One of the silver linings of this dreaded worldwide lockdown is the opportunity to watch the movies I have amassed through the years. I took Yasujiro Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and Floating Weeds (1959) Criterion DVD off my shelf and put it on a pile of movies to be watched. Even by this conscious action, the movie sometimes doesn’t get to be watched because there are so many movies vying for my time and attention. Sitting next to my wifey at breakfast one morning, she showed me a FaceBook share by a friend about great Japanese movies that are must-sees. Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959) was in the inspired list and it was the perfect motivation to give the DVD a spin. It turned out to be a fascinating experience because we were in the hands of a master storyteller.
It was in 1996, I think, when I was treated to one of Ozu’s great masterpieces Tokyo Story (1953) one night at the university during a lecture on film narratives. How one equates the experience of watching the film in words is a tall order. The story is so deceptively simple, but it demands the audience’s vigilance. The plot is not labyrinthine, but it has psychological and emotional resonance. There is something deeply familiar and familial about it, and I remember coming up for breath when the house lights came on. I felt I was touched by the hand of God. Ozu has the power to take a sad song and make it better.
Like all of Ozu’s films, the story and plot of Floating Weeds, a remake of his silent classic A Story of Floating Weeds, is simple. An aging actor, together with his troupe, returns to a small town to put on performances. He reunites with his former lover and illegitimate son, which enrages his present mistress. She then cooks up a plan to bring downfall to his son, which leads to heartbreak for all.
Watching the silent film followed by the colour film offers a unique glimpse into the evolution of one of cinema’s great auteurs. The main difference between the two films is one of tone. The 1934 film is bleaker, but funnier at certain parts. The 1959 is more optimistic and hopeful, but never felt like there was a need to be funny. You can feel Ozu’s confidence with the material and what he wanted to communicate. In terms of composition of shots it is almost the same, so one can notice that from way back in 1934 he has arrived at a way of how his stories should be told.
In Ozu’s hands, films are tapestries for him to create characters, not outlandish plots. He is more interested in who the characters are than what they did. His films are doorways into a time and space of Japan that is long gone, but they are not defined by it. There is a sense of universality in them that if someone were to see his film a hundred years from now, that someone will understand the breadth of the themes because life, love, death, marriage, illness and parental love will not change over time.
The story of Floating Weeds could be approached in many ways – a tragedy, a soap opera, even a musical, but Ozu uses the everyday to tell it. There are no fake highs, no condescending lows, no swells in music to dictate what he wants you to feel. Ozu’s love for his characters is transcending and no cinematic tricks are employed to put you on a certain path.
Ozu has a visual style that he has honed through the years. His camera is always stationary. It doesn’t pan. It doesn’t track. The cuts are just cuts. No dissolves. No wipes. Nothing that draws attention. His camera stays a few feet from the ground, always looking slightly up at characters, mirroring the point of view of someone sitting on the tatami mat ogling at a family going about their daily business. Ozu likes to shoot a conversation by focusing on only one character at any one time. The dialogue doesn’t bleed into the next cut so there isn’t the fluidity that we are accustomed to. By doing this, we are persuaded to identify with each character as they speak and then the other. The pace of his scenes mirrors life. A less accustomed person might say his films are slow, but I prefer to say they progress at a pace that leaves room for thought. In Ozu’s hands, it is the way the story is told that makes it memorable, not the story itself.
One can always revisit an Ozu film and notice certain aspects missed the first time. At first go with A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds, one of the most memorable scenes is the heated exchange between the master and his mistress. They are standing at opposite sides of a narrow street. Between them, torrential rain is pelting the ground. The camera refuses to move. There are no dramatic close-ups because it would cheapen the emotional heft of the scene. The mistress paces up and down with a red umbrella in the background. The dialogue carries vindictive knives as they try to “kill” each other, with the rain and space working as counterpoint to their heated argument. It is a beautifully composed scene, everything in that scene is there for a reason.
Unlike the silent film, Floating Weeds ends on a more hopeful note. Perhaps even with a nostalgically autumnal feel and an aura of philosophical hangs in the air. The master and his mistress are down, but they are not out. As the train pulls away, one will hope that they will mend the fences and experience small successes in the new chapter of their lives.
The late film critic Roger Ebert once wrote: “Sooner or later, everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu.” He is quite right. Don’t worry if you don’t get what the fuss it’s about or how there are people who are touched so deeply by his films. Ozu is a patient storyteller. He will wait for you. One of these days you will understand and his stories will hit you like a thunderbolt.