Initially hired as an assistant cameraman, Ozu became an assistant director within three years, and directed his first film, the now-lost Sword of Penitence in 1927. He went on to make a further fifty-three films, including no fewer than twenty-six in his first five years as a director. After a number of comedies, Ozu turned towards more serious themes in the 1930s. I Was Born, But…, a comedy with serious overtones on adolescence, not only marks the beginning of this transition, but was also received by movie critics as the first notable work of social criticism in Japanese cinema and won Ozu wide acclaim.
Like much of Japan’s cinema industry, Ozu was slow to switch to the production of talkies, withhis first film with a dialogue sound-track, The Only Son, not being released until 1936, fully five years after Japan’s first talking film.
Tokyo Chorus / Tôkyô no kôrasu
Yasujirô Ozu | Japan | 1931 | 90 minutes
Mr. Omura, a teacher, leads a group of male students in an outdoor drill. One slight, comic young man, Shinji Okajima, has no shirt under his jacket; he scratches at fleas and makes faces behind Omura’s back. Several years later, Shinji is married with three children. He sells insurance, and on the company’s annual bonus day, he protests when an older worker is fired. Shinji loses his own job as a result, and he and his wife must find ways to cope. Lassitude, pride, the demands and needs of young children, and relationships from bygone school days all play a part in the outcome of their struggle.
I Was Born, But… / Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo
Yasujirô Ozu | Japan | 1932 | 100 minutes
Two young brothers become the leaders of a gang of kids in their neighbourhood. Their father is an office clerk who tries for advancement by playing up his boss. When the boys visit the boss’ house with their father, they discover that their dad has been making a fool of himself to please his boss, whose son is an outwitted member of the boys’ gang. The brothers’ revolt claiming that hierarchy should be based on ability, not on social background. Ozu’s charming film is a social satire that draws from the antics of childhood as well as the tragedy of maturity.
Passing Fancy / Dekigokoro
Yasujirô Ozu | Japan | 1933 | 100 minutes
After the death of his wife, a man struggles to raise his son in nearly overwhelming poverty. When the father meets a beautiful young woman, the son becomes jealous of his father’s attentions, and conflict arises between them.
A Story of Floating Weeds / Ukikusa monogatari
Yasujirô Ozu | Japan | 1933 | 100 minutes
Remakably similar in structure yet different in tonal effect to Ozu’s more famous 1959 remake, this story of a travelling troupe’s last days in a seaside village was one of Ozu’s first forays into a quiet, rural background, though it still feels brisk compared to the more staid and sumptuous remake. The depictions of stage life are more slapstick-oriented than in the remake (most notably in Tokkan Kozo’s hilarious turn in a full-sized dog costume), but are counterbalanced by sensitive portrayals of all the characters, especially the great, dignified lead performance by Takeshi Sakamoto. The romantic interludes are as powerful as in the remake, though without employing the overt sensuality of on-screen kissing; instead there appears to be the use of a filter or gauze to give the scenes between the young couple an otherworldly effect, which gives more emphasis of the idea of the actress employed to seduce the troupe leader’s son enacting a “performance”.
The Only Son / Hitori musuko
Yasujirô Ozu | Japan | 1936 | 87 minutes
In 1923, in the province of Shinshu, the widow and simple worker of a silk factory Tsune Nonomiya (O-Tsune) decides to send her only son to Tokyo for having a better education. Thirteen years later, she visits her son Ryosuke Nonomiya (Shinichi Himori), and finds that he is a poor and frustrated night-school teacher with a wife, Sugiko (Yoshiko Tsubouchi), and a baby boy.
There Was a Father / Chichi ariki
Yasujirô Ozu | Japan | 1942 | 94 minutes
A father and his son, a son and his father. Horikawa is a widower, a teacher, and a good father to Ryohei, who’s about 10. After a tragedy, Horikawa resigns from teaching and takes Ryohei from Tokyo to the town of Ueno, enrolling him in junior high; to the lad’s sorrow, he will be a boarder. Horikawa returns to work in Tokyo, their separation is complete. Jump ahead more than ten years: with dad’s help, Ryohei has finished college and has a teaching job in Akita. Horikawa considers living with his son, which Ryohei wants, but the elder’s notions of duty and hard work preclude it. Ryohei arranges a ten-day vacation with his father. Heartbreak comes quietly, nearly hidden by dignity.