Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The First Transition Week 2: I Was Born, But...

It’s taken some time, and much reconsideration, to dismiss (clarify?) some of the more prevalent misconceptions of Ozu’s work. We can forgive most of the early generalizations: that his films have no camera movement, that his stationary camera is always placed low to the ground in an imitation of a sitting position, that his films deal with family issues and middle class malaise, that he is so inherently Japanese (as opposed to say, Mizoguchi or Kurosawa) that his films are inappropriate/inaccessible to Western audiences and therefore rarely seen (Ozu was in fact quite enamored with American film, and it is generally accepted that Leo McCarey’s “Make Way For Tomorrow” was a primary inspiration for Ozu’s “breakthrough” film in the West, Tokyo Story; furthermore, to suggest that his films were “typically Japanese” neglects all sorts of social levels – where these unrepresented peoples “less” Japanese?). Early formulations on Ozu’s work were, obviously, largely shaped by a certain inaccessibility, with infrequent distribution in the West and gaping holes in between the works that were seen (critics were missing the connecting tissue, as it where). A quick perusal of my Ozu dvds confirm most of the above assumptions – the liner notes for Criterion’s Good Morning describes the film as “a wild card in his career… where he (Ozu) sees the world through children’s eyes” (in fact, Ozu is considered by many to be the best director of children in film, an opinion based on the dozen or so films he made from children’s points of view). The liner notes also make a broad assumption about the key motifs of the 50’s and 60’s, where his films were all about “the attempt by an aging parent to marry off a dutiful daughter…” Critic Michael Atkinson admits that “it’s a cliché now to posit Ozu as the “most Japanese” of that nation’s great directors, but it still seems true” while reinforcing himself the cliché that Ozu’s films are “zen-like”.

Now, with his reputation firmly established and more than a few works of intrepid scholarship (Donald Ritchie, frequently credited as Ozu’s key proponent, has revised much of his earlier formulations, see also Bordwell, Burch, Rosenbaum and Wood), several traveling retrospectives and a general tendency towards archival screenings, as well as the decent amount of films readily available on home video formats, we novices, the uninitiated, can finally come to grips with a large and varied body of work. Far from suggesting that I’m some sort of Ozu expert (I’ve only seen seven of his 50+ films), I am, instead, extremely excited to delve into that oeuvre.

I Was Born, But… seems only atypical if measured against the above (hopefully adequately refuted) presumptions. In actuality, it is a key early work that shows a director in total command of his visual vocabulary and social commentary – in short, it is a masterwork. The Yoshii family has moved out to the suburbs of Tokyo, presumably for the father to be closer to his boss and work (David Bordwell explains the term batsu: a clique of co-workers who also socialize in other aspects of life, forming a kind of familial unit based entirely around company life and the gradual accumulation of more status). The two Yoshii sons quickly become entangled with the local bully and his little mob. Hoping to avoid a fight, the sons skip school and forge an assignment, only to have a teacher report back to their father that they were not in class. Eventually forced to return to school, the Yoshii boys (with the help of an older delivery boy) vanquish the bully and take control of the little gang. From their new found position of power, the boys are shocked to see their father bowing (subjugating) himself to the boss (who’s son is the tiniest member of the gang). While viewing home movies one evening, the Yoshii boys see footage of their father acting like a clown for the boss’ amusement. Angered by their father’s embarrassing play-acting, the boys go on a hunger strike. The next morning, they eventually succumb to hunger and break bread with their father. Familial unity has been restored. And yet still there is unease.

