In Yasujirô Ozu’s silent I Was Born, But…, businessman Kennosuke (Tatsuo Saito) relocates to the Tokyo suburbs with his wife and rambunctious two sons, earning his keep from the father of his children’s schoolyard bully, and providing an authoritative, seasoned voice in a film that lovingly puts childhood in sobering contact with adult life. The two brothers (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara) are a curious pair: Reverent toward their elders, but disappointed by what they consider their father’s undue workplace subordination, the young Keji and Ryoichi are the wide-eyed, sometimes garrulous and stubborn counterpoints to Kennosuke’s own experiences as a man who’s already come of age. But coming of age, as Ozu shows us, is an experience without clearly identifiable points of origin or closure; it’s meant to be struggled with, argued for and against, debated with, resisted and seduced by, repudiated and advocated for. In I Was Born, But…, it’s an experience that sticks.
Released in 1932, Ozu’s film achieves its careful, tender variation of the coming-of-age story without ever smacking of sentimental platitudes. Its success as a portrait of adulthood from afar—and its interest in what happens when children have their first, mollifying glimpses of adult life—is one effect of its honesty and graciousness as an ongoing cross-examination between two different generations, moving across perspectives in ways that parallel the altitude shifts of Ozu’s camera. (And what a helpful camera it is; for a quick taste, one only has to watch as an image of chatting businessmen at their work desks is linked by a tracking shot to a cutaway of schoolchildren in their classroom seats. Like the trolleys and automobiles that frequently move across the top and bottom of Ozu’s frames in slivers, these are persons and places that exist in tandem.) In one of the film’s finest moments, watch as the chubby faces of Keji and Ryoichi react to images of their father as he playfully crosses his eyes and grimaces for a home-movie camera; the man up there on the screen is suddenly not the same man that the two young brothers thought their father was—or ought to be. “Why do you make a fool of yourself for Iwasaki?” Kennosuke’s sons want to know regarding their father’s relationship with his boss. It’s perhaps the first time these children have understood that their exemplars are not always exemplary, that their elders, too, are messy, childish, and dependent, in search of answers of their own.
By the end, this messiness, childishness, dependency, uncertainty (call it what you will), is what gives Ozu’s film its richness as a coming-of-age picture of sorts, one sustained by the collision of different values and ideals that, regardless of the characters and their ages, all ineluctably share the same experience: getting older. We have role models, but they’re imperfect; we have goals (the two brothers tell their father they’d like to be army generals), but we have very little control over our futures; we were born, but we get older, too.