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Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Yasujirô Ozu’s first sound film is a bit stiff at the joints and the poor condition of the surviving picture elements add bumps to the pacing, but there’s no use pretending this is anything but another masterwork from the great man. The film opens with a quote that might be Ozu’s motto, ‘Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent & child.’ And so it proves in this quietly devastating story about a struggling widow who labors away in a silk thread factory to send her only son off to middle-school in Tokyo. After this prologue, we skip ahead 13 years as Mom visits her son after so many years to find he lives on the barren outskirts of Tokyo with a wife & infant son she didn’t even know of. It’s a dreary life, yet he can barely afford it on his under-paying job as a night-school math teacher. Not much to show for a mother's sacrifice. It sounds like a depressing kitchen-sink sort of drama, yet Ozu finds touches of humor & humanism wherever he looks and fills his frame with moments of ‘found’ beauty in his unique handling of composition & landscape. The blunt confrontation Ozu makes with character & story, his honest artistic response, make everything he touches a pleasure to watch and helps you believe in the story's modest epiphanies. Of course, it’s beautifully acted by all, the kids are marvels of naturalism, and there's a whiff of uplift & hope to ease the ending. Watch for an early standout perf from Ozu regular Chishû Ryû as the revered teacher who winds up running a pork cutlet take-out joint. Typically indispensable; the film, not the cutlet.

NOTE: No posters seem to survive, so here’s one from Willi Forst’s LEISE FLEHEN MEINE LIEDER/’33 which Ozu excerpts for a scene where Son takes Mom to see a newfangled Talkie. (She falls asleep.) Anthony Asquith adapted it for English release as UNFINISHED SYMPHONY/’34.

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