January 23, 2014
Passing Fancy – Japan, 1933
Yasujiro Ozu’s charming 1933 film Passing Fancy begins in a small performance hall where a crowd of mostly men are sitting and listening to a man sing a narrative tale that they have all likely heard before, yet can’t wait to hear again. Such was the esteem that people had for the combination of oral tradition and the stories of old. One of the men present is there with his son, who rests peacefully in his father’s lap. During what the father thinks is the best part of the story, he tries in vain to wake his son up. Let him sleep, another patron tells him. Kids don’t care about these stories. He’s right, of course. The live performance would eventually be eclipsed by silent motion pictures, these films by ones with sound, black and white films by those in color, and ones about real people in real situations by those loaded from head to toe with special effects. As I watched the scene, I could sense that Ozu was making one of those “insider” winks at the audience, and I couldn't help wondering how many people in 1933 caught it. After all, the sound era had already come to North America, and it would soon hit Japan as well.
But I digress. Passing Fancy is not about the movies or 20th century changes. Rather, it is about a poor father and son, played by Takeshi Sakamoto and Tomio Aoki respectively, living in Tokyo. To get an understanding of their personalities, it may help to think of the stereotypical characteristics of a father and a third grader and reverse them, for while there is every indication that the father, Kihachi, is the kind of guy who would be the life of a party, he is far from being an ideal parent. In fact, his parenting style seems to consist of two approaches: hitting and scolding. In an early scene, we watch as the boy, Tomio, assumes the role of the parent: waking up on time, cajoling his father out of bed after a night of drinking with his good friend Jiro, and making sure his father and his friend leave for work in a timely manner. He does this by swatting his father’s leg with a rather large stick, a technique common among those silent films used to convey comedy. It is less funny here than it might be in a pure comedy.
The first half of the film details Kihachi’s romantic pursuit of a young woman named Harue (Nobuko Fushimi) who is particularly down on her luck. After securing her a place to stay, he begins to envision the two of them as potential man and wife and starts spending more money on her than a single father on a small income should. For her part, Harue is grateful, yet she begins referring to Kihachi as “uncle,” a moniker that immediately conveys her lack of romantic feelings toward him. At the same time, Harue develops a crush on Jiro, who goes out of his way to be distant and rude. Normally, this would be a sure sign of disinterest, but we immediately sense it is a show of respect for Kihachi. After all, true friends don’t pursue women their friends are pursuing. The second half of the film involves Kihachi’s attempts to be both a good father and a responsible citizen, and neither of these roles comes easy to him. He lacks the maturity and common sense needed to be that kind of parent, and his version of accountability seems to involve running away from one responsibility to take care of another one.
The film is both sweet and frustrating. I enjoyed watching Kihachi’s ill-fated pursuit of Harue, yet disliked how little time was spent establishing the mutual interest of the two characters. The audience is just expected to take it on faith that an attachment has formed. More believable is the relationship between Kihachi and the owner of the restaurant he frequents daily, Otome, played by veteran actress Choko Iida. The two of them exchange witty banter that reveals a level of familiarity and kinship that is somewhat rare between characters such as these. In a film from another country, they likely would have ended up together. Here, given their culture and traditions, that may not be possible. But who knows? Passing Fancy is the first of four films featuring Kihachi, so there’s still hope.
As much as there is to like about Passing Fancy, the film is unfortunately an example of a lesser Ozu film. The pacing of the film seems slightly off, its comic moments are not as humorous as they could be, and it relies too heavily on the sudden hospitalization of the child, one of those tried-and-true staples of the family drama, to move the story and its characters along. Here, it seems forced, which is regrettable because it follows one of the more emotional moments I’ve seen in an Ozu film. During that scene, things come to a head between father and son, and the son’s reaction is truly heartbreaking. Another particularly moving moment involves a visit by Tomio’s teacher, who tries to inspire strength in Tomio by expressing his desire to see him “grow into a great man.” It is a reminder of the esteem that teachers have in some cultures and that some would say is sadly in decline. Great moments such as these ensure that Passing Fancy is immensely watchable and interesting. The film just never quite rises beyond that. (on DVD as part of Eclipse Series 10 - Silent Ozu: Three Family Dramas)
*Passing Fancy is silent with English intertitles.