Combustible Celluloid
Search for Posters
Own it:
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Choko Iida, Chishu Ryu, Shinichi Himori, Shuji Sano
Written by: Yasujiro Ozu, Tadao Ikeda, Takao Yanai, Masao Arata
Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Japanese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 170
Date: 03/18/2013

Two Films by Yasujizo Ozu: The Only Son & There Was a Father (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fathers and Sons

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's hard to imagine a time when there were no Japanese movies playing in American cinemas because, well, we were busy fighting them in WWII. Yasujiro Ozu first became noticed here some years later, with Tokyo Story (1953), but it's clear now that he was making great films of that ilk all along.

The Criterion Collection has now released two early Ozu films, The Only Son (1936) and There Was a Father (1942), in a new DVD box set. On one of the set's extras, film scholar David Bordwell proclaims that Ozu is his favorite filmmaker, and the culmination of all that is possible in cinema: Ozu started out as a fully-realized artist and proceeded with consistent, high-quality work throughout his career. That's certainly true of these two films, which look to have been restored as nicely as possible from some pretty sketchy, damaged film elements.

In The Only Son a mother (Choko Iida) works to put her son through elementary school. The boy's teacher (Chishu Ryu) turns up with the news that the boy is doing well in school and urges the mother to continue his education. Though she can't afford it, the mother resolves to sacrifice everything to do so, and the boy promises to be a great man. Years later, the mother visits the grown son (Shinichi Himori) in Toyko. He works for very little pay as a night school teacher, and he's married and has a small child. He puts on a big show to entertain his mother in the big city, but quickly runs out of money. Eventually they have a painful confrontation, but everything changes when the son gives some money to his neighbors after an accident.

For this film, Ozu creates a strangely barren Tokyo, filled with scrubby fields, smokestacks, and his usual hanging laundry. Likewise, the man's old teacher is also living in Tokyo, but works selling pork cutlets; everything is difficult and desperate in the big city. But, as always in Ozu, there's some hope for the younger generation.

In There Was a Father Chishu Ryu stars again as the title father. After one of his students dies while on a field trip to Tokyo, he retires out of shame and a sense of duty. He then struggles for years to make sure his own son is educated, even though they are always separated. The story culminates when the grown son (Shuji Sano) returns home for ten days' visit and they finally get to spend some time together. This one has the same kind of bittersweet tone, with a tiny measure of hope, as The Only Son. But the Japanese censors of the time decided that this movie had the appropriate themes (sacrifice, duty, etc.) for the country at war, and so it became an almost unwittingly political, (unusual for Ozu) as well as artistic, triumph.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about both films is that Ozu himself was still pretty young (in his 30s and 40s), and had not yet made his subtle shift toward acceptance that can be found in his later work. The thing that makes his later films so peaceful is that there's a lack of worry and sadness over things that can't be helped. Some things merely pass on from one generation to the next, and it's up to each new generation to learn these lessons; the older one simply cannot teach them. As Ozu grew wiser, he tended to relax more, and so these older films might seem a bit sadder and more bittersweet.

Bordwell and Kristen Thompson provide video interviews on both discs, providing all kinds of good background information, and Japanese film scholar Tadao Sato provides a video interview on The Only Son. Critic Tony Rayns adds liner notes for both discs. Also in the liner notes, there's an appreciation of actor Ryu by Donald Richie, and a brief interview with Ryu.

Movies Unlimtied