A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, July 2, 2016

I Was Born, But.... (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

Hideo Sugawara, Seiichi Kato, and Tomio Aoki in I Was Born, But....
The family was source and inspiration for many of Ozu's greatest films, but he often focused on the problems caused by the elders in a family, as in Tokyo Story (1953) and The End of Summer (1961). The family is supposedly the basic element in society, but Ozu's films often show how society itself strains familial relationships: In those films and others by Ozu, elders who have outgrown their usefulness can become obstacles to a family's ongoing concerns about fitting into and making a way in the larger society. I Was Born, But.... turns things around by focusing on children, whose self-centeredness can be as troublesome to the family dynamic as that of the very old. Ozu's films are about expectations that can never be quite fulfilled, and in no part of life are expectations more important than childhood. That makes the film sound more grimly serious than it is, for on the surface I Was Born looks an awful lot like American-style comic films about kids -- the Our Gang and Little Rascals comedies, for example. It focuses on Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) and his younger brother, Keiji (Tomio Aoki), who have just moved to the suburbs with their father, Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito), and mother, Haha (Mitsuko Yoshikawa). The boys are unhappy with the move, partly because the local kids bully them as newcomers, but also because Ryoichi in particular resents Yoshi's expectations that he'll get high marks in school. Eventually, after playing hooky and being scolded, they begin to adjust, and Ozu's picture of boyhood becomes lighter and more amusing. We see them adapting to their new corner of society: They overcome the bullies and make friends with Taro (Seiichi Kato), who just happens to be the son of Yoshi's boss. But then Taro lets them come over to his house on an evening when his father is showing home movies to Yoshi and some other employees, and Ryoichi and Keiji are embarrassed when some of the films show their father making funny faces and clowning for the boss and co-workers. It's an eye-opener for Ryoichi especially, who becomes aware of his father's place in the corporate hierarchy. Back home, he demands to know why his father isn't a corporate executive instead of a middle manager, and Yoshi is hard-pressed to explain this particular fact of life. The boys pitch a tantrum -- Keiji always following his older brother's lead -- and Yoshi spanks Ryoichi, only making matters worse. By the film's end, the boys and their parents have reconciled, but one senses that everyone has learned one of those lessons that only life can teach. I Was Born, But.... is one of Ozu's late silent films, and it's masterly in provoking serious thought about a near-universal experience while being engagingly entertaining. It's also very much of its pre-World War II time. Perhaps only in hindsight do audiences notice the hints of Japanese militarism in the story: the military-style drills that the small boys undergo at school, and the fact that when Yoshi asks his sons what they want to do when they grow up, they want to be generals. The performances of the young actors are extraordinary, as is the cinematography of Hideo Shigehara.

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