I Was Born, But...

I Was Born, But... ★★★★½

"You think Dad's an important man?"
"I guess so…"

After two satisfying trios of films from renowned Japanese directors of very different eras and styles -- the wild Yakuza absurdity of Seijun Suzuki and the satirical adult comedy of Juzo Itami -- it's time to finally rectify one of the most glaring omissions in my film list. That is, the one of Yasujirō Ozu, of whom I've seen zero pictures. I've got a good group queued up, from TV recordings and purchases, so let's try to go through them more or less in chronological order. We'll start with one of his most acclaimed silent films, I Was Born, But…

Ben Mankiewicz introduced I Was Born, But… on TCM -- the entire title of Otona no miru ehon: Umarete wa mita keredo translates to something like "An Adult's Picture Book View: I Was Born, But…" -- by calling it "the first notable work of social criticism in Japanese cinema." In a genre that's loosely characterized as "movies about people like you," Ozu was still deliberately slow to implement sound into films as well. This is the earliest of his films I plan to see. Over the next two weeks or so, I'll take a look at many of the filmmakers greatest hits of the last three decades of his career, which ended abruptly and too soon in the early 1960s.

In the Tokyo suburbs, the Yoshi family has moved for a better life. Father Kennosuke (Tatsuo Saitō) is an office worker who does his best to please his demanding boss Iwasaki (Takeshi Sakamoto); the move itself could be seen as trying to placate him, in fact. Kennosuke's young sons Keiji and Ryoichi (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara, respectively) are rebellious but inquisitive boys who would rather explore the neighborhood than go to school, and especially after threats from bullies they just play hooky. When their teacher tells their father about the truancy, they find ways to man up and instead turn the tables on the faux-tough boys, becoming the new "gang" leaders. However, a major turning point is their interaction with young Taro (Seiichi Kato), son of their father's boss Iwasaki: by going to his home, the boys see something about their dad that shakes their belief in his manliness, a perceived kowtowing to his boss. Keiji and Ryoichi now feel so strange, and wonder how this could be. When they confront Kennosuke about this humiliation, his answer and reaction to his young sons' genuine emotion and worry, for better or for worse, could change the trajectory of their coming of age.

A lighthearted comedy at first, I Was Born, But… has a stark change to the dramatic in its latter stages. Perhaps this was purposeful, or perhaps just a coincidence: Ozu was working on the film in 1931, left to complete another, and came back to this many months later. Where he picked up filming again marks the change in tone to more serious elements, and the "social criticism" Mankiewicz was talking about.

Before that point, the film is mostly about two adorable boys and their shenanigans. Ozu's story, in a screenplay by Akira Fushimi, is light and cheerful, filled with the rambunctious things boys will do for good and for stupid reasons. With sparse text on screen, there's enough quick action and comedic timing that words are rarely necessary. It's pure silent film magic.

The moment that the boys realize their "status" in seeing a new truth about their father and his work -- though they lack the understanding and nuance of the how and the why -- is a powerful one, kept realistic and non-sensational by telling the story through their eyes. Certainly Ozu's not the first filmmaker to do this, but it's remarkable nonetheless for 1932.

The child acting, by Aoki and Sugawara and the entire gang, is just tremendous. But hey, Ozu probably said, "act like kids!" Everything feels so natural and breezy in this impeccably lovely movie, helped by a light piano score in the version I watched. I don't know who wrote or played this music (it's clearly not the original), evocative a little of Joplin's "The Entertainer," but it's absolutely amazing and a perfect compliment.

The accident of birth, the complete randomness of your social status by way of literally where and when you were created, is a painful truth many of us attempt to overcome, accept the futility of changing, or take for granted our dumb luck. That is, depending on yours. Capturing that existential quandary in light but powerfully real cinema is lightning in a bottle, and yet Ozu did just that. A.O. Scott of The New York Times said it well years ago:

Everything in this film is utterly believable, so much so that at times it seems almost anecdotal, a sweet little anthology of kids doing the darnedest things. That it is more — a small masterpiece, perfect in design and execution — almost goes without saying, but the film’s profundity and its charm go hand in hand.

I was not ready to be so impacted by the first picture I've seen from Yasujirō Ozu, though I Was Born, But… did just that. I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Added to Yasujirō Ozu ranked.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Films from Every Year I've Seen Them.

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