By 1936, the year of Yasujirô Ozu’s first feature-length talkie, The Only Son, the mature filmmaker of late masterpieces like Tokyo Summer and Early Summer had become clearly recognizable, both from an aesthetic and thematic standpoint. As David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson explain on one of this set’s bonus features, Ozu’s earlier, silent work tended toward the comic and experimented with a range of styles—an impression confirmed by Criterion’s Eclipse series Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies. His 1936 offering, by contrast, finds the director in free command of his signature aesthetic (fixed-take camera setups often shot through windows and doorways; measured pacing, punctuated by silences and striking “empty” imagery) and already fully engaged with his signature themes (familial sacrifice and disappointment, resignation to one’s circumstances). (It should be noted that considering Bordwell and Thompson’s summary of his early work, the earlier set may be somewhat atypical of Ozu’s silent work in its focus on the family. One of the films in particular, I Was Born, But…, is a particularly bitter comedy, prefiguring the hard life lessons imparted in his later work.)
The Only Son opens with a quote from Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutogawa, “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child,” a motto easily applied to much of the director’s oeuvre. In this case the tragedy is one of sacrifice repaid by disappointment and set against the hard financial circumstances of Japan’s then contemporary depression. The film begins in 1923 in the rural province of Shinshu, as a single mother employed in a silk-weaving factory scrimps and saves to send her bright young son to Tokyo for his education, but most of the film takes place 13 years later as that mother, now further impoverished, pays a surprise visit to her son in the capital. The older woman, Otsune (Choko Iida), is in for several shocks. Not only has the now-grown boy, Ryosuke (Shinichi Himori), married and fathered a young son of his own, but in the desperate financial situation of the day, he’s unable to seek employment except as a night-school teacher who has to borrow from his colleagues to entertain his mother, while he lives in a house on the edge of an industrial wasteland, his peace continually interrupted by the metrical thud emanating from a nearby factory.
“I never thought I’d have to do this in Tokyo. But things turn out the way they will,” Ryosuke tells his mother, but the restrained look of disappointment that lines the actress’s face throughout the film makes clear Otsune’s inability to accept her son’s resignation to his lowly fate as a just return for her sacrifices. The unsaid becomes (partially) expressed in a pair of conversations: in the first, the film’s most visually striking sequence, the pair is framed against a smoke-spewing garbage incinerator set far in the background; the second unfolds as a domestic scene in which the tearful wife overhears their conversation from behind a screen. Eventually the reluctant mother goads her son to do better for himself, and thinking of his own “only son,” he vows to go back to school. But only a later act of generosity, in which the impoverished Ryosuke gives money to a neighbor whose child has been seriously injured, alters the mother’s opinion of her offspring.
Central to The Only Son is the recurring idea of being a “great man,” a concept that the film endows with a fair amount of ambiguity. In the early 1923 sequence, when the mother announces that she will make the necessary sacrifice to advance her son’s education, the tearful Ryosuke responds, “Just watch me, Ma, I’ll become a great man.” While by that phrase, he obviously means a financial success, Ozu suggests that there are other kinds of greatness. Though clearly a failure by societal standards, Ryosuke lives up to the youthful vow he made to his mother through a measure of moral greatness. After he gives the money to the neighbor, Otsune tells him how proud she is and when she returns to her hometown and tells a co-worker that her son has “become a great man,” her boast is only half a lie. And yet, man cannot live on ideals alone and Ozu’s fiercely materialistic film ends with an ambiguity born of the fact that for all his resolve Ryosuke may very well be unable to better himself and that, for all her pride in his moral qualities, Otsune really is disappointed with her son’s progress. The final image of the mother, a close-up registering her sadness and dissatisfaction as she sits outside the factory where she’s been reduced to working as a cleaning woman says more than any verbal outburst about how she regards her familial situation and her hope for the future.
In many ways, Ozu’s film of six years later, There Was a Father, seems to follow the same pattern as its 1936 predecessor. Like the earlier film, it concerns the sacrifice of a single parent (this time a father) for his only son, who ends up living apart from his old man. And like The Only Son, it begins while the main character is still a child before suddenly jumping forward a number of years as the boy becomes a man. (It also quotes several shots almost verbatim from the earlier film.) But the theme of disappointment in one’s child is conspicuously absent in the later work (the father’s final verdict on his son, “You’re a strong young man,” seems a genuine statement of approval), while the economic barriers imposed by Japan’s 1936 financial crisis no longer seem to hold. The question in the film is not whether parental sacrifice can ensure an economically sustainable life for the next generation (it can), but instead what the emotional costs of that sacrifice might be.
