I expect Yasujirô Ozu’s movies to build slowly, almost imperceptibly to an emotional crescendo, accumulating everyday details about ordinary people in such a low-key, natural way that it’s a shock when you realize how much weight they’ve acquired. But even so, I Was Born, But… ambushed me. For the first two-thirds or so of this recently restored 1932 silent, I thought I was watching an engaging comic drama about how two little boys adjust to a new school and neighborhood after moving to the suburbs. Then the boys run up against the ironclad class system that oppresses their father and overshadows their own futures, and a very good film becomes great.
As always, Ozu helps us slide into the lives of his characters by literally adopting their perspectives, positioning his camera more or less at eye level. His framing situates Keiji (Tomio Aoki) and his older brother, Ryoichi (Hideo Sugarawa), in relation to each other, to other people, and/or to their environment, telling us much more about them than the close-ups that litter so many movies. There’s nothing showy to distract you either: The camera doesn’t move unless it needs to follow the characters somewhere. Instead, it just stays and watches telling scenes unfold, without condescension or exaggeration.
So the stakes are clear and the emotions vivid as the brothers fight a pack of local boys their own age (led by an older boy who bullies them all), then defeat the bully and take his place as the leaders of the pack. It’s interesting—and often funny—to watch them play hooky to avoid the gang or gulp down raw sparrows’ eggs for strength or do the full-body raised middle finger that Keiji does to people he has gotten one over on, twisting up his face, legs, and arms all at once. Also fascinating are the rituals and routines of the boys’ home, where their father stands in the living room every day after work, sheds his Western work clothes, and puts on a Japanese robe with their mother’s unobtrusive assistance. The dialogue is surprisingly good too, considering that this is a silent movie. Ozu uses his title cards artfully, showing us all we need to know with his camera so he can use the cards only for key bits of dialogue. And that dialogue feels as realistic and truthful as the visuals.
This is naturalism at its best: beautifully acted slices of life so richly textured they could keep you interested even if there were nothing more to the movie. But there’s always more with Ozu. With telling details, like the look the boys exchange when their father (the excellent Tatsuo Saito) scolds them while changing after work and they see how droopy his socks are, he pulls us into his characters’ inner lives as gently and surely as an expert fisherman reeling in his catch. By the time the boys discover the truth about their father’s subservient position at work, we know this family so well that their reaction to that discovery, and their parents’ reaction to their reaction, is deeply moving and fraught with drama (“You tell us to be become somebody, but you’re nobody!” says Ryoichi). There’s nothing cute or funny about that painful realization, and Ozu’s steady, sympathetic gaze gives it all the dignity it deserves.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.