I Was Born, But...

I Was Born, But... ★★★

I was moderately favourable towards Yasujirō Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) in that I appreciated the strong artistic vision behind the film, but found it too mannered to connect with emotionally. Jumping back 20 years to the silent era, Ozu's focus is once again on the ordinary family and the travails of ordinary life. I Was Born, But... is told from the perceptive of two young brothers who have just moved to a new neighbourhood and deal with school, some hostile local kids and the small-stakes consequences of their over-active imaginations. A key realisation is that their father is very low on the corporate ladder and that the lead bully is the son of their father's boss. So they confront papa about this and he discusses his economic situation with his wife and sons and the parents express optimism their children will do better in life than they did. As with Tokyo Story this is very much about generational aspiration rather than any genuine conflict.

I Was Born, But.. is shot in a far more conventional style than Ozu's later works, with acting that manages to be both naturalistic but also quite formalist at the same time. The editing is also more conventional although the irritating piano score on the version I watched probably sapped a good deal of the dignity and depth the film clearly merits. The interesting thing about silent movies is that such naturalism seems to be the worst sort of fit. As Norma Desmond observed it was all about faces, and so in those days actors and directors usually went for BIG expressions and body language to both communicate the emotion of the scene and also minimise the use of title cards. Ozu uses plenty of title cards here, because the alternative would be ACTING and that would never do in one of his films. I by no means claim to be any sort of expert in silent cinema, but the movies that appeal to me the most are ones that embrace some of the inherent qualities and limitations of the medium such as the dreamlike quality in Nosferatu (1922), the physical comedy of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplain or the operatic visuals of something like Metropolis (1927). For this sort of simple family fable, in my view the success is rather more qualified.

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