The Only Son ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

It wasn't really intentional that I should follow In the Realm of the Senses, a Japanese film set in 1936, with Hitori musuko [The Only Son], a Japanese film made in 1936. Rather, I came to discover that I could knock out three of the few remaining checklist items for my Criterion Challenge if I watched this and its companion piece, There Was a Father.

Watching The Only Son in 2012 is nearly surreal. It's as timely now as it ever was, which is frankly discouraging. Otsune is a working poor widow pressured into sacrificing even more of herself to scrape up the money to send her son, Ryosuke, to school. She's made to see that without an education, her son will never have a chance to better himself and certainly not if he remains in their quaint, dead-end town.

However, when we catch up to Ryosuke as an adult, we discover that for all her sacrificing and all his hard work, he's no better off than he would have been otherwise. He's a night-time teacher, living in what could charitably be described as a dump with his sweet wife, Sugiko, and their infant son.

We watch as he scrounges to put on airs to impress his mother, trying to wow her with the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. He borrows money from colleagues to effectively rent some status symbols to validate his mother's investment in him. She sees through the charade, however, and more importantly - these are not things that she values. It means nothing to her to watch a talkie film.

It's simultaneously amusing and deflating to see the cliche of the struggling academic living off ramen noodles dating as far back as this film, but sure enough Ryosuke buys three bowls of it for dinner one night, trying to impress his mother that things are just fine. It's not only his mother, though; it's Ryosuke himself who feels disappointment and shame at not having lived up to his end of the bargain: to become "a great man."

How familiar is it to hear Ryosuke's frustration that all his hard work means nothing? That he had already tried to make it, only to be stymied by an economy that shut out so many that success is a bottleneck in which scant few really have even a chance? That he's just one of millions to see their ambitions and talents dashed on the shoals of an indifferent economy? The only way it could be timelier is if Ryosuke still had massive student loan debt and a medical condition.

It isn't until Otsune sees her son forfeit borrowed money to help his neighbor after her son is injured by a horse that she is comforted. Finally, this is something she recognizes and values. Though she has defied his capitulation to circumstance, arguing that he's still young and that he is wrong to give up on himself now, she is able to return home confident that her son has, indeed, turned out well. She discusses him with her coworker, and we can tell she's trying to put a nice spin on his circumstances and her visit, but when she reflects on who he is, rather than where he is, we recognize genuine maternal pride.

So many stories about characters in similar straits devolve into the kind of "bootstraps" rhetoric that's as insulting as it is saccharine, but The Only Son nimbly avoids those pitfalls. We're left with Ryosuke resolved to go back to school and become a high school teacher, but we know it's going to be challenging. How will he even pay for it? How will they manage while he's in school? These questions are left unanswered. We've seen enough to know that this is not a happily-ever-after resolution.

Rather, what matters is that we see Ryosuke embraces the challenge. Each generation sacrifices to improve the chances of the next, and we see that while Ryosuke won't be the one in the family to "make it," he will continue the generations-long task and that maybe, just maybe, his son will get a fair roll of the dice.

How Hitori musuko [The Only Son] Entered My Flickchart
Hitori musuko [The Only Son] > Lifted --> #715
Hitori musuko [The Only Son] > Silent Hill --> #358
Hitori musuko [The Only Son] > The Horse's Mouth --> #179
Hitori musuko [The Only Son] < Catch Me If You Can --> #179
Hitori musuko [The Only Son] > The Ramen Girl --> #133
Hitori musuko [The Only Son] < Six Days, Seven Nights --> #133
Hitori musuko [The Only Son] < Tropic Thunder --> #133
Hitori musuko [The Only Son] < 28 Days Later --> #133
Hitori musuko [The Only Son] < The Rock --> #133
Hitori musuko [The Only Son] < Ansiktet [The Magician] --> #133
Hitori musuko [The Only Son] > The Professional --> #132

Hitori musuko [The Only Son] entered my Flickchart at #132/1429