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Grade: A-Floating Weeds (1959)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Stars: Ganjiro Nakamura, Machiko Kyô, Hiroshi Kawaguchi

Release Company: The Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

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Ozu: Floating Weeds

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If you're tired of watching Multi-plex B movies with A budgets—special effects extravaganzas dressing up formula flicks with inane dialogue—head for your nearest VCR supplier of arthouse and foreign fare to pick up Floating Weeds (Ukigusa), or any other Yasujiro Ozu film. Only a handful of his fifty-four films are available on video in the states (Good Morning on DVD) since distributors deem them "too Japanese" for commercial purposes.

Film lovers should seek them out (most notably Tokyo Story, which many critics rate as his best)--each contains Ozu's signature style--simple and beautiful cinematography, wonderful character development, and profound themes that revolve around Japanese families and generational conflicts.

Set in a small southern Japanese fishing village, Floating Weeds first establishes the local atmosphere and introduces the neighborhood on a hot muggy summer afternoon, reminiscent of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. The cheerful music (composed by Kojun Saito) contrasts with the oppressive heat, bringing to mind some lighthearted moments of a Fellini film when the circus comes to town. Like the great Italian director, Ozu loves his people and often casts ordinary looking citizens instead of seeking only the beautiful.

Here a traveling Kabuki theater troupe arrives in the village, led by Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura)--posters are distributed throughout and the troupe's publicist implores the prettiest women of the village to come to the performance. Shades of the Master Komajuro in the old days. The middle-aged man has a loyal and beautiful young mistress, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), who performs with the troupe, but within the village is Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura). She runs a saki bar, but is the mother to Komajuro's son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), now out of high school and working at the post office.

Out of embarrassment, Komajuro has hidden his true identity from Kiyoshi, who believes him to be his uncle. Komajuro regards his acting profession as not worthy of respect, and he wants more for his son. Kiyoshi is extremely bright and plans to go to college. He's a little surprised at the eagerness of his "uncle" to spend time fishing with him and how he doesn't want him to watch the Kubuki. Indeed, when the two sit on the dock wetting their fishing lines, Kiyoshi criticizes Komajuro for overacting in an inferior play.

The secret identity conceit cannot last, of course. Komajuro's mistress discovers the truth about his "old flame" and parentage, and plots to expose him. She sets up young Kiyoshi to become seduced by another young actress in the troop, knowing that Komajuro will become unraveled by the thoughts of such an affair with a fellow "low lifer" (the title "floating weeds" refers to traveling actors). The situation escalates when the two fall in love, and Komajuro fears that his son is lost for good.

Instead of sinking this scenario into superficial melodrama, Ozu plays it like a master musician, who loves all his characters and grace notes. Even the minor characters, like a razor wielding Japanese matron about to give a shave to a troop member that has made unwanted advances on her daughter, are given respect. No one overacts, and the drama unfolds very naturally, allowing us to get to know each of the major characters and their motivations.

Ozu's camera is deceptively simple. He doesn't favor trick shots, uses no tracking shots, or edit his film with dissolves and fades. Mostly the static camera quietly photographs his subjects from medium range and low angles, and the edits are standard cuts with a variety of camera angles lending variety and an occasional village or landscape shot to provide a pause between scenarios. For additional "action" a rain scene emphasizes conflicts. Other juxtapositions of locale and objects likewise serve as symbols. In the hands of most directors such straight-forward techniques would fall flat, but Ozu makes it work by deftly composing his shots and lovingly allowing his actors to become real people that we deeply care about. His scenes pack far more emotional punch than any of Jerry Bruckheimer's explosive special effects.

Initially, many Americans not familiar with Ozu's ascetic style will find Floating Weeds too slow, but after a deluge of second and third-rate movies that bombard our senses and sensibilities, it's truly refreshing to visit a master filmmaker who truly loves his subjects and respects the audience. Ozu becomes the comfortable old shoe that we can return to whenever we become disillusioned with amateurish and unimaginative filmmaking that neglects its characters--a constant reminder of the first time we fell in love with the cinema.

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