January 9, 2014
I Was Born, But… – Japan, 1932
Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… is a curious film. A family comedy predominately about the exploits of two young children recently transplanted to the countryside, it contains elements of both drama and social commentary. It also contains what is perhaps the most peculiar opening credit art I have ever seen. As the names of the cast and crew appear on the screen, they do so in front of an oil painting of a startled young man popping out of a budding leaf naked. In fact, if not for his conveniently positioned hands, the sight may have caused quite an unintended commotion. What the art work has to do with the story, I can only speculate, but it seems to reflect the lead characters’ growing awareness of the world and all of its complexities.
The film is told almost exclusively from the point of view of the two children. For much of the film, we see them doing normal everyday kid activities – eating with their parents, playing outside, looking for mischief. We also see them have the kinds of experiences that all parents hope their children are spared from. These involve dealing with the school bully – or bullies – and coping with teachers who do not appear either friendly or overly concerned. In fact, their entire teaching philosophy seems to resolve around discipline and punishment, and as we see time and time again, the students have very little respect for these methods.
In the first half of the film, Ozu devotes a great deal of time to the children and only tangentially to their parents. This creates the impression that very little of significance is happening in the adult world. Yet it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Ozu’s work that these early scenes end up being enormously important as the film progresses. They are part of the films broader social commentary on a country whose elite lord over regular people as if they exist solely for their amusement. In fact, there is little evidence that anyone not born into the upper class has any chance of upward mobility.
The two brothers are played by Hideo Sugawara and Tomio Aoki, and it is uncanny how similar they look, especially in their matching outfits and identical mannerisms. Ryoichi is the bolder of the two, and when his brother, Miyoko, returns home in tears, Ryoichi marches him back to the band of bullies and demands to know who is responsible for his brother’s pain. It is clear that Ozu intends these two boys to be the film’s protagonists, and yet the film seems blissfully ignorant of the fact that through the course of the film the bullied actually become the bullies. And there are key moments in the film when it is easier to sympathize with the former bullies than the new ones.
The parents are played by Tatsuo Saito and Mitsuko Yoshikawa. Yoshikawa does not have much to do in the film, but there’s a nice moment toward the end when she is able to show off her acting skills. For his part, Saito lends a sturdy presence to the film, just as his character, Yoshi, provides stability for his family and a decency that is meant to inspire in his children the desire to excel both academically and morally. However, during several key scenes, Yoshi’s frustrations are unleashed, and the audience is made to understand the level of the man’s anger and pain. Saito plays these moments perfectly, and it is plain to see that Yoshi expected more out of life.
The film hits its emotional high point after an early version of home movie night, During that scene, several adult males sit on long couches and watch their boss’s latest home movies. It says something that one of the reels contains images of one of them approaching and flirting with two geisha on the street. Seated next to the unsuspecting film subject while these images appear on the screen is the man’s wife, and his boss’s utter nonchalance toward their feelings at that moment speaks volumes. I will not reveal the images that follow, except to say they cause Yoshi great embarrassment and his children, who are watching enthusiastically from the back of the room, great shame. It is in the scenes that follow that Ozu unveils the boys’ final lesson about the real world.
I Was Born, But… is not a film that pretends that society’s injustices can be solved in ninety minutes, and it does not have answers to the bullying, classism, and occasional hopelessness that it focuses a lens on. Instead, its characters are left with both resignation and a glimmer of hope that fate will be kinder to the children than it was to many of their parents. Writing this, I feel I have given the impression that the film is all gloom and doom, completely void of humor and wit. In fact, nothing could be further than the truth, for the first half is filled with warmth, wit, and a great deal of laughs. Like life itself, the film has an equal amount of joy and drama, and, while the film was not quite as enjoyable as some of Ozu’s later films, I for one was quite happy that it did. (on DVD as part of Eclipse Series 10: Silent Ozu – Three Family Comedies)
*I Was Born, But… is silent with English intertitles.