You know what I love? Other than inappropriate humour, that is. Discovering a new artist that I enjoy. Last year I watched Mark Cousin’s excellent documentary The Story Of Film. Early on in the film… well about 6 hours in, it is a 15 hour long film… he covers the work of Yasujrio Ozu, a director I was aware of but had never seen any of the works of. A little after that I rented myself a copy of Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story from Lovefilm. Not long after that I had brought a copy after being taken back by it’s beauty (this copy also came with Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family which I will get too before too long) and about a week ago I purchased another film of his in the form of Floating Weeds. Tokyo Story hooked me into Ozu’s work and directorial style. Floating Weeds has convinced me that he is easily one of the greatest directors that has ever lived. This is true classical style film making. Click the link for me saying pretty much the same thing but with more detail.
Floating Weeds is a remake of one of Ozu’s own early feature length silent films, A Story Of Floating Weeds. It tells the story of a travelling theatre troupe led by a middle aged actor named Komajuro (Ganjrio Makamura) who have come to a small seaside town to perform for as long as the town will pay. Whilst there Komajuro meets up with an old flame of his from 18 years back named Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), the last time the troupe came to this town, and her son who believes Komajuro to be his uncle when he is in fact his father. Komajuro is currently in a relationship with an actress in the troupe called Sumiko (Machiko Kyo) who isn’t too pleased to find out that he has been visiting his old girlfriend. She the sets out to cause a rift and get some measure of revenge against Komajuro and his secret family. Unlike Tokyo Story Floating Weeds is pretty full of heightened drama, although it still includes Ozu’s trademark story ellipses to skip any unnecessary melodrama.
This is one of the few films Ozu made in colour, a format he was resistant to using for much of his career. I’m glad he relented to cinematographer Kazua Miyagawa’s requests to shoot in colour because the film is all the more beautiful for it with the visual tone of the film switching pallets as it progresses from blues, to dark greens. At this late point in his career Ozu had all but stopped moving his camera in any way. As with Tokyo Story there is just one camera movement in the whole film. Yes I sat there counting. Luckily I can count to 1. You have no idea how powerful and stylistically defining this aversion to camera movements has on a film until you watch a Ozu film. By keeping the camera still he is allowing you to feel the movie’s pace out for yourself rather than forcing you to feel action when the camera swoops or tension when the camera zooms in. This approach also leads you to pay much more attention to how each shot is framed, quite often with frames within frames that the actors are placed in. For example, a character sat at a bar drinking Sake will have a elements of the surrounding room creating a box around them which, with the placement of foreground and background elements, gives the characters a defined sense of place within a three dimensional space.
Going into detail of how Ozu shot his films would just serve to create a long winded essay on his approach to film making and also to expose the various ways modern films need to calm the hell down. It is worth noting though that the femme fatale and revenge element in the plot, coming from the scorned Sumiko, is not lost on Ozu. Despite his very anti-Hollywood style Ozu still manages to include a few Noirish visual cues that come straight from the playbook of say Billy Wilder with a clever use of shadow and light in certain shots to inform the emotional state of a character. In one scene Sumiko is scene with lines of shadow passing across her face in a manner that recalls the famed Venetian blinds of the American Noir films of the 30s and 40s. Despite this quite dramatic sounding plot Floating Weeds never becomes hyperactive or unrestrained. It constantly maintains a level of calm that fits it right alongside Tokyo Story.
As much as the film draws on more overtly dramatic overtones it also pulls on plenty of comedic moments. We see the theatre troupe perform a few times over the course of the film and they’re amateurish abilities lend a few light laughs. Watching one character point something out to the south whilst the other says the moon is descending in the west, whilst pointing east, is one of those small touches I can appreciate. Another scene builds toward a mishap at a barbers that pays off a few scenes later with a plaster serving as the punchline. It’s little touches like this that don’t so much provide comedic relief to the drama as they do a sense of rhythm to the film’s emotional peaks and lulls. The reinforce the drama rather than distract from it.
Floating Weeds is an exceptionally strong work of genuinely classical Japanese cinema. I’d still say Tokyo Story is the better film, but it’s by such a small fraction that it’s negligible. The colours are rich. The framing is perfection. The filmic sensibilities are master work level. Performances are strong and measured, as they often are with Ozu. I’d happily suggest this as an introduction to Ozu’s work just as much as I would Tokyo Story. The only nitpick I’d have is that one of his trademark ellipses causes a little confusion as it involves a couple discussing the finite nature of their relationship just 2 scenes after beginning it. There’s been a certain amount of time past between these two scenes where their relationship has grown, but it can be a little bit of a jolt to the senses. Can’t argue that it’s not in keeping with Ozu’s style though. So, Floating Weeds, highly recommended and deserving of study. I can’t help but feel that modern film making would be in a better place if more young film makers were watching Ozu’s work.