louferrigno’s review published on Letterboxd:
Japan was somewhat slow in actually embracing the sound film beyond discredited notions as a fad, evident by the regular amount of silent films still in production during the early 1930's. One of those contributors was a very young Yasujiro Ozu, treading away with short comedy films for the film company Shochiku with critical success, yet mediocre box-office success. These silent films acted as a way for Ozu to experiment and hone in on the practices and techniques he would regularly employ for his dramas about family and marriage, and established his early love for cinema early given the heavy influence Charlie Chaplin had on his career. The turning point towards Ozu seriously contemplating the greater themes of the world around him could be directly pointed towards I Was Born, But..., a humorously portrait of the naive mindset learning the hard truths about life, especially when those you respect have flaws.
Keiji and Ryoichi have moved to the suburbs, having to face bullies and the apathy of going to school. Ozu allows the playful childlike perspective to take precedence, displaying innocence through fun setpieces like finding sparrow eggs or a game of raising the dead, and ostentatiously presenting these difficult changes through comedic incidents where the two boys barely learn about the world whenever the societal differences are established subtly. Through the largely humorous first half or so, though, we do get some great bits like the attempt at having an adult forge a teacher's signature resulting only in a backwards grade, and this manages to work sublimely as a sharp wit is maintained in both the physical slapstick and the written intertitles, showing latent profoundness alongside traditional coming-of-age conflicts like being afraid of bullies (and truancy when ignoring them doesn't work), all with the charming mischief the two brothers embark on as the film pointedly contrasts their lives with the unceremonious drama of their father and surrounding adults.
A popular conversational topic later in the film is whose dad is the strongest or most important, and this in turn leads to a fracturing in the relationship between sons and father, harsh lessons of hierarchy and social status awaiting. The boys have very little understanding of monetary priorities, or why one would settle for being anything less than the "excellent" beings their father teaches them to be, and their loyalty and respect becomes shattered in seeing their father making silly faces to his boss through company/home movies, all while the father continues to kowtow to his employer. In seeing their idol as a clown, devastation flashes as they realize the world does not work like they think it does, and most despondently realize that their future could be just as disappointing. Pathos turns the film on its head, as the humor disappears in favor of the boys learning to cope and understanding the limits of status and the flexible merits of honor, one that emerges optimistically only through incurring the long-subdued frustration of mild shame within their father, a low point that can only give way to sympathy.
Having to accept the status quo is perhaps an unfair simplification of the complex life that I Was Born, But... captures, yet Ozu routinely makes it clear that he acts merely as an observer, studying without judgement and coming up with similarly mixed sentiments as well. The kowtowing is criticized, yet Ozu does not warrant condemnation by laying bare the realities the family must face even with the higher pay and does not let the low point of the father's discipline go away without emotional impact. The two brothers become more aware that life isn't fair, but also become aware of how to better love and respect their father, learning quicker from defeat as well as awareness of a calcified, rigid hierarchy. While it starts to outstay its welcome or becomes somewhat tiring as a result of the simplicity by way of the silent film format in genre (or, ironically, the extravagance given the frequent camera pans present here that I've heard isn't really a thing in later Ozu), and the provided score almost seems to emphasize the jaunty "comedy-piano" sound too often at points, it still manages to be quite the moving film at times and is probably as fitting an introduction to Ozu as any.