April 19, 2018
The Only Son – Japan, 1936
Taisho period writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa is perhaps best known as the author of the short story “In a Grove,” which would eventually be adapted by Akira Kurosawa and given the title of Akutagawa’s 1915 short story, Rashomon. Sadly, Akutagawa lived just 35 years, and during his final few, he is said to have worried incessantly that he had inherited his mother’s mental disorder. At the same time, he was also experiencing hallucinations and severe bouts of nervousness. Japanese audiences in 1936 would likely have recognized the name and remembered his struggles, so when they saw the quote that introduces Yasujiro Ozu’s 1936 film, The Only Son, they would likely have been prepared for the kind of story that followed it, and the quote is important. It foreshadows the mood and events depicted onscreen, and, perhaps most importantly, it allows viewers to assess the characters properly. Here’s the quote: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” Let that sink in for a moment.
Ozu’s film is primarily the story of Tsune Nonmiya (Choko Iida), a poor widow in Shinshu, Japan, and her son, Ryosuke (Shin’ichi Himori). In the film’s opening scenes, we see and feel what it is like to live in Shinshu – the scorching heat, the dry, desert land, and the mundane, repetitive feel that can accompany a textile job. When a character says that there is no economic future there, we have already witnessed the truth behind the sentiment. It’s no surprise then to hear Tsune declare her intention to do whatever it takes to put him through school. For Ryosuke, this means hope; for his mother, extreme sadness, long working days, and great loneliness, as Ryosuke’s school is in Tokyo.
From there, the film flashes forward twelve years, and we witness a short conversation between Tsune and one of her co-workers. It is noteworthy because in her comments, she praises her son and glows with pride when relating the fact that he has a job in Tokyo. She is even planning to visit. A year later, she makes good on her words, and we see mother and son sitting in a cab together, both of their faces beaming with joy and pride. Look closely, though. Hers is real, his forced.
In this contrast, we see one of the film’s recurring themes – that painful truths are often masked through positive facial expressions, sweet-sounding words, and cultural niceties. In The Only Son, the same wide, strained smile appears on the faces of Ryosuke, Tsune, one of Ryosuke’s former teachers, and a few others we meet. What these characters all have in common is that they are reflecting the burdens put on them by both society and themselves. Society expects to hear great things about those that have an education and live in the city; people want to be able to tell stories that give both them and their siblings honor; and they also want to believe that their efforts have not been in vain. So, they put on a show; looks of contentment adorn their faces, and words of confidence and aspiration spill out of their mouths. Ozu intends for us to identify these scenes as false. It made me wonder, though, whether people interpret them as such in real life.
Interestingly, Ozu does not include any scenes in the more touristy parts of Tokyo. For example, we hear, but do not see, that Ryosuke took his mother to popular areas like Ueno, and this is a wise move. Ozu likely knew that showing those places would alter the audience’s impression of Tokyo, shifting it from slightly negative to rather upbeat, and what Ozu wants Tokyo to represent is an enigma, a towering economic powerhouse that crushes just as many dreams as it makes comes true. It is a city that inspires confidence in oneself – perhaps even overconfidence – only to dash it for those who expect life to be easy instantly. And it is these shattered hopes that can lead to withdrawal. Ozu shows us this in the images that adorn the walls of Ryosuke’s small home and in the movie that he takes his mother to. Instead of being famous icons from Japan, it is Western ones, and the film they watch together is German. It’s telling that Ryosuke watches it wide-eyed, while Tsune has to keep herself from nodding off.
Ozu is sometimes accused of repeating himself, and there are things in The Only Son that re-appear in later films. For instance, Ozu returned to the notion of parents being separated from the children in 1942’s There Was a Father, and in Tokyo Story, a parental visit yields far more disappointment than joy. In The Only Son, Ozu also uses familiar camera angles, again placing the camera further away, giving the audience the feeling that they are on the outside looking in. However, it is the details of each of his films that truly separates them. Here, we are shown what happens when reality doesn’t match our expectations and when survival entails brushing off one defeat and rushing head on toward the next potential one. Survival can sometimes demand this of us, but it is unclear at the end of the film whether anyone has it in them to do it.
The Only Son is a moving film, filled with heart-breaking characters and impressive performances. It tells a fascinating story that made me think about my own family and the times when I have either balked at sharing something or received support that didn’t ring entirely true. In other words, The Only Son touches on universal themes, and therefore, in spite of its subtitles, it is accessible to people from all backgrounds. If I have one quibble with the film, it is its repeated long shots of Ryosuke’s apartment and his home’s surroundings. Some of these are important symbolically, for they establish the area’s status as economically disadvantaged; others, however, can come across as time killers, and many go on a bit too long. A minor complaint about a film that is thought-provoking and poignant. It is not one I’m likely ever to forget. (On DVD from the Criterion Collection)
3 and a half stars
*The Only Son is in Japanese with English subtitles.