Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Film Reviews: A Story of Floating Weeds & Floating Weeds

"A Story of Floating Weeds"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

The mother. She sits and waits patiently. She never complains. She smiles when she sees the man. She eagerly serves him sake. It isn't much but it makes her happy.

Oddly enough she is not the focal character in Yasujiro Ozu's classic silent film, "A Story of Floating Weeds" (1934) yet there she sits, stealing our attention, gaining our sympathy.

The movie is about the man, an actor who leads a traveling theatre troupe. His name is Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto). He returns to a small quiet town, after a four year absence. If things go well and his play is a hit, he plans to stay for about a year. Kihachi has other motives for wanting to stay in the town. For here is where an old lover lives, Otsune (Chouko Iida) and her son, Shinkichi (Hideo Mitsui). Unknown to the son, Kichachi is the boy's father, but, out of shame of his profession, he has never told Shinkichi, in the hopes he would go to school and make something of himself. Instead Kihachi is presented as the carefree uncle.

Is there still love between Kihachi and Otsune? The movie doesn't explore that issue. The two appear as a comfortable couple. Time has not altered their relationship. The viewer senses the couple picks up where they left off. Otsune holds no bitterness towards Kihachi. She never complains that he abandoned her and their son. The deeper question is not are they still in love but are they happy in their individual lives? Kihachi says he is not lonely. He is dating an actress in the troupe, Otaka (Rieko Yagumo). But what about Otsune? Her feelings are never stated but her face says it all.

As seen in so many American movies, "A Story of Floating Weeds" is a story about the sacrifices parents make in order to give their children a better life. Because it was directed by Yasujiro Ozu is it also about family as a unit, tradition and changing values.

Although I haven't spent as much time as I should discussing the work of Ozu, he was one of the premier Japanese filmmakers in his day. I previously reviewed my favorite of his films, "Late Spring" (1949) but have neglected reviewing the rest of his work.

Unlike his contemporary, Akira Kurosawa, Ozu didn't enjoy cross over success with American audiences. Ozu's films weren't released in America until the 1960s. For Americans Ozu's films were considered "too Japanese". Keeping with his cultural, Ozu created the "tatami shot" due to his keeping the camera low, at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat. In this respect, Ozu is creating a theatrical experience, making his camera an objective observe, sitting watching a movie. Ozu was also known for not moving his camera, although you will see a tracking shot in this movie.

Initially Ozu directed silent comedies but gradually turned towards drama, showing the pleasures of every day life. Some film historians cite "A Story of Floating Weeds" as the beginning of Ozu's more mature direction.

For a filmmaker not considered "Western", "A Story of Floating Weeds" could have easily been an American film noir. Otaka finds out Kihachi secret and becomes jealous. She threatens to tell Shinkichi the truth about who his father is. She vows revenge against Kihachi and one way or another will get even with him. However, don't mistake this movie for a Raymond Chandler mystery. "A Story of Floating Weeds" moves at a slow, deliberate pace. The movie is interested in the characters and their relationships not creating suspense.

"Floating Weeds"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Ozu would revisit this material twenty plus years later and shorten the title to "Floating Weeds" (1959). It too is a wonderful film worthy of any movie lovers' attention.

This was not uncommon for Ozu, whose films often shared similar plots and similar sounding titles. His other films include "An Autumn Afternoon" (1962), "Early Summer" (1951) and "Late Spring". Each is about a father or both parents, trying to find a husband for their daughter. However, "Floating Weeds" is the only "official" remake Ozu directed.

Immediately the audience will notice obvious differences. The remake uses bright colors whereas the original was shot in black & white. The location has changed to a seaside village. There is more humor in this story. And, the running time is longer, 33 minutes to be exact.

There is still the woman, sitting, smiling, serving the man sake, but, perhaps because of the cinematography and bright colors, the story no longer seems as sad and dramatic. In fact, I had a nice warm feeling as I watched the movie. I felt happy.

At times "Floating Weeds" feels like a sequel, a continuation of "A Story of Floating Weeds". Having seen both movies back to back, I felt the remake was making references to the 34 version. The first time the aging theatre troupe act, now called Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), visits Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), she asks him how are his shoulders, that he had previously complained about the last time they saw each other. In the earlier version Kihachi talks about his shoulders. Also in the earlier version the actor and the boy go fishing. Here too they go fishing but refer to prior times going fishing.

In the fishing scene Ozu hits on the theme of changing times as the two discuss acting. Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), the son, criticizes Komajuro's acting as "old-fashion", to which the father takes offense. A younger public may not appreciate his acting style but Komajuro insist his audiences is older and understand his style. Indicating, some of us just can't let go of the past and adapt to modern changes.

This version of "Floating Weeds" was my introduction to the work of Ozu and turned me into a fan ever since. Now that I have seen the silent version, I must confess I find that to be the better version because of the more dramatic impact of the story.

In the end we are still watching drifters, like floating weeds, searching for permanence, adapting to their surroundings.