In the film’s opening sequence, popular teacher Mr. Horikawa (Ozu regular Chishū Ryū) takes a group of students on a field trip. When several sneak off to go boating, tragedy ensues as the craft capsizes and a child dies. Though he’s cleared of all responsibility, Horikawa blames himself and, feeling that he’s failed in his duty, quits teaching and moves to Tokyo to take an office job that, while allowing him to provide for his son Ryohei’s future, also ensures his separation from his boy.
As the son grows up and himself becomes a teacher, taking a job in the provinces that seems to fulfill his ambition, the separation becomes a lifelong state, a particularly keen disappointment to Ryohei whose dream had always been to reunite with his father. But when he tells his old man that he’s quitting his job to move to Tokyo to be with him, Horikawa objects, citing the importance of duty, of sticking to one’s job, no matter what it may be. While this talk of duty is clearly part of the film’s wartime moralizing (which is kept to a surprising minimum throughout), it also obviously represents some sort of penance on the part of the older man who never got over the death of his student and considers himself a failure as a teacher. Where the father has not succeeded, he explains, the son will.
So the two are reduced to very occasional meetings, filled mostly with silences that feel like the natural responses of two people who enjoy being together, rather than the awkward moments that pass between a couple who have nothing to say to each other. But the two encounters we see between father and son as adults—the second of which Ryohei calls “the best week of my life”—are suffused throughout with a melancholy that crops up in the pauses between words and which is echoed in a lengthy sequence in which former students take Horikawa and a fellow ex-teacher out for drinks and the older men are surprised to see the kids become men with families of their own.
Visualizing at once the bond and the separation between father and son, Ozu repeats an image from an earlier scene in which Horikawa and a pre-teen Ryohei go fishing together, their rods moving in a casual unison in the director’s fixed two-shot. When the two get together for a fishing expedition years later, Ozu gives us the same shot, but taken from a different angle, suggesting that, while they may still enjoy fishing together (and their rods still move as one), things can never be the same as when they lived in one household. As in the earlier scene, in which the father explains the necessity of their initial separation, the filmmaker breaks down the scene into alternate single shots of father and son. But whereas in that scene the individual images acted as a series of shot/reverse shots linking the two in conversation, and the encounter ended with the pair reunited in a two shot, in the later scene there’s no such connection. Instead Ozu gives us alternating views of father and son working quietly alone, their fishing no longer an act of unity, the separating cut which is never resolved into a master shot a definitive rupture that prefigures their final separation in death.
Thus, in Ozu, a film in which the characters succeed materially and outwardly live a satisfying life is suffused with the melancholy of separation, the loneliness that’s never expressed verbally, only in the faces of the characters and the way they’re framed against their environment. If there’s one thing Criterion’s new box set makes clear it’s that Ozu was elucidating these circumstances with consummate ease as early as 1936, even if this evocation wouldn’t reach its fullest flowering until the postwar years and the advent of devastating masterpieces like his 1949 triumph Late Spring.
Both films appear in new high-definition digital transfers made from 16mm fine-grain master positives. Since the original 35mm nitrate materials no longer exist, these are the best elements ever likely to surface and unfortunately, they’re filled with visual and audio imperfections such as splices, chemical stains, and, at times, a near constant hiss. None of these, however, should significantly decrease the viewer’s enjoyment of the film.
Relatively light for a Criterion issue, particularly a box set, but all the extras are valuable. The Only Son features two video interviews, the first with David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, which situates the film in Ozu’s oeuvre and offers useful interpretative insights, and the second with Tadao Sato, which provides helpful background on Japan’s financial situation in the mid ’30s. Bordwell and Thompson contribute another strong video interview to the There Was a Father disc. Each film also has a separate booklet, which contain two new essays by Tony Rayns, an appreciation of actor Chishū Ryū by Donald Richie, and remembrances by Ryu on working with Ozu.
Criterion has long shown its commitment to late Ozu. With this valuable release the picture widens.