206. Ozu Film #24: I Was Born, But... (1932)

*24. Umarete wa mita keredo (I Was Born, But...) (6/3/32) (100 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]

Through the eyes of two young boys (eight and ten), Ozu explores the loss of innocence as they gradually realize that their father is not the "boss" -- and since they can beat up the boss's son, they simply do not understand why their dad doesn't rule the roost, as well. They go on a hunger strike, but eventually realize that life seems to hold many cold and bitter truths.
Arguably, one of his best films from any period -- certainly, his greatest silent...

According to a Japanese friend, a fuller translation of the title might be something like:
  • "I Was Born, But ... why do I have to go through all this hardship?"
  • Shot between November '31 and April '32, but interrupted by the shooting of the previous film (#23). This partially accounts for the way the film turns dark towards the end -- Ozu's attitude toward it had changed...
  • Ozu: "I started to make a film about children and ended up with a film about grown-ups; while I had originally planned to make a fairly bright little story, it changed while I was working on it, and came out very dark. The company hadn't thought it would turn out this way. They were so unsure of it that they delayed its release for two months." [Richie, p. 215.]
  • The film went on to with the Kinema Jumpo First Prize for that year.
  • Donald Sosin again composes and plays one of the finest silent film scores I've ever heard.
  • The first Shochiku card resembles the one in "Tokyo Chorus" -- a bas-relief; a tall figure with a staff next to a lion with 1932 across its body.
  • The background for the credit cards is hilarious: a man is standing at the base of three leaves extending from a stalk. He has on funny round glasses and is naked, covering his privates with his left hand.
  • The first card reads: "A Picture Book for Grown-Ups."
  • Original story by "James Maki." This was a name they made up for Ozu.
  • In September of '31, five of Shochiku's big stars left to form their own company (including the soon-to-die Tokihiko Okada). Luckily, Ozu was able to retain Saitô Tatsuo, who is given the role of a lifetime here -- and he certainly delivers.
  • Likewise, the kids (Hideo Sugawara and Tomio Aoki), who carry the film for the duration. They are terrific!
  • Aoki was eight when he made this film -- his 14th IMDb entry! He died in 2004, age 80.
The script -- with surprisingly few title cards for so much activity -- is as tight as can be. Note the character introductions, done casually but with careful intent:
  • ECU on car tire stuck, spinning in the mud.
  • Truck driver, looking back.
  • Dad (Saitô Tatsuo) walks into frame; CU on him.
  • Spinning tire; back to Dad who is glancing up at something.
  • His two boys, standing in the back of the truck looking down.
  • Dad, tire and two-shot of Dad & truck driver who says something to Dad.
    • With no title cards whatsoever, Ozu makes it simple to follow the progression -- Dad looks at the kids and says something; the kids get out and prepare to push from the back of the truck.
  • Ozu finally fills the frame with the truck, which we see is loaded with a family's possessions -- trunks, suitcases and a doghouse.
  • Dad is vigorously turning the front crank; the kids have moved away and are talking.
  • Excellent ECU of tires spinning, truck rocking, getting out of the mud.
  • Ozu holds on the muddy path of road after the truck leaves the frame. We see only the legs of the kids as they walk by.
  • Cut to a front two-shot of the kids.
  • The first intertitle:
    • "You go on ahead. Tell your mother I went to see Mr. Iwasaki."
  • The kids get back in the truck and Dad exits frame -- as Ozu holds on the long narrow road, engirded by telephone poles.
It's all very subtle, but it's made clear that the father -- although he seems stern in his interactions with the kids at first (after all, they're in a tense situation) -- is in fact very gentle and loving with them. Conversely, we can see in the eyes of the older boy a kind of questioning of the father's behavior and decision-making. As I say, very subtle and observable only on repeat viewings.

  • We cut to we don't know where -- but Ozu has packed the foreground of this initial frame with all sorts of objects.
