I Was Born, But...

I Was Born, But... ★★★★½

I was born, but then I grew up and learned that hero worship is a bitch of a thing. I was born, but then I grew up and discovered that real power is not acquired by what I learned on the playground and schoolyards. Power and hero worship are the twin pillars of Ozu's domestic, coming-of-age, cross-examining tale between old and young generations. Keiji and Ryoichi, two young brothers bullied by a gang of neighborhood kids, have a very specific image of how power is gained. 

If the bullies beat them up, they must find an even bigger bully to beat them up. Power is brute force. Power is outfighting your enemies. Even mythically, power for these boys means eating raw sparrow eggs (these kids would've loved Nacho Libre, amirite?). All this power is ultimately illusionary, mollifying and artless. The boys even trade barbs over whose father is the best, reinforcing traditional patriarchal norms that valorized the father as the center of power in the family unit. 

As the boys rise in the neighborhood gang and acquire more of this power, Ozu develops an interesting corollary in their father, Yoshii, whose power is derived not from cunning or physical strength, but from money, position and the modern capitalist society in which many fathers of the new Japan lived. Actually, Yoshii's power is way more fascinating than that. In a scene that shocks his boys to the core, the two sons learn a sobering truth about who they think their father is–or ought to be – in a way that challenges the very image, the very worship on which they think about masculine, paternal forms of power.

Rather than view Yoshii as the great man they believed him to be, they learn that their father is a submissive fawn, someone who plays the fool under his employer's direction and benefit. How embarrassing. How disillusioning. Their father’s office behavior is the complete opposite of the boys' playground behavior. 

Why would their father let his employer hold a superior position over him? Why not take the power back, as they did, hire a bully and humble him? It's a moment of such cognitive dissonance to the sons that they literally have a faith crisis in their father, along with a faith crisis over what power means in the grand pecking order of things. 

Through the worlds of office and playground rituals, Ozu is now in a position to teach these unruly children about the pleasures and pains of growing up. When Yoshii is asked why he must bow to his boss, he explains: "If [my boss] didn't pay me, then you couldn't go to school – you couldn't eat." Growing up, in part, means surrendering individual power to the workplace, to the established order. Yoshii ties the necessity of submission (a trait often frowned upon in the West as weak) to the instinct of survival. As Bordwell states, "paternal dignity answers to the cash nexus." 

It's a fascinating move, a paradigm shift that holds a lesson. Whereas the boys have tied power to the ceremony of "killing off" anyone who disobeys their rules (seen when they sentence their enemies to lie prostrate on the ground), Yoshii teaches them that real power and paternal dignity comes through sacrificing one's will to another, to the benefit of the entire family, the whole, or the community. 

Growing up, in part, means obedience or respect for others, even when it isn't convenient or especially understood in a capitalist, "me-first" society. Bordwell argues that it's through these didactic father-son moments where "the issue of power has become entwined with that of the greatness of one's father." 

Once the boys glimpse this vision of adult compromise, their social relationships immediately begin to change. They encourage their father to greet the boss, they salute their classroom teacher, they even celebrate the bully in the yard by saying his father is the best, who in turn reciprocates the gesture as they embrace in the spirit of camaraderie. It's a beautiful, albeit sobering school of education for these children. The old image of their father has been shattered and replaced by a new father who frustrates them, yes, but also prepares them for the harsh, workaday realities of the adult world. Through Yoshii, Ozu destroys a child's sense of hero worship at the same time lovingly provides a training moment for children to learn about real adult power.

Life doesn't get any easier as we get older. We're born into this world as happy children but then have to become adults who struggle with nuance, intricacy and social rules, all to preserve the group. We're born, but then life happens and we have to adjust and readjust. Ad infinitum. 

Ozu captures it all so beautifully and simply yet poetically. One of his best for sure.


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