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Review: Yasujiro Ozu, Part Two (The Story of Floating Weeds and Early Summer)

Yasujiro Ozu’s oeuvre continues to grace screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center for the next few weeks. Among the upcoming films are The Story of Floating Weeds and Early Summer, which are also available in terrific Criterion Collection releases. Other upcoming highlights include Late Autumn (starring Ozu mainstay Setsuko Hara) and An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu’s final film.

The Story of Floating Weeds

Directed by Yasujiro Ozu.
Starring Takeshi Sakamoto, Chouko Iida, Hideo Mitsui, Rieko Yagumo and Yoshiko Tsubouchi.

The Story of Floating Weeds is, like most of Ozu’s film’s, what the Japanese master would call a “home drama,” in the sense that it deals with a family. In this 1934 silent, an aging actor and his troupe stop in a small mountain town, and the actor pays a visit to an old friend and her son. That the boy is his illegitimate son is almost immediately obvious, though it is not immediately addressed. When his current lover, an actress in his troupe, learns he has been visiting his ex, she becomes jealous and takes steps to destroy his hopes for his son’s future.

When viewed with Floating Weeds, the film’s 1959 color remake (also directed by Ozu), it’s somewhat surprising to note that the two stories are only very subtly different. These subtle differences are largely the result of Ozu’s evolving directorial style and the differences in technology. The wonderful story, which remains almost completely unchanged aside from a change of setting—from a mountain town to one by the ocean. While I prefer the slightly more poetic, langorous look and tone of the later version, which was shot by Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon), the cast of the original film is easily the superior of the two.

The two versions remind me of the famous statement by Hitchcock regarding his own remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much: “The first was the work of a talented amateur, while the second was the act of a seasoned professional.” And, perhaps, to some extent, this statement applies to Ozu’s two Floating Weeds films, even though, with over twenty films to his credit by the time he had shot The Story of Floating Weeds, Ozu could hardly be called an “amateur.” Perhaps Hitchcock’s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much was an influence in Ozu’s decision? Hitchcock’s original was released in 1934, as well, and the remake debuted in 1956, only a couple of years before Ozu would have begun work on his own revisitation. Whatever the actual reason, the minute differences, for film lovers or Ozu fans, are enough to pore over for hours. But what’s more important than any comparison between the two is simply seeing them: each of the stories of Floating Weeds is a bittersweet masterpiece in its own way.

The Story of Floating Weeds is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, February 13, at 3:00pm, with David Drazin providing live piano accompaniment. The Story of Floating Weeds is also available in a two-disc set, Stories of Floating Weeds, from the Criterion Collection, which pairs it with its 1959 remake and also features commentaries by Ozu scholar Donald Richie (on The Story of Floating Weeds) and Roger Ebert (on Floating Weeds). The Criterion Collection version of The Story of Floating Weeds sets the film to a terrific piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin (although you can play it without the accompaniment, in case you want to listen to Dark Side of the Moon instead).
Early Summer

Directed by Yasujiro Ozu.
Starring Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, Chikage Awashima, Kuniko Miyake, Ichirô Sugai and Chieko Higashiyama.

Like a couple of other later Ozu films, Early Summer revolves largely around the marrying-off of a daughter, this time called Noriko and played by Setsuko Hara, the picturesque star of a handful of Ozu films, including Tokyo Story and Early Autumn. Noriko simply wants to work at her job and hang out with her friends, but her family is eager for her to marry; at twenty-eight, Noriko is dangerously close to becoming an old maid—at least by the previous generation’s standards. When Noriko’s hilariously perverse boss (Shuji Sano) suggests a match twelve years her senior, her family—and in particular her elder brother Koichi (fellow Ozu regular Chishu Ryu)—is thrilled, but Noriko resists, instead gravitating towards a childhood friend.

As with The Story of Floating Weeds, the story isn’t one tenth as schmaltzy as its synopsis sounds. Ozu has a way of defusing much of the melodrama inherent in his plots by simply skipping past the obvious (and therefore unecessary) scenes. Ozu realizes that spaces between the dots hint at a story every bit as well as the dots themselves. And so, accordingly, we have a film revolving around a marriage and no glimpse of that marriage, or even of a courtship. As such, Early Summer is decidedly unromantic, but this is fitting: Noriko and her family are the story, not Noriko and her future husband.

Another familiar Ozu theme that Early Summer touches on is the effects of modernization on Japanese society. Here, this can be seen in the changing society, but the characters—particularly the women—manifest this in their choice between traditional and Western clothing. Noriko and her single friend Takako, of course, wear the latter. But the theme is addressed more directly, as well. In one dinner scene, Koichi states, “It’s deplorable, what’s happened since the war. Women have become so forward, taking advantage of ‘etiquette.’”

But Noriko disagrees, explaining that women have simply “taken our natural place. Men were too forward up to now.” In case you don’t fully understand this point, Donald Richie’s wonderful commentary to the Criterion Collection provides a great deal of cultural context, but thanks to the flawless cast, an understanding of this context is by no means necessary to follow the main story. Ozu, as ever, is nothing if not simple (which I mean as the highest compliment). I dare say you could follow Early Summer—or any of his films—without even reading the subtitles.

As Donald Richie also mentions in his commentary, home dramas like that of Early Summer, as well as The Story of Floating Weeds and Tokyo Story, have largely been relegated to TV (and to crap films like The Door in the Floor), which is a shame. Ozu’s films at first glance seem to be the smallest of all possible tales, but in the hands of a master, film has a way of amplifying stories to mythical proportions: characters become generations, towns become universes and a lingering five second shot becomes a glimpse into eternity.

Early Summer is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, February 19, at 5:00pm and Wednesday, February 23, at 6:00pm. It is also available on a Criterion Collection DVD with the aforementioned audio commentary by Donald Richie and Ozu’s Films from Behind the Scenes, a charming, insightful conversation between three of Ozu’s now-elderly collaborators: child-actor and sound technician Kojiro Suematsu, assistant cameraman Takashi Kawamata and producer Shizuo Yamanouchi.

(Originally published at Gapers Block on February 11, 2005. Both of these films are available on DVD through Netflix, but are not on Netflix Streaming.)


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