My efforts at plot synopsis are hopelessly inadequate to confer even part of the humor, sensitivity and subversive nature of the film. I Was Born, But… is essentially an examination of social power struggles. The father’s position at work is constantly juxtaposed with/commented on by the sons’ struggles with the local bully. In the children’s world, order and regimentation are based on quantifiable, tangible abilities – size, strength, speed. When the Yoshii son’s realize that they can’t best the bully, they make the logical conclusion to find someone bigger than themselves (the older delivery boy) to fight fort hem. But the father’s world is ruled by status and money – abstract ideas to these small boys who are convinced that, since their father is the “greatest”, he should grovel to no one. Ozu positions both ideas, concrete/intangible, into a kind of dialectic of power – a position articulated by an astounding sequence that segues into an astonishing camera movement. In the school courtyard, a large group of boys are (arranged in what looks like a military formation) doing their morning exercises. As the formation carries out its movements, Ozu gets some laughs from a boy who just can’t seem to stay in step with the group, turning left while the others turn right and so on. The boys are then arranged into a single file line, and as they turn to march off screen to the left, the camera begins a lateral tracking movement to the right. As it tracks, the scene cuts (almost seamlessly, an astounding technical achievement); the camera now moves across a row of men seated at desks in an office. We pass a series of these men before the camera stops and tracks back the way it came, resting momentarily on a man struggling to stay awake. It lingers for just a moment before restarting its path towards the boss’ office. The young boy who so amusingly could not keep up with his fellow students is now linked visually to the tired office worker – what was for a moment funny is now, retrospectively, a depressing projection into the future of this boy/man who will never be able to follow in step with his surroundings. Furthermore, the scene links the notion of rigid formation and following orders from the school yard to the office, a dire trajectory for the Yoshii boys. Later in the film, as the parents lament their own failures and wonder aloud if their children will succeed where they have not, we think back to this defining scene in the film and realize the full weight of what the children are struggling against. Paternal authority haunts the school yard, the play ground, and the office. Indeed, the unease at the end of the film, despite the reconstitution of the family, is the underlining sense that the powerful social dynamics of the capitalized world have been laid bare. If nothing has really changed, there is in fact, a sense that the boys have willfully accepted the need to subjugate oneself in order to survive (as the father tries to explain, with increasing frustration, that the boss is the one who pays him and allows the boys to go to school).
Critic Gabe Klinger filled in for Rosenbaum on this screening (Rosenbaum was attending TIFF) and made some cursory introductory remarks culled mostly from Rosenbaum’s essay entitled “Is Ozu Slow?”. I offer here some of what Gabe read aloud, as well as a bit more context from the essay itself:
“Stockhausen has the following to say about what he calls Japanese timing: "Where timing is concerned, the European is absolutely mediocre. Which means he has settled down somewhere in the middle of his range of potential tempi. It is a very narrow range, compared with the extremely fast reactions that a Japanese [person] might have at a certain moment, and to the extremely slow reaction that he might show on another occasion. He has a poor middle range compared to the European." Stockhausen also implies that this distinction is in danger of being effaced or at least eroded by the Westernization and Americanization of Japan. This is a delicate matter, because we know from the persuasive arguments in Shigehiko Hasumi's book on Ozu, Yasujiro Ozu (available in its entirety only in Japanese and French, though the beautiful final chapter, "Sunny Skies," can be found in David Desser's 1997 collection of critical pieces devoted to Tokyo Story published by Cambridge University Press), that Ozu's work also reflects to some degree the impact of America on Japanese culture. But because Hasumi is a Japanese critic looking at American influence and I'm an American critic looking at Japanese elements, we see things with a somewhat different emphasis. In any case, I would like to suggest--and this is my second hypothesis--that the fast reactions in Japanese spectators implied in Ozu's filmmaking practice often correspond to standing and walking, and that the slow reactions implied in his filmmaking practice often correspond to sitting.”

He goes further regarding, specifically, I Was Born, But…

“… this is a film in which social behavior and social conditioning are at least as important as reflection, and the issue of speed is relevant to all three activities. Early in the film, after the boys skip school out of fear of getting beaten up and have their lunch in the field, one of the brothers reminds the other, "We're supposed to get an A in writing today." Soon afterwards they both stand up to finish their lunch on their feet, an action which implies, as much else in the film does, that getting ahead in the world requires alertness and motion, both of which are usually more obtainable from a standing position.”

He concludes his essay with:

“One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that speed is relative--all the more so in a film where coexistence and relativity are central to the style as well as the subject. For this reason, we can't answer the question, "Is Ozu slow?" in a single way. The work is too rich and too varied for such a question to have any meaning. Indeed, it's part of the function of the greatest artists to dissolve such questions, or at the very least transform them into other questions. For what finally matters most in Ozu is not how slow or fast he is but how slow or fast we are in keeping up with him.”

You can read the entire essay here – I would recommend it, as Rosenbaum’s analysis of the above mentioned tracking shot clarifies and enhances my own thoughts on the matter

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