One of the best Japanese directors you may or may not have heard of, Yasujiro Ozu began his career in 1927 working as an assistant cameraman for Shochiku Studios and he directed his first film in the same year. He has been called the “most Japanese” director because his films have virtually no Western influence. In fact, until his death in 1963 most of his films had never been seen outside of Japan.
In 1934 Yasujiro Ozu directed A Story of Floating Weeds, a black and white silent film made in the era of sound. Similar to Charlie Chaplin, Ozu didn’t jump into sound when it first came to the movie industry. He wanted to wait until the sound technology improved from its infancy. Twenty-five years later Ozu would remake his own film, simply titled Floating Weeds.
Floating Weeds (1959) is about a troupe of traveling kabuki actors that have returned to perform in a small seaside village for the first time in twelve years. The leader of the troupe, Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) goes to visit his former mistress Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) with whom he has a son. Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) does not know that Komajuro is his father, having been told that his father died, and Komajuro wants to keep it that way. However the troupe’s lead actress and Komajuro’s current mistress Sumiko (Machiko Kyo) discovers the family’s secret. Sumiko shows up to Oyoshi’s sake bar and attempts to speak to Kiyoshi. Enraged, Komajuro tells Sumiko to never go back there, and then breaks things off with her. Sumiko, now seeking revenge, asks young actress Kayo (Ayako Wakao) to seduce Kiyoshi, even going so far as to pay Kayo to do it.
Time passes and interest in the troupe’s show is steadily declining. The manager has run off with the troupe’s money, stranding them in the village. Komajuro has continued to visit with Oyoshi and Kiyoshi, although Kiyoshi has been secretly seeing Kayo. Komajuro learns of the affair and confronts Kayo, who tells him of Sumiko’s betrayal. He argues with Sumiko but Komajuro realizes there is nothing he can do about the relationship between his son and the young actress. Sullen over the events that have led to this point, Komajuro disbands the troupe and sells off their costumes and props.
Komajuro goes back to see Oyoshi and she invites him to stay with her and be a father to Kiyoshi. He agrees, but is now getting angry when his son has not returned home. When Kiyoshi does finally come home Kayo is with him. Komajuro beats Kayo and Kiyoshi then strikes his father. In a final, explosive confrontation, Kiyoshi is told the truth about his father by Oyoshi, who defends his absence over the years by rationalizing that Komajuro wanted something better for his son than becoming a traveling actor.
In the end, Komajuro decides to leave and start up a new acting troupe. He asks Oyoshi to let him leave as the boy’s uncle one last time. Kayo asks to go with him but Komajuro asks Oyoshi to look after her and tells Kayo to help make Kiyoshi into a great man. Komajuro sits in the waiting room of the train station and Sumiko approaches him to try to mend their relationship. He invites Sumiko to go with him and start over.
What I found surprising after viewing both films back to back was that the story had largely remained the same. Ozu had a vision with his movie in 1934 and he stayed true to that vision over the years. He co-wrote the screenplay for Floating Weeds and just about all of the dialogue from A Story of Floating Weeds remains. There is an additional forty minutes to the 1959 remake but this is due to an expansion of the original dialogue to further make Ozu’s point. Aside from the original film being a black and white silent film compared to the color and sound in the remake, there are a couple of other minor differences. The character names were all changed for Floating Weeds, and the stage manager who stole the troupe’s money didn’t exist in the original film.
As with most of Ozu’s films, A Story of Floating Weeds and its faithful remake Floating Weeds deal with the disillusionment with the Japanese family and the constant tension between traditional and modern societal trends. The disillusionment is clear in the makeup of this particular family. There is never a marriage between Komajuro and Oyoshi even though they had a child together. However, they lie to the boy and everyone in the village by saying the child’s father died. Oyoshi does not seem disturbed in the least by the way her relationship with Komajuro has gone. When Kiyoshi finally discovers the truth of his parentage he is very upset at having not had a father who was there for him. Kiyoshi has become disillusioned. Oyoshi then attempts to defend Komajuro’s actions; but was it solely for her son’s benefit? And Komajuro has such a huge ego that he is angry that when he does finally attempt to act as a father, Kiyoshi becomes upset. In the end Komajuro leaves, as he always did, but why? Is it embarrassment over the family’s reality? He does tell Oyoshi to allow him to leave as Uncle, one last time. Komajuro seems to have no regrets when it comes to leaving behind Oyoshi and his son.
As for tradition versus modernity, this comes into play once again with the family dynamic. Komajuro has planned his son’s life—even paying for his schooling. Komajuro sees his son’s involvement with an actress of questionable morals as ruining everything. Kiyoshi and Kayo have fallen in love and that is all they see, though Kayo does attempt to push her suitor away, saying she is no good for him. Traditionally the parents would have decided the child’s path in life, including marriage. The young couple decides they can choose for themselves. In Floating Weeds the young lovers have chosen to elope without anyone’s blessing. There is a conversation that solidifies this point between father and son. Komajuro expects Kiyoshi to stay with his mother but Kiyoshi says it would be fine if he left home. This conversation also mirrors Komajuro’s attitude about leaving his family.
One aspect of Ozu’s films that can be seen in both of these films is how he uses the camera. There are no panning shots….in fact, the camera movement is non-existent in Story and in Floating Weeds, we see it only in the opening scene when the old boat is making its way into the harbor. The overall shots are kept very low to the floor, giving a different perspective to the viewer. Another aspect of Ozu’s work that I really enjoy is how the camera faces the speaker and appears to the viewer as though they were part of the conversation.
Overall, both films should be sought out. I viewed them one after the other and it was an amazing experience. The films are subtle in their delivery, but the story is a powerful one. As for the 1959 Floating Weeds, the entire film looks as though it were filmed with watercolors. There is a larger scope to the shots of the village and its surrounding areas. While A Story of Floating Weeds in 1934 was a quietly beautiful film, Ozu’s remake is grander in scale, but no less beautiful and thoughtful. I encourage everyone to view both of these films, and then move on to more of Ozu’s work. He is a filmmaker to be admired.