Yasujirô Ozu never shied away from telling the same type of story twice, particularly when that story involved the bittersweet inevitability of one generation giving way to the next. When you’re a director capable of finding infinite, moving variations on a universal narrative, why look elsewhere for inspiration? As a result, the rewards of his work deepen as viewers travel further into his filmography. The subtle variations from film to film take on new shades of meaning the more time one spends in Ozu’s world.
A new two-disc set of rarely seen Ozu films seems almost designed to illustrate that point. The Only Son, Ozu’s first sound picture, comes from 1936 and follows several years in the relationship between a widowed mother and her son in which the former repeatedly puts aside her own comfort for the latter’s sake, only to see her high expectations met with modest results. Filmed in the midst of World War II, 1942’s There Was A Father observes a widower who makes similar sacrifices for his son. He sees better material results, but at the cost of living at a distance from the child who adores and misses him.
Though separated by only six years, both films reflect the times that made them. The Only Son arrived amid economic and political turmoil, and it captures a Japan suffering distress from the metropolis to the provinces. Chôko Iida plays a silk-factory worker whose life of hard work intensifies when she decides to help her son earn an education she can’t really afford to give him. Years later, she pays a surprise visit to him in Tokyo and finds, unbeknownst to her, that he’s taken a wife and had a child while barely scraping by as a night-school teacher. Iida does little to hide her disappointment in his life or lack of interest in the modern wonders—including, in a self-aware touch, talking pictures—that have found their way to Tokyo’s less-affluent corners. But her reaction isn’t as simple as it first appears, and it grows more complex the more time she spends getting to know the child she sent away for his own well-being years before.
In There Was A Father, the disappointment stems almost entirely from separation. The great Chishû Ryû, Ozu’s favorite leading man, stars as a dedicated teacher who gives up his station when one of his students drowns during an outing, a decision driven by a sense of duty that overrides both the pleasure he takes in his work and his peers’ pleas. Ryû works to create a better life for his son (played as an adult by Shûji Sano), even though that means he only sees him sporadically. Ozu structures the film around their periodic reunions, returning always to the virtue of duty while also acknowledging duty’s price. As a product of wartime, the film was subject to the restrictions of national policy, and it met them all, from touting the greatness of Japanese culture to repeated references to Sano’s cheerful reaction to passing the draft board. The astute liner notes of critic Tony Rayns and video interviews with scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson help establish the context of Japanese wartime restrictions. And while the necessity of serving those restrictions make There Was A Father a lesser film than its companion piece, the way the film’s focus falls on the everyday shows how an artist whose first concern was always humanity kept on task during a time of ideology. Empires rise and fall, and national fortunes shift. But the story of parents and children? That spins on forever.
Key features: Not much beyond the aforementioned interviews, but Bordwell and Thompson make for genial, enthusiastic hosts.