film

Old School Review: “Floating Weeds” (1959)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu and directed by Ozu, “Floating Weeds” is a remake of Ozu’s own black-and-white silent film “A Story of Floating Weeds” made in 1934. This film follows a traveling troupe of actors performing Kabuki theatre around the provinces (“floating weeds” is a Japanese term for itinerent actors). In the opening we’re introduced to the sleepy fishing village that will house the story to come as a few random dock workers muse about the heat of the day and the novelty of the incoming troupe. The troupe arrives by boat and parades into town handing out flyers and talking up the locals as they make their way towards their new temporary home while in town, the theatre. While there are some delightful and fun side stories with several members of the theatre crew, the plot’s main focus is on Komajuro Arashi (Ganjirô Nakamura) the leader of the operation, and lead actor. After settling in Komajuro heads off to a Saki bar run by Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura, his former mistress) to visit and go fishing with Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) their grown son who is unaware of his true father’s identity, knowing Komajuro only as “Uncle”.

As you might guess, it isn’t long until Sumiko learns of Komajuro’s ulterior motives in choosing this town for their next round of performances. Which doesn’t go well for Komajuro, as Sumiko’s the jealous type. After she discovers this affront and sees Oyoshi in attendance at one of their shows, she goes to Oyoshi’s Saki bar and aggressively confronts her when she catches Komajuro there playing Go with Kiyoshi one afternoon. Despite Komajuro’s shock and dismay at Sumiko’s transgression he bans her from the Saki bar and breaks it off with her in a powerful argument in the rain. Later on Sumiko offers one of the younger actresses some side money to go and seduce Kiyoshi at his job. While reluctant at first Kayo (Ayako Wakao) eventually accepts without knowing Sumiko’s reasoning for the request. Despite the origins of their relationship, Kiyoshi and Kayo end up falling in love. Shortly after this development Komajuro stumbles upon the two embracing in an alley and finds himself in a conundrum- how can he exercise his authority over Kiyoshi without revealing his true identity to him?

Komajuro had high hopes for his son, Kiyoshi had been saving for college and had plans to support his mother when he could. Before Komajuro can sort out the situation though, Kiyoshi and Kayo elope just as the theatre troupe had begun to fall apart. The financial manager absconded with their funds and several members considered leaving before they become too desperate. Dwindling crowds paired with mismanagement spelled the beginning of the end for the troupe. Eventually Kiyoshi and Kayo head back to town at Kayo’s pressuring- but Kiyoshi and Komajuro clash at the Saki bar when Oyoshi reveals Kiyoshi’s true parentage in an attempt to diffuse the scuffle. Kiyoshi discards Komajuro and leaves in a huff while Komajuro sits in amazement at the series of baffling failures set at his feet. He decides to move on after a cheerful long goodbye to the troupe, ironically riding out of town on a train with Sumiko tending to him- begrudgingly accepting his enemy’s re-established loyalty.

Ozu’s works, of the two I’ve seen so far, have this unique serenity to them. Maybe it’s the leisurely pace, the shots of gentle locations giving the world of his stories a sense of the oft quoted “lived-in” space, or simply that the content of his films are universal to the modern human experience. His films evoke a powerful catharsis felt just as strongly sixty years later. Obviously, not every film will work for every person, but I’m willing to bet that if you gave any of his films a chance you might find yourself quizzically enraptured not just by the drama of common themes across his filmography, but also by the meditative cinematography of his infamous “pillow shots” that melt in-between scenes asking you to pause and digest, relax and breathe. There is something powerful in his depiction of the joy, sadness, humor, and tragedy of everyday life that makes his characters seem familiar and his plots reminiscent of truth.

