein the young son of one of the company’s members plays a dog who misses his cue and forgets to get down on his hands and knees in dog-like position, obviously uncomfortable within his costume. Rain begins dripping through the rafters mid-performance, as bowls and cans and proffered to the disappearing audience. The rain lasts for several days, as the company is forced to postpone further performances. Their bored actions, as they mostly lay about and complain, reveal their poverty and ennui. At one point they even attempt to steal a small amount of money contained in the cat bank of the young dog-actor, who catches his father in the act.

     The two major women of the company, Otaka (Kihachi’s current mistress, played with great hauteur by Rieko Yagumo) and Otoki (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) vary their time by costuming themselves and applying the layers of white powder necessary for their roles and smoking on long pipes and cigarettes. Indeed, much of this film is devoted to smoking, some of it obviously drug-infused, at other times just long riffs of nicotine. If nothing else, Ozu conveys to us that these men and women represent a tawdry lot.

      At one point in their rain-drenched boredom, however, Otaka notes the absence of her lover and overhears comments by the men. Questioning one of the actors, she discovers that he is out visiting a woman every day, and determines to visit the bar behind which the woman lives.

      Kihachi has used this precious time not only to renew his relationship with Otsune, but to bond closer with his son, who calls him “uncle.” Together they fish, play a version of chess, and generally establish a relationship that is important to both. Otaka and Otoki’s sudden visit to the bar interrupts everything, threatening the pleasure the three, mother, father, and son, have been temporarily able to enjoy.

      A strong and clearly quite vengeful woman, Otaka is able to ascertain the situation almost immediately and is determined to speak to Otsune about the situation, which Kihachi prevents. In violence—a theme that is played out again and again in this familiar film—Kihachi orders Otaka back to the actor’s quarters, as she reluctantly leaves. Soon after, however, she hatches her plot, paying her friend Otoki to seduce Kihachi’s son. At first, the girl resists—I don’t deal with children, she insists—but gradually she capitulates, arranging an after theater rendezvous with the innocent young man.

     Swept away on an emotional tide of adolescent love, Shinkichi sneaks away from the house to meet with Otoki, the two beginning a clandestine love affair. After several days, Kihachi begins to perceive the continued absence of Otoki, and looking into the situation, perceives what has occurred, discovering the boy and actress alone in an outlying house. After punishing her, he calls for his mistress, beating her and berating her for her involvement, but before he can return to Otoki she has visited the boy at his house, luring him away. Kihachi’s arrival makes it clear that the boy has run off with Otoki. He does not return.

     Devastated by the circumstances, in which what he has attempted to avert for years has now occurred because of his presence, Kihachi determines to disband the company. The sales of costumes and sets pays for the failed performances and rental of the performance hall. The company members sit in grim recognition of the necessities of new lives, each relating where they will go, until the member with the young dog-actor son, breaks down into tears, his son giving up his cat-bank, lifting his tunic to his head and breaking into tears himself. It is one of the most poignant moments, in my thinking, in all of film, representing as it does not just the breakdown of the closed acting society in which each member existed, but the punishment—abuse and abandonment—of the next generation. For we know that if the father cannot imagine his fate, the nine year-old son, slightly retarded, still peeing his bed, has nothing in his future.

      That horrible scene ends with the actors demanding that Kihachi forgive Otaka. Whether he can or not is not the issue, as he, at least, invites her to the table to sing one last song.

       With the disbandment of the company, Kichaci returns to Otsume, telling her of his plight. But she invites him to stay and, after thinking it over, he agrees. The two, for a few moments are joyful in the sudden absence of loneliness they will inhabit in the future. But at that very moment, Shinkichi returns with Otoki, clearly regretting his own abadonment of his home and mother.

       Kichaci is furious with Otoki and strikes her, attempting to beat her, but the boy steps in to protect her. Unsuccessful at first, he finally hits out at his uncle, who flails—now an effectual old man—and falls backwards, the boy’s the mother speaking out:

                   Otsume: What are you doing? Who do you think he is? The man you
                                  hit just now is your father.
                   [Kihachi scratches his back.]
                   Shinkichi: I have no father like him. My father was a civil
                                    servant. He’s dead. If my father was alive, he’d
                                    never have abandoned us 20 years ago. All these
                                    years it’s just been us. Right, Mother?
                                    No father could that selfish
                   Otsume: What if, out of respect for his son, he couldn’t call
                                  himself father. He didn’t want you to be a traveling
                                  actor like him. He wanted you to have an education
                                  and a good job. That’s why he had to lie and live in
                                  loneliness. He’s been poor, but where-
                                  ever he was, he always paid for your schooling.
                                  Aren’t you sorry for striking such a considerate father?
                   [Shinkichi cries and rushes out of the frame.]

Kihachi knows within that is son is correct. He has abandoned the boy as surely as the small dog-actor boy must be abandoned by his despairing father. Despite his desire to stay and rest, he is determined to leave again, to abandon all those he loves once more. Otaki attempts to offer herself as a companion, but Kihachi, blessed by her kindness, arranges that she stay with Otsume and the boy, apologizing for having hit her.

      Before Shinkichi can even come to his senses, Kihachi has left.

                   Shinkichi: Uncle? Where is Uncle?
                   Otsume: You mean Father?
                   [Shinkhi nods]
                   Otsume: He went on the road again. Don’t try to stop him. Just be a
                                  great man. That’s all he wants. Since you were born, he’s
                                  been coming here with that one hope in mind.
                   [Shinkichi and Otoki cry. Shot of the daruma doll]

So ends the story of the floating weeds, the deitrus of life that has no role in the real seeds planted into the earth. At the railroad station, Kichachi meets Otaka, the smoking woman without a place to go, and joins up with her again. She is of his kind, he like her, inventing himself over again and again without the possibility of creating a meaningful life.