  • The truck pulls up in the background and we the older boy (Ryoichi) jumping out of the passenger-side seat and his younger brother (Keiji) from the back. Ryoichi moves towards the camera.
  • Gradually, Ozu puts it all together. The boys are talking to two young men who are putting away books. They are asking for their mother (Mitsuko Yoshikawa); they go off with her while Ozu remains with the young men. Two title cards reveal much. One man says to the other:
    • "Mr. Yoshii stopped in to pay his respects to the boss."
    • "That's why he's a manager, you could learn from him."
  • (i.e. the men work for Yoshii, who is visiting his boss, Iwasaki.)
A delivery boy, Kozou (Shoichi Kofujita), comes by and asks Keiji to "call somebody."
  • Keiji glances back into the house and then turns back to Kozou and makes a ridiculous face.
  • Kozou raises his right arm and makes a fist.
  • Staying on him, we watch as he unclenches, takes off his hat and bows.
  • Reverse cut and Mom is standing at the door with Keiji.
Compared to the two available films before this one, Ozu's use of humor is becoming much subtle.
  • Keiji and Kozou seem to develop a tentative friendship.
  • Cut to a large imposing house. Dad is bowing to Mrs. Iwasaki (Teruyo Hayami) and her young son, Taro (Seiichi Kato) as Iwasaki (Takeshi Sakamoto, the man who was fired for being too old in "Tokyo Chorus") saunters into the scene from his tennis game (so Westernized).
  • "He's always getting into mischief," Iwasaki remarks, pointing towards Taro as he leaves the scene.
  • Dad responds: "All young boys should have a little mischief in them" (Beautifully ironic on repeat viewings).
The gang bullies little Keiji, taking away both the bun in his mouth and a ring toy that Kozou had given him.
  • Notice the little kid with the sign. After he tries to take a bite from the bun, the kid next to him -- perhaps his older brother -- snatches it away. Ozu then gives us a CU on the sign which is not translated with a title card, but with a modern subtitle:
  • "Upset tummy. Please don't feed him anything."
We get our first close-up of the little ring toy, as its new owner (the bully) tries to figure it out. Ozu then cuts to Ryoichi, who is playing with his own little toy just as Keiji arrives home, crying.
  • The boys return to the gang and Ryoichi confronts the bully. The fight is interrupted when Dad walks by. He tells the boys they need to "get along" with the local kids.
  • Note the beautiful transition which separates the scenes: a lone telephone pole which comes into view as the camera tracks the three characters. As soon as they exit the frame -- cut -- the pillow shot: the top of the pole, with bits of frayed cloth attached to the wires, being whipped by the wind.
  • Cut from this to a POV behind a fence, watching Dad exercise his arms (while smoking a cigarette). Dad is perfectly framed between two pieces of laundry hanging on the line (an Ozu motif).
  • Observe the breakfast scene, a microcosmic look at the essence of Ozu. Everything is played out in an extremely naturalistic turn (watch Hideo Sugawara, in particular). Dad is getting ready for work, the kids are eating ... it is nothing but a slice of morning life in which nothing happens.
  • The kids, facing a potential beating if they go to school, play hookey and eat their lunch early (note how the kids are always putting the bento box on their heads!).
  • Note a very clever transition: the kids are at school, marching, bored -- cut -- a rightward pan (rare for Ozu, even then) on office workers, all yawning (i.e., bored marching leading to a future of yawning).
  • The brothers share a cigarette butt.
  • Kozou runs into the boys and forges a teacher's "E" (for "excellent") on Keiji's calligraphy homework. The subtitle infers that he wrote the letter backwards!
  • The gang calls out the brothers, who successfully defeat Taro and another boy. The bully is conspicuously absent from this fight.
  • 0:36:56. Dad, who has found out about the bullying, walks the kids to school and pauses to make sure they actually go. At one point, the boys stop and turn around to see if their father is still watching (he is) and Sosin puts in this little cue that sounds exactly like someone saying, "UH-OH!" It's very clever.
