Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Review – Floating Weeds

August 6, 2008

Floating Weeds – Japan, 1959

If Yosujiro Ozu’s 1934 film A Story of Floating Weeds is a look at a man whose life is changed by fate, its 1959 reimagining Floating Weeds is a look at a man whose life is changed by the passage of time. The appreciation for traditional art and diligence seen in the original is replaced by disinterest and feelings of irrelevance. Instead of discussing how excited they are to see Kabuki theatre, as they do in the original, the townspeople speak of their preference for other forms of entertainment. One man in particular explains that he liked the traveling strip show that came recently. Many of the local women either have no interest in Kabuki theatre or simply see the actors as a source of income. This is particularly true of the local prostitutes.

The central character in Floating Weeds is Komajuro Arashi (Ganjiro Nakamura), a struggling actor whose best days are likely behind him, not because he is untalented but because he has refused to change with the times. In his opinion, people will come to see him no matter what role he performs. He is so cocky that he doesn’t even promote his own show, choosing instead to relax while his fellow actors parade around town in the sweltering sun. Some of the actors take advantage of his absence and seek out beautiful women to hook up with for the duration of the show, a habit that in combination with their appetite for sake will have a disastrous effect on their pocketbook. Later, the opening night performance is sparsely attended, and subsequent nights bring even smaller crowds. However, Komajuro seems unaffected by this trend, partly because he has a hidden agenda.

Telling his “lady friend,” Ms. Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), that he is going to visit a patron, Komajuro instead drops in on Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), a woman he hasn’t seen for twelve years and who he had a child with eighteen years earlier. Having not wanted his son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) to have a poor, struggling thespian for a father, he had Oyoshi tell Kiyoshi that his father had died and that Komajuro is his uncle. Oyoshi now wonders whether it’s time for the truth to be revealed. As time goes by, Ms. Sumiko becomes suspicious of Komajuro’s sneaking around, and when she finally discovers the truth (it is revealed to her by a fellow actor who does little to calm her distrust), she sets out to get revenge.

While the core story of Floating Weeds is similar to its predecessor, there are some notable differences. Perhaps most glaring is the bluntness of the characters in Floating Weeds. Characters openly belittle each other using rather crude language. What was once unspoken, in particular Sumiko’s former profession, is now directly stated, and the film does not hide Kiyoshi’s physical interest in Kayo, the young performer paid to seduce Kiyoshi. When Kayo leads him to a room without so much as an introduction, Kiyoshi does not even ask for one. In addition, Kiyoshi’s career goals will eventually require him to leave the town and his mother, something that he doesn’t seem too concerned about even though this action would leave his ageing mother completely alone.

Floating Weeds is less successful than A Story of Floating Weeds because the central characters are simply less likeable. Kiyoshi is arrogant, Sumiko is vengeful and cruel, and Komajuro is destructive both verbally and physically. The only person who remains affable and cordial is Oyoshi, who exudes kindness and warmth in every scene. Witness the way she speaks to Komajuro when he returns after his long sojourn. She does not chastise him for being gone for such a long time; rather, she greets him happily, offers to pour him warm sake, and takes the opportunity to get reacquainted. She even remembers that he had sore shoulders the last time she saw him. Perhaps it’s understandable then that Sumiko is as jealous of her as she is.

The Japan in Floating Weeds is one that has been altered by war, nuclear bombs, greed, American influence, and a move away from traditional culture, and its characters reflect this. However, as I watched it, I was struck by how much I preferred the world we see in A Story of Floating Weeds, as well as its subtler approach to storytelling. There is an innocence to that film that strikes a cord with viewers. In contrast, I felt a bit detached while watching Floating Weeds. That said, Floating Weeds is still a good film. It’s just a different one set in a very divergent time, one in which it may be harder to find traditional notions of culture. (on DVD from Criterion Collection)

3 stars

*Floating Weeds is in Japanese with English subtitles.

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