It wouldn’t be an Ozu film (as I’ve come to notice in my intense search for information on the filmmaker) without a particularly precise composition for every shot in his films. Ozu would typically put the composition of his frame above all else, ignoring the continuity of props and eye-lines for the purity of his images. Which is doubly true for his foray into color filmmaking near the end of his career. His warm pastel coloration for “Floating Weeds” adds another layer of texture to the small seaside village the story takes place in. Between the visible mugginess of the hot summer and the cleansing, humidifying, rain that comes at night and in-between heated arguments, there is a unifying sense of place not only with the “pillow shots” of nature and architecture but in all variables of the filmmaking process. Particularly pleasing was the soundtrack, evocative of popular video game scores (which were probably inspired by films such as this) like “The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker” and “Animal Crossing”, it was perfectly set for a small seaside village in the heat of summer. I doubt there could have been a more perfect fit than what we got. The recurring theme gave way to the notion of music belonging to a particular place in its essence, these melodies molded to fit this time and this place. All of these things combine to craft a beautiful and atmospheric stage for Ozu’s story to play out, and it does so with a grace and humility like no other.

While maybe not quite as emotionally impactful as “Tokyo Story”, Ozu’s remake here is a more diverse picture in terms of emotional balance. This is purely my commentary and I can only speak to my experience with the film, but this film held a greater variety of emotional resonance. I was legitimately shocked when Sumiko directly confronted Oyoshi in her Saki bar. The following heated debate in the rain between Sumiko and Komajuro was incendiary and raw. The anger, regret, shock, and disgust thrown at each other was palpable and moving. While earlier, in less fierce scenes, I was tickled by the three bachelors of the troupe and their antics in trying to pair up with the women of the town. This film is a rarity among cinema, as was Ozu himself, and it’s worth your while to experience something new in the pantheon of film, even though this film is sixty years old- it’s still a charming story with universal and relatable characters and themes. Give it a shot!

Final Score: 3 bachelors, 1 lead actor, and 2 mistresses

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film

Old School Review: Rashomon (1950)

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Rashomon” is a film about the complexities of human nature surrounding a murder with four contradictory eye-witness accounts. In the film three men find solace from a torrent of rain under Kyoto’s Rashomon gate. In the opening a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) are discussing and processing the differing accounts of an event recently taken place nearby. A commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) comes in from the storm and joins the conversation. He’s brought up to date on the situation at hand; a samurai (Masayuki Mori) has been murdered, his wife (Machiko Kyo) raped, and a local bandit (Toshiro Mifune) is the suspect. The woodcutter happened upon the crime scene and was the first to report the incident.

What follows is a series of revolutionary flashbacks to describe the tale as each character remembers it. All retellings of the same event differ, while remaining both true and false. True in that it is how they remember the events, but false in objective truth. The only scenes that are objectively true in what they show us are the ones taking place at Rashomon. Every flashback is an amalgamation of fractured memories, every scene in the forest broke new ground by showing the audience unreliable retellings of the past. This wasn’t a new idea that “Rashomon” originated, but rather a storytelling device that the film popularized. In fact the film is so connected to the idea of contradictory interpretations of past events that they became entwined with each other until ‘The Rashomon Effect’ became part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Each suspect questioned by an unknown official, which leads into each one’s version of the truth. The bandit gives his testimonial first, then the wife, and then the dead samurai- who speaks through a spirit medium, with the woodcutter’s tale kept until the end. All claim to be guilty to varying degrees, and all describe the situation with varying representations of themselves and the others involved. The three men under the Rashomon gate have differing reactions to the events and various recollections of those involved. The commoner is the most cynical of the three, at one point he posits, “Is there anyone who is truly good? Maybe goodness is just make-believe.” The woodcutter is visually distraught by these stories as he tries to reassemble the truth of the matter, while the priest seems to be placing the weight of his faith in humanity upon the outcome of the tale.

The film ends on a high note when the fog of ambiguity is lifted by the sounds of an abandoned child crying out. The woodcutter lifts his spirits and takes on the responsibility of this orphan, proving to the priest that humanity still has hope left in its spirit. The simple act of selflessness gives the film’s end a beacon to strive towards, even if humanity is muddled, complex, and not always truthful- we still strive to be better than our worst habits.

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.“- Akira Kurosawa

Final Score: 1 samurai ghost, 1 over the top bandit, and 1 woodcutter