A Story of Floating Weeds

A Story of Floating Weeds ★★★★

[Favorites of 1930s]

It may be impossible to compute, but given how often fathers are physically or emotionally absent in the films of Ozu Yasujirô it is safe to say that his own situation growing up left a lasting impression on him. Ozu, who spent the majority of his life living with his mother, did not have much contact with his father during his formative years, a once-prosperous man who died in 1933, a year before he made the silent A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukikusa monogatari).

The film opens with the arrival of an itinerant kabuki troupe to a provincial town. The impoverished band is led by a good-natured man named Kihachi (Sakamoto Takeshi, who played a similar character with the same name in a few more of Ozu's prewar films). It turns out that he once had an affair with the local café owner (Iida Chôko) who has raised his son on her own. Kihachi tries to hide his identity from him, now a student, but when his current mistress and lead actress, who once saved him from financial ruin, finds out about his situation, she decides to take revenge by enlisting the services of a fellow troupe member.

Reportedly inspired by an American silent from the late twenties, the film credits one "James Maki" as its source author—Ozu himself, for whom the pseudonym combined "the smartness of his American father and the delicacy of his Japanese mother." So it appears that the absence of a father had already left a mark along with the resulting breakdown of family unity, and this film represents an early manifestation of what would become one of Ozu's predominant themes. The topic of generational conflict is also front and center here, what with the father trying to protect his son from the harsh life he has led on the road yet depriving him of an important presence in his life, which eventually results in him easily falling astray.

There's a great poetic moment between the duo early on when they go fly fishing together, a scene Ozu would repeat in his 1942 masterpiece, There Was a Father, a title that could be applied to this film as well. It is interrupted by Kihachi losing his wallet to the stream—as it is often the case with Naruse, water turns out to be a recurring motif here for Ozu, ruining one of the performances of the troupe and, later on, serving as a divider between Kihachi and his mistress during a confrontation on the street. The vain and flighty character of the mistress is also more commonly seen in Naruse than it is in Ozu. And so is the kind of dramatic intensity the film eventually generates.

But thanks to Aoki Tomio, one of the stars of Ozu's best known silent, I Was Born, But... (1932), the toilet humor present in the initial stages is pure Ozu. And Ozu continues to tweak and refine what at the time was a dynamic visual style. Remade by the master himself in 1959, A Story of Floating Weeds is an intimate and moving film about making the best out of what life has to offer.