  • Taro confronts Keiji, this time with the bully present. Keiji loses, but Kozou intervenes and sends the bully home, crying.
  • The brothers now point to Taro, and ask Kozou to "tell him off, too."
  • They learn a very adult lesson when Kozou declines, saying that the boss is a much better customer than their dad.
  • The brothers now "control" the rest of the hang. Given specific hand signals, any other boy must lie down on the ground at the leader's command. Taro did this, and now the brothers do it.
  • Ozu completely gives over this part of the film to the childrens' POV, as they compare the complicated hierarchy of both their own world and that of the adults.
  • 1) The bully's father calls back Ryoichi's earlier line: "Who made my kid cry?" The kids run away. This father is obviously a lot like his son...
  • 2) The next kid demonstrates teeth removal by offering his dad a piece of caramel. The kids shake their heads in wonderment and scurry off again.
  • 3) They meet up with Iwasaki and Chichi (Dad) and Taro finally settles the argument, once and for all, speaking to the brothers:
  • "That's my Dad's car. So my Dad's more important than yours."
  • The brothers test their leadership by ordering Taro to the ground. He does so, reluctantly, but Dad sees this and bows to Taro in apology as he dusts him off, looking at his sons sternly.
  • Dad leaves and the brothers repeat their command. Again, Dad sees it, and this time takes the boys away with him.
  • Again, notice the fermata, the pause -- such an important pacing tool for Ozu -- as he keeps the camera back as Dad and the boys walk further down the road.
  • The famous home-movie scene follows. Ozu takes his time setting everything up.
  • The kids, in their Sunday-finest, have to pay Taro a sparrow's egg as the price of admission; the adults are gathered around to watch the film.
  • The first reel. Ozu's fondness for scatalogical humor on full display:
  • The zoo. A large male lion.
  • "It's like the lion on the toothpaste tube."
  • "Which end does the toothpaste come out of?"
  • Keiji answers: "The tail end."
  • Next, a zebra. Taro asks:
  • "Are they black stripes on white or the other way around?"
  • The second reel: Iwasaki is crossing the street to meet what look like two young geisha girls. Offscreen, Mrs. Iwasaki is shooting daggers at her husband, while he desperately tries to save face by running the reel at fast forward speed (Sosin provides an appropriate cue).
  • Before the start of the third reel, Chichi lights the boss's cigarette with appropriate deference. As the reel begins, it appears that the employees are all doing calisthenics, perhaps on the rooftop of the workplace building. (I believe it is still fairly common for Japanese employees to exercise with their colleagues at work.)
  • The brothers are thrilled to see Dad on the screen.
  • Chichi begins making funny faces for the camera. Without intertitles, Ozu undulates between Dad looking ridiculous on the screen with a two-shot of the brothers watching all this, as we see them becoming more and more disgusted, disappointed, and disallusioned.
  • Meanwhile, all the adults, including Chichi, are laughing, although he seems a little embarrassed.
  • Ozu never confirmed whether or not his 1959 film, Ohayô ("Good Morning") was a "remake" of this film -- but the one strong parallel that both sets of brothers must come to terms with is the apparent hypocrisy of the adults' behavior.
  • In this film, after watching their father kowtow to the boss and look ridiculous, they demand that he should be the boss instead of Taro's father. They don't understand.
  • In the '59 film, the kids are bewildered at the way adults use phrases like "Good Morning" and "have a nice day" instead of saying what they really mean.
  • They go on a short hunger strike, which leads Dad to attempt to explain the nature of things to them. Do they understand?
In the final scene, we see Taro lie down on the ground at the brothers' signal, but when he gets up, the three friends march off to school arm in arm. The bully appears with the ring toy, still unable to figure it out. Ryoichi quickly demonstrates how to do it, but the bully still cannot duplicate the trick.
  • The scene ends on a wide shot -- the early morning rush, kids running to school, a tram whizzing by in the background...