Dan Anderson takes a look at an intergenerational drama by Japan’s master of subtlety and shade, Yasujirô Ozu.
It’s 1932, and quite some time before Ozu entered the ‘old master’ phase he became best known for. The final period of the director’s career saw his camera remain notoriously still: resolute, drawing individual characters into each scene in close-up, modestly cutting away to kind-faced or troubled relatives, and building up scenes with such a degree of patience and artistry that it now becomes easy to forget the director’s filmic language did not always exist so.
I Was Born, But… is a silent film completed 17 years before Ozu’s accepted masterwork, Late Spring, and centres upon a low middle-class family in suburban Tokyo. Through depicting how the father’s struggles at career progression are intertwined with the two sons’ attempts to ascend in their local gang hierarchy, the film examines the shifting familial dynamic. It’s filmed in black and white with a camera that, although partial to its fair share of still takes, is prone to quick dashes across the suburban landscape; hunting for parallels between generations with a kind of raw energy that is at odds with the director’s later work.
Take for example the camera’s pan from the staid setting of the grown-ups’ office (where the father’s colleagues are poking fun at him for pandering to his boss), to the children sitting at their desks at school, before finally roaming towards the two young protagonists who are duly bunking-off in order to avoid the bullies. There is a feeling of movement and fluid comparison between the different parties that appears so much more urgent than Ozu’s later films, and it seems to show the inner-workings of the director’s mind in a more transparent way than his proceeding works.
It’s not that this film isn’t refined – or doesn’t demonstrate the points-of-interest that Ozu will continue to examine throughout his career – but it just seems to work on a slightly different plane to the director’s later work. The characters reveal rawer and more immediate emotions, and there are genuinely threatening moments rarely seen elsewhere in his canon (such as when the towering bully first squares up to the two brothers, or when the kids are visibly confused and shaken after witnessing the home video footage of their father degrading himself for his boss’ pleasure).
The biggest achievement of the film has a lot to do with this fluidity of movement and shifting character perspective. For example, the bully who initially appears so overpowering and menacing is later dwarfed and beaten by the older saké delivery boy, and after being left in tears is shown to be what he really is: a young child. By the end of the film he becomes an object of comic pity after failing to solve the toy puzzle and, in turn, missing the chance to bow to his teacher. How positions in the group can change.
The two boys stand their ground when challenged by the local kids, and eventually rise to the top of the group’s hierarchy. They become the dominating influence, especially the older boy who is shown to be increasingly strong-willed and rebellious. As Ozu shifts between the children and grown-ups, though, it becomes apparent that their father is not quite the man they thought he was. While he is strict with the boys and demanding of straight-As, his ‘work persona’ is revealed to the children during the watershed home video sequence. While the boys were viewed as disappointments by their father for bunking from school, they are now disgusted by his weak behaviour and are, in turn, seen to be the family’s power-figures.
The ending is where this film’s brilliance is really revealed, though, as well as the familiar, humanist style that really links it together with Ozu’s later works. Much more complicated than their father simply being a weakling or suck-up, his reaction to their anger shows him to be a self-aware and understanding man who is capable of sympathising with his children’s reaction and communicating with them honestly. On the night of the big argument, he observes the sleeping children and turns to his wife to say: “just don’t become yes-men like me”. This is the real Ozu moment of the film, and signifies how easy and even inevitable it is for perspectives and people to shift over time (in turn with the camera), and that they are all really a product of the spectator’s narrow point-of-view.
Visit Dan’s blog for more film analysis and reaction.