       Ozu’s powerful film, however, is not so much about that shifting world of the adult past, but about the young, who must always face the specters of their parent’s lies and disappearance from their lives. Had Kichachi only been brave enough he might have found the son who loves him enough to accept his failures and still be able to grow up as a “great man.”

In his 1959 remake of A Story of Floating Weeds, Yasujirō Ozu shifts the action from northern Japan to a seaside town in the Inland Sea in southern Japan, where instead of the cold and rainy weather of the former it is humid and hot. The opening train station has shifted to a small boat stop. While in the first version, the rains continue throughout most of the film, causing, in part, the failure of the acting company, in the second it rains only once, while almost all the characters spend a great deal of their energy on fanning themselves. And, although the sets and costumes are far richer in the remake, the company's failure obviously has more to do with their bad acting.

     The color screen allowed Ozu to create a dazzling display of flowers and landscape. And throughout the film, Ozu filled out situations that were sometimes hazy in the 1934 version, developing the psychological perspectives of his film. Floating Weeds, unlike some moments in A Story of Floating Weeds, is a fluid and logical work in which almost each scene, psychologically speaking, creates the next.

      There are also some scenes in the film that allow new dimensions in the movie, particularly the scene in which Komajuro Arashi (Ganijirō Nakamura, formerly named Kihachi Ichikawa) argues with his mistress, Sumiko (Machiko Kyō) upon her visit to his former lover's, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura, named Otsume in the 1934 film) bar. The two stand opposite each other in the street, raining pouring down between them, she nervously moving along the parallel, as he commands her to stay away from all aspects of his former life. It is a perfect Ozu shot, where, instead of shifting his lens back and form between the characters, Ozu focuses a steady camera on the action, turning it into a kind a frieze that radiates the stubbornness of both figures, suggesting a kind of Kabuki behavior that on the stage neither two actors can create. They are bad actors, but in real life are filled with the same angers and frustrations of Kabuki figures, and better able to enact their feelings.

     Yet for all of the lucidity of Floating Weeds, it appears to me that a great deal has been lost in Ozu's resurrection of his tale. While he may have ironed out "the kinks," so to speak, he has erased some of the notable tensions of his original work.

      Some of the reasons for these changes are apparent. While in the earlier version, the young son was of military age, as noted by his father, and is a student still at the time his father visits, here he works at the post office before planning to go into studies in electronics. Obviously, the intervention of World War II, necessitated a change, a reevaluation of the militaristic themes of the former. Those concerns in the original, however, create a kind of rough tension in the original that has significant meaning for any audience after the War. The 1959 version backs away from those issues.

     One of the most important absences is the slightly older boy in the original whom I have described as the boy dressed in a dog suit, a significant, in minor, figure in the original. Here the youngest member of the troop does very little but imitate the motions of the Sumiko as she dances, interrupting his performance to pick up some trinkets thrown to the cast members from the audience. The crucial scene near the end of the work, when the company is about to disband, in which the father of the young boy bursts into tears, the child lifting up his shirt as he wails in response, has been turned into a private scene instead of a public display. In the original, it represented the inner sufferings of the entire troupe, performed as it was in front of the actors. In Floating Weeds, the elder man goes off to quietly weep, the child following him into privacy to quietly commiserate with his father. One might suspect that is more in accordance with Japanese decorum, but the scene, in turn, loses almost all of its power to effect us. Here it is a private mourning, not a statement, as in the original, of the entire company's despair.

     In comparison with the original, where Shinkichi's seduction takes him away from the small town and out of sight of anyone who might warn him away from Otoki, here Kiyoshi and Kayo's love-making takes place primarily in rooms of the theater itself, where they are most likely to be discovered. Indeed Komajuro does encounter them, ending in his slapping Kayo and thoroughly rejecting his mistress, Sumiko. While in A Story of Floating Weeds, Shinkichi and Otoki run off for several days, in Floating Weeds they disappear, seemingly, for only a few hours before returning home, suggesting that the consequences of the seduction have been far less serious than they were in the silent version of the film.

 Indeed, nearly everything in Ozu's remake seems to be more subdued, clearly intentionally and in keeping with his other films. But the dramatic encounter between the uncle-father and son which occurs when the son returns with Otoki is at the core of Kihachi's second abandonment of the family, and, at least, helps to explain his leave-taking. By denying his own father on account the elder's selfishness, the son has revealed to Kihachi his own failures and his unworthiness to claim his patriarchal rights. But in Floating Weeds, the son, Kiyoshi simply denies the existence of a father without calling up the long absences his mother and he have had to endure. Komajuro's leaving, consequently, seems more like another instance of complacency. Dramatically he seems to have learned nothing, and quickly returns to his mistress when she lights his cigarette. Certainly the same issues are raised, but, at times, their subtlety obscures their significance.

     Ozu's works are generally subtle, leaving his audience to make their own perceptions of the family dramas played out in his works. But in the gaps and often more dramatic statements of the earlier version of the film, lay some of the most poignant moments of filmmaking. I know there are those who strongly disagree, but for my taste, the 1959 remake—although lovely to see—is almost as bland as many an American late 1950s film, seemingly unable to speak out the truth of their character's sometimes inexplicable and brutal flaws. While most of Ozu's films do not involve such significant issues, but center instead on family tensions that underlay everyday family existence, here, with Kihachi's/Kamajuro's inability to tell his son of his parentage, it seems to me to call for a more significant reaction from both director and viewer. Both mother and son, at the end of Ozu's remake, seem almost satisfied that history has repeated itself. They will get on just fine. In Floating Weeds one feels more sorrow for Kamajuro's mistress than for his abandoned son and wife. Sometimes less is simply less.

Los Angeles, September 7, 2012

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