|Hideo Sugawara, Seiichi Kato, Tomio Aoki (from left). Wikipedia / Shochiku.|
IMDb synopsis by Peter Renoir Nakai: "Two young brothers become the leaders of a gang of kids in their neighborhood. Their father is an office clerk who tries for advancement by playing up his boss. When the boys visit the boss' house with their father, they discover that their dad has been making a fool of himself to please his boss, who's son is an outwitted member of the boys' gang."
Revisited Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born, But..., for Donald Richie, "the first of his great films".
It's a tale about the birth of social consciousness, a satire on class society in which the children's world and the grown-ups' world mirror each other.
After the film I read the remarks of Donald Richie and David Bordwell, always rewarding.
Richie thinks that the film is, among other things, about a loss of innocence and resignation to the order of things where the boss is the greater man. For Bordwell, from the start, the dad, Yoshii, is presented as a loser, and the epilogue "presents a veritable orgy of images of resignation".
I think, too, that on a certain level I Was Born, But... is about all that - a loss of innocence, and a resignation to the realities of social hierarchy and class distinctions.
The film had its premiere in 1932. Japan had attacked Manchuria and established the puppet state of Manchukuo on the Soviet border; many find this attack the true start of the Second World War; certainly, from the viewpoint of the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. it was so. Certain prominent Japanese directors, such as Kenji Mizoguchi, produced imperialist propaganda in 1932. Ozu always managed to avoid that, even during his service of five years in the army in the 1940s with the sole task to make propaganda films.
The key revelation of I Was Born, But... takes place in the "film within the film", boss Iwasaki's home movie evening, where we, and the sons, see dad, "the great man" reduced to a clown. It's buffoonery, it's nonsense, it's about making funny / mad faces. It was familiar territory for Ozu who started his film career in nonsense farces. The sons' reverent image of their father is crushed, and dad himself is utterly embarrassed.
The sons are embarrassed, and dad is embarrassed because his sons are. But I find that Ozu and we the viewers can see all this from a higher perspective. Ozu's favourite director was Ernst Lubitsch, and in the same year 1932 Lubitsch directed his episode The Clerk for If I Had a Million, quoted in extenso in Ozu's Tokyo no onna / A Woman of Tokyo (1933). The Lubitsch episode ends with the clerk's raspberry to his boss, and I feel that Yoshii's clownery belongs to the same category. There is a sequence in I Was Born, But... where the camera pans to reveal a whole row of yawning employees at the office, and the film continues seamlessly with a pan in the classroom showing equally bored schoolboys. This kind of satire is obviously Lubitschean, and I find the stance of both Lubitsch and Ozu far from submissive or resigned. Ozu may be a conservative and a traditionalist, but he weighs his people on scales more substantial than those of social hierarchy. Jokes were Ozu's shield also during his war service when he defied authority in defense of Kurosawa.
This looked like a clean and integral print from somewhat challenging and duped sources, image sometimes slightly cropped from the top. Not bad, not one of the best print-wise, but perhaps as good as it gets.