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
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,
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
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.
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.
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.