by Lee Price
Ozu kids. Some are nice, some are bullies; some are natural leaders and others are followers; some are homeless and some appear to be well-provided-for; some come from kind, caring families and others from families that are disintegrating. Except for an occasionally disconcerting mode of stylized crying (both elbows fly up to a 90 degree angle and the fists cover the eyes), they look like kids you might pass on any street, or see playing in the park, or fidgeting across from you on the train or bus.
One could easily populate a playground with the kids in Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) films. They’re a natural part of the Ozu landscape, and therefore—over a career that spanned the direction of more than fifty films from 1928 to 1962—you often find children weaving into and out of the films’ backgrounds and foregrounds. In I Was Born, But… (1932), they are front and center.
The antics of the children are the primary engine behind the movie’s comedy, with Ozu building upon Hollywood ideas which he freshly adapts to the flat fields of the Japanese suburbs. The roaming gang of children and the friendly neighborhood dog inevitably recall the popular Our Gang comedies of the time, the gang is frequently photographed in tight ensemble shots that look like parodies of early Hollywood gangster films, and an appreciation for Chaplin setups is apparent throughout.
But that key word But in the title I Was Born, But… ultimately doesn’t lead toward comedy, but toward a wry acceptance of defeat. I Was Born, But… was the third in a series of Ozu comedies with titles that played on a common self-deprecating saying popular in Japanese culture at the time. It was an ironic acknowledgment that things might not work out well despite real efforts toward improvement—thus Ozu’s I Graduated, But…, his I Flunked, But… (a compounded irony where improvement occurs without effort), and finally I Was Born, But… And it’s never entirely clear in I Was Born, But… whom the I refers to—the salaryman father or one of his two sons. They all appear to be set on clear paths to non-achievement.
The plot is this: A lower management salaryman (the Japanese term) moves his family to the suburbs to ingratiate himself with his boss. His two sons must find ways to deal with a local gang of kids led by a bully. While the two boys succeed in mastering the adolescent social arena, rising to the top of the local pecking order, they receive an unpleasant surprise when they realize that their father is willing to submissively humiliate himself at work in hopes of professional and social advancement. The boys embark on a brief hunger strike to express their disapproval.
The father was born but… he has little power to deviate from the road that social forces have placed him on. The boys were born, but… their success on the playground probably won’t transfer to success in life. Their father’s destiny awaits.
Adapting a didactic filmmaking tactic which he rarely employed in his later movies, Ozu seized on one particular graphic visual image to serve as a sort of metaphor. It is a shot of telegraph poles paralleling a road which extends into the distance, the lines converging as they near the horizon. Ozu employs it to conclude two of the most important scenes.
In the first instance, the movie opens with a scene of the father and the boys arriving in their new hometown, with their rented truck becoming stuck in the mud. We first see the parallel lines of the road in the background behind the boys. Then, in the scene’s concluding shot, the father is filmed against the same background. When he exits the frame, leaving to subserviently pay his respects to his boss, Ozu lingers on the image of the road, the lines converging into the distance, before cutting to the next scene.
This image returns at the most critical moment in the film, as the boys realize that their idolized father is not as important as they assumed. They have been embarrassed witnesses at a showing of home movies where they see their father stoop to clowning on request for his boss, revealing to the boys the extent that he is willing to debase himself at work. As they process their new awareness of their father’s character, their understanding of the world shifts, their respect for their father crumbles, and their basic assumptions are fundamentally challenged. They walk down the road together at dusk, a Chaplinesque shot with the receding boys framed by the converging lines of the road and its telegraph poles. They are on a set path in life, just like their father. It is a much more didactic metaphor than Ozu would typically use in his later works, but still visually powerful.
The children’s ultimate plan for breaking out of their socio-economic status creates an additional layer to the film that Ozu could not have intended. It is a curious effect—equivalent to the way that scenes involving the World Trade Center have created unanticipated resonances within dozens of American movies made in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s (such as Godspell, the 1976 King Kong, the 1978 Superman, and Martin Scorsese’s New York Stories). The fact that the filmmakers never intended the resonances that now exist doesn’t negate their effect on the viewer.
As the parents encourage the boys to eat some rice cakes, breaking their hunger strike, the father asks them, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” The younger son answers, “A lieutenant general,” which prompts the question, “Why not a full general?” The answer is supposed to be the comic capper to the exchange, as the younger son refers to his big brother: “He says I can’t. That’s what he’s gonna be.”
However—at least in my case—the gentle ironic comedy of the dialogue is undermined by the inadvertent reminder that these children and their gang playmates will all be of age to serve in World War II looming just a decade away. The idea of entering the military to rise in socio-economic status makes sense so within the film the proposition is sensible—but it prompts the viewer to look at these children from a perspective that the writer and director could not have imagined in 1932. Personally, I think it deepens the movie.
As with the very greatest movies, I Was Born, But… grows more profound with repeat viewings. The comedy, always so generously handled, begins to resonate with the more serious themes. The implications of the social criticism become more concerning. The disappointments and the hurt become more apparent. All the actors—child and adult—memorably inhabit their roles, creating well-rounded characters. We recognize their humanness, a quality that Ozu identified in a 1953 interview as the main thing that he looked for in a movie:
“If you don’t convey humanness, your work is worthless. This is the purpose of all art. In a film, emotion without humanness is a defect. A person who is perfect at facial expression is not necessarily able to express humanness. In fact the expression of emotion often hinders the expression of humanness. Knowing how to control emotion and knowing how to express humanness with this control—that is the job of the director.”
Quoted in Ozu: His Life and Films
by Donald Richie
This humanness is fully on display in I Was Born, But…, which is a comedy, but…