Thursday, August 1, 2013

Thursday Musings: 'There Was a Father' by Yasujiro Ozu (1942)

In what I hope to become an ongoing segment on this blog, each Thursday I would like to share a film, a book or a piece of art that I have recently been thinking about. Today, I would like to share with you about one of my guilty pleasures: the films of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963), and particularly for this post, the 1942 film 'There Was a Father.'

Ozu is considered by many to be one of the greatest directors that ever lived. His cinematic style is instantly recognizable as are the reoccurring character types, often played by a small band of loyal actors. But probably even more distinctive to Ozu is his slow paced human focused films. Ozu's favorite subject is family relationships.

One of the most beautiful scenes in the film.
Much like the contemporary director Wes Anderson's preoccupation with familial relationships, particularly with estranged fathers, Ozu masterfully weaves human drama in the setting that we are all intimately acquainted with, the home.  His portrayals of families are archetypal, much like Platonist Idealism--there is something universal about them. However, despite the form of perfection, they are all rooted in real brokenness. They point to the ideal, but then bring us back to reality.

In the the film 'There Was a Father,' Ozu is especially concerned with the relationship between a father and a son. The main themes of this film are duty, sacrifice and estrangement--as the father Horikawa, played by Ryu Chishu, tries to provide the best life and opportunities for his son, they are increasingly separated.

As I reflected on the film, I realized that Ozu was painting a familiar scene for many in his 1942 audience. Japan was making significant sacrifices, and had for generations, to provide for a better future--but at what cost? Ozu, unable to point critically to the contemporary political and economic situation in his own country, alludes to questions that he doesn't ask and answers that he doesn't give.

Like Father Like Son
One of Ozu's frequent storytelling devises is to use off-screen events that are alluded to indirectly but are central to the narrative. Oftentimes in his films, what happens off screen is more important that what happen on screen. At one point in the film Horikawa and his son are having a conversation about their ancestral home which they had just seen in passing. The son asked his father whether it still belonged to the family only to hear that his grandfather had sold it to provide for his father's education. This conversation is easily one of the most significant exchanges in the film, and happens almost so quickly that it appears to be unimportant.

This conversation though, points to a larger narrative that these two characters are joining in. They are part of a vicious cycle. The father only wants the best for his son, feeling that he himself wasted the investment made by his father in him. So instead of listening to his son's wishes to live together, he sends him to a boarding school and moves to Tokyo to pursue a better financial situation. The unseen grandfather had been a teacher of Chinese classics, Horikawa at the beginning of the film was a middle-school math teacher, by the end of the film, the son is a college-educated chemistry teacher--there is a sense in which Ozu begs the question whether the sacrifices were worth the moderate gains in social advancement.

The emotions in the film were muted, but hopeful--this may have had to do with the need to pass wartime censorship. The only copies we have of this film we now have were edited to remove any patriotic content after the war, so there are a few unnatural transitions.

This story is still poignant and relevant for modern Japan (and the West)--today, more than ever, there is a generational disconnect between parents and their children. The desire to provide good things for their children often pushes parents farther away from those that they want to ensure the future of. This is true at a societal level also--is our pursuit of progress actually undermining the most fundamental human institution, the family?

Ozu is distinctly Japanese--and unlike the films of Wes Anderson or other Western directors, there was no epiphany or resolution by the final curtain. The story was one of self-awareness on behalf of the audience. In fact, I was left with a nagging desire for more resolution and reconciliation by the end. I think that by not offering us a happy ending, Ozu actually accentuates the desire for one.

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