I Was Born, But...

I Was Born, But... ★★★★★

Which is boldest in your memory? Remembering the first time you realized your father was a buffoon? Or the first time you realized the world was divided into stratified economic caste classes that would, to a lesser or greater degree, hold sway over the rest of your life?

Or was it when it dawned on you that the two might be deeply related to one another?

Ozu’s soft power is always his ability to delicately pick apart society. Not just his society. Not society as a cultural construct. But all society. Society as a human construct. He often wields this power while being extremely funny, and this time, overwhelmingly, authentically adorable.

The two brothers are off-the-charts. No sap here, just chaotic cuteness (that should be a D&D alignment). Keiji repeatedly grabbing at his dick, sometimes yanking it at people as a sign of disrespect, is peak nine-year old cinema bad boy. No one’s done it better since, and once the full gang of kids is assembled they leave the Little Rascals in the dust.

But the genius of Keiji’s mugging in this film is not only funny, it also goes right to the heart of the matter. When we see where Keiji inherits all of his posing and goofy faces, the movie elevates to its highest truth.

Because of course he gets the mugging from his father. His father who is caught in the big boss’s home movies doing the same mugging in an effort to be the office clown.

While Keiji mugs to show disrespect to authority and his peers, his father does it to beg for some sliver of social recognition.

And therein lies the Ozu magic trick. You think you’ve come here to laugh, but Ozu sees the boy inside that is soon to die in the struggle to become a man, in the struggle to find a place in his social hierarchy, and Ozu is selling you this hard observation with all the comfort of warm homemade omusubi.

It’s heartbreaking to see Ryoichi and Keiji, probably around eleven and nine here - the same age as my nephews - talk about wanting to grow up to be military men.

This movie drops in 1932. The two boys will be twenty and eighteen when World War II starts (due to forced conscription, growing out of their fascination with the military won’t change anything). The statistical odds of them making it out alive aren’t great. The WWII Japanese military death estimate is around 2,300,000. That’s about one in four soldiers.

More than once, after the brothers gave me a good laugh, I would suddenly picture them as handsome young men, dead in some southwestern Pacific Ocean island ditch. Or if alive, willfully or not, committing Japanese war atrocities.

But enough of that - oof. (Sorry. Sorry. I’m singularly obsessed with the history of the twentieth century and am a dark soul with a fast smile but a sunken heart that is both humanist and exhausted by humanity.)

Moving on to a brighter close. I always love a story that takes a contained micro model of social behavior and then successfully uses it to map a macro observation about the way we socially organize as a species. And this is a top shelf example of that. I should make a list! (Suggestions in Comments.)

PS: Did not like the new Donald Sosin piano score at all and had to work past it for the first fifteen minutes just to see through to the heart of the film. Straight up embarrassing not hiring a Japanese composer for this, Criterion.

PPS: My wife got the first injection of the vaccine this morning! Healthcare workers rising!

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