The most "Japanese" of directors, Yasujiro Ozu consistently depicted Japanese families throughout his career—and that includes many of his silent films from the 1930s now available via the Eclipse series from the Criterion Collection. Most anticipated from this set is Ozu's popular I Was Born, But... (Otona no miru ehon - Umarete wa mita keredo), which Ozu later adapted into his Technicolor comedy Good Morning. Evoking comparisons to The Little Rascals, this 1932 charmer showcases a faster paced Ozu with great comedic timing as it explores children coming to terms with the compromises necessary for surviving the middle class ratrace.
Told from the point of view of two brothers, the younger son Keichi (Tomio Aoki) flashes Chaplinesque brilliance for comic physical comedy while older brother Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) leads with the major content of the film. Their father Mr. Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito) works as an office clerk, and has just relocated to the suburbs close to his employer, where he figures to score points within the corporate ladder and also provide better schooling for his sons. Unfortunately, the siblings are immediately tested by the neighborhood children (including the boss' son) and are threatened by the biggest and meanest. They play hooky to avoid a potential beating. When their father discovers that the boys have been playing hooky, he counsels ignoring the bully and queries "Don't you want to go to school and become somebody?"
Keichi forms an alliance with the delivery boy with inside information on when to approach his mom for beer sales, and get the delivery boy to rough up the bully. This helps the brother form an alliance with the other neighborhood boys, so all appears to be going well—until they visit the boss' home and see their father portrayed as the "office clown" in his home movies. The boys are humiliated, and now feel that their father is a low class worker, who bows and grovels; they face a typical teenage angst question. Why should they go to school to be "somebody" when their father is a "nobody" without respect?
As in Good Morning, the brothers go on a hunger strike—short-lived because rice balls are just too tempting. They also soon regain new respect for their father, and begin to recognize how the game of social class life must be played as Ozu draws out his portrait with great wit and entertainment value. Despite classification as a comedy, I Was Born, But... goes beyond the genre by offering subtle social criticism—a first in Japanese cinema. Always a master of visual communication, signature static camera movement and low angles indicate that this 90 minute black and white film is an Ozu production. But the tone is so humorous and quickened pace are certain to add greater appreciation for this great film master.