Saturday, August 2, 2008

Review – A Story of Floating Weeds

August 1, 2008

A Story of Floating Weeds – Japan, 1934

Shortly into Yasujiro Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds, it becomes clear that we are entering a story that is already in progress. Characters have already met, joined forces, argued, perhaps even come together and broken up. Little of what has transpired is explained in detail, and part of the wonder of Ozu’s film is unraveling the history of its central characters. The film begins with the joyful return of a traveling group of Kabuki performers after a four-year absence. As the group embarks from the train, their faces beam the kind of smiles that indicate that the place they have just arrived at is dear to them, perhaps the place from which their journey together began. At the same time, most of them exit the train in groups, a father and son, a pair of actors, a young woman and a slightly older woman. The exception to this is the leader of the troupe, Kihachi Ichikawa.

Short with a bit of body weight in his stomach, Kihachi Ichikawa (performed brilliantly by Takeshi Sakamoto) at first appears to be enjoying life completely. Children chase after him on a cyclo as they would a present-day rock star, and residents speak with fondness of Kihachi and his troupe, eager to see their new performance. Kihachi himself is all smiles – except of course when he is receiving treatment for arthritis. This treatment calls for something called Moxa to be put on his back and set on fire. It is said to be quite painful.

Soon after his arrival, Kihachi sneaks off to visit a “patron.” Usually for a man like Kihachi, a patron would be a wealthy resident interested in sponsoring Kihachi’s show. However, in this case, Kihachi’s “patron” is a woman named Otsune Ka-yan (Chouko Iida). One look from her, and it is clear that she and Kihachi have a shared past. There is instant familiarity between the two of them, as if despite the four-year separation they have been in contact every day. They exchange pleasantries and inquire about the other’s health, all the while never letting the exuberance leave their faces. The smiles fade when Kihachi inquires about Osteen’s son, Shinkichi, leaving behind only an expression that shows enormous hurt. Yet a moment later Kihachi asks if Shinkichi still believes that his father is dead. If so, he tells her, she should let him continue to believe so, for nothing would be gained by knowing the truth. Otsune’s expression is one of pure disappointment, yet she finds a way to hide this feeling from both Kihachi and Shinkichi. Soon the secret is out, though, and Otaka, one of the women in the troupe, is so affected by it that she sets out to destroy the serenity that exists within Otsune’s four walls.

A Story of Floating Weeds is fascinating for many reasons. The first is the character of Kihachi. He is first a leader, a man capable of assembling, taking on the road, and keeping together his own troupe. However, he is also a man whose body language reveals emotions he would rather keep hidden. Throughout the film he holds a fan and clutches a small hand towel tightly, revealing a tension within him that if released could be destructive. At other times, he reaches behind him and scratches his rear end, illustrating a degree of immaturity in Kihachi. He seems to be a man unable to do the right thing, a man accustomed to running away instead of facing personal challenges, an impression that if true is completely dissimilar to the kind of person who could headline and organize a Kabuki act. Also interesting is the way that Ozu films the conversations between characters in A Story of Floating Weeds. Ozu used rapid cuts during many discussions, and thus he is able to capture the emotions of each character much better than he would if he’d used longer shots. Through this technique, we are able to see Otsune’s joy at seeing Kihachi again change in an instant to disillusionment, and the effect is powerful and extremely moving. Another example of this technique used to perfection is in the scene in which Otaka asks for Otoki’s help is getting her revenge on Kihachi, a request that reflects an anger that amazingly the film never completely explains and that the characters never talk about. Ozu also uses long shots effectively. Take for example the scene in which Kihachi and Shinkichi go fishing together. Ozu allows the viewer to see the synchronicity of their movements for some time, thus demonstrating the depth of the bond that exists between them.

Toward the beginning of the film, it starts to rain during a performance. One of the performers notes that rain marks the end of tent performers. And as more and more rain finds its way into the tent, the crowd begins to thin. This will be repeated again in the coming days, as the rain continues to fall and the crowds continue to diminish. By the end of the storm, much has been spoiled, the performances, the sets, the troupe’s hopes for a long financially profitable run, Kihachi’s time with his family, trust, even innocence itself. And yet Ozu leaves us with the possibility of redemption and forgiveness, in addition to the opportunity for Kihachi and his supporting actors to give the stage one more go – a hopeful ending to a remarkable film. (on DVD from Criterion Collection)

4 stars

*A Story of Floating Weeds is in Japanese with English subtitles.
*The character of Kihachi Ichikawa appeared in two of Ozu’s other films.
*A Story of Floating Weeds was remade by Ozu in 1959. The remake is called Floating Weeds. Criterion’s DVD includes both versions of the film.

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