Thursday, 20 January 2011

I Was Born, But... (Otona no miru ehon - Umarete wa mita keredo) (Yasujirô Ozu, 1932) DVD Review

Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara in I Was Born, But... (1932)

Although best known for latter-day domestic dramas like Tokyo Story (1953), Japanese auteur Yasujirô Ozu made his name with a series of silent comedies, exploring the themes of family, honour and generational passage which would later become touchstones of his work. It may come as a surprise for fans of Ozu's final pictures, who would be used to his static floor-level long-takes, to discover that I Was Born, But... is a slapstick schoolyard tale, notably influenced by the work of US comics Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. The film makes great use of a moving camera, preferring panning and tracking shots over stationary observation, and while that Keaton comparison appears broad the film's first half makes use of classic silent setups - the small-fry encountering the leader of a bad gang, sibling mimicry and a car trapped, frantically revving, in thick, stodgy mud. Unlike American comedy of the 1920s, however, Ozu does not acknowledge the act of performance or the audience watching, but instead infuses social commentary into the sight gags. These childish games are funny - perfectly choreographed and timed - but an audience raised on The General (Bruckman, Keaton, 1926) might not click with them immediately.

I Was Born, But... tells the story of Keiji (Tomio Aoki) and Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara), new kids on the block at a cramped Tokyo suburb (they have moved so that their father may be closer to his boss, Iwasaki, played by Takeshi Sakamoto). The boys are led to believe that their father is a great and important man, yet hold little faith in themselves. While the patriarch insists that they can be great too, the kids suffer several run-ins with school bullies, who seem intent on making their lives miserable. Soon Kozou (Shoichi Kofujita), a local delivery boy, helps them out by beating up the leader of the gang - the power struggle is over, and the boys gain respect, but their faith is soon tested by an evening of home-movies at Iwasaki's house...

Here the boys see their father as an obsequious employee; a lowly desk clerk who prostitutes his clownish charm to get on his boss's good side. The brothers question him, asking why he must kowtow to gain respect, confused as to why he can't be manager. The revelation is particularly affecting for in their father's corporate bondage the boys see their own lives reflected, now realizing the unchangeable social strata and understanding that one's aspirations are futile unless you have/are born into money. The perfect metaphor comes in a juxtaposition of two shots. The first sees a lineup of kids marching side-by-side to school, and the second is a panning shot of an office with all the employees yawning in unison at their drab, identical desks. This is the life we're all marching toward, Ozu declares, as the social pecking order still favours the wealthy and makes fun of the working-class. The children decide to make a sacrifice when the father says he must work to put food on the table - they have a hunger strike. Of course, they soon give in, recognizing that there is honour in providing for your family. The father sits by them on a sunny day (there are very few interior shots) and asks a simple question; "what do you want to be when you grow up?" It matters little what the answer is. The point is that, in a quietly affecting moment, he simply asked.

The Disc/Extras
Beautifully photographed by DP Hideo Mohara, the film looks stunning in this new BFI transfer. Grain and scratching are still noticeable in some scenes, especially in the latter half of the film, but the picture quality overall is crisp. The new score by Ed Hughes may not complement all of the action, but it gives energy and soul to a film about innocence lost and maturity gained. A funny and heartbreaking picture, the ending may wrap events up a little too neatly, but it's still a shining example of a storyteller at the top of his game. You might say he was born to do it...

1 comment:

  1. Nice comment -- but one correction. Ozu's cinematographer's name was Hideo MOHARA (Shigehara was an old mis-translation that still has not been totally exterminated).