‘Floating weeds, drifting down the leisurely river of our lives.’
April is national poetry month… and I’ve been thinking poetry these days. So that’s why the very title of this DVD on the shelf of the indie video store attracted me right away. I took it down soon as I saw it was directed by Ozu. Ozu’s films are visual poetry, the title ‘Floating Weeds’ is an apt prelude.
Floating Weeds (浮草, Ukigusa, 1959) is a remake of Ozu’s 1934 silent film ‘A Story of Floating Weeds’. The title comes from a favored Japanese metaphor as the above quote depicts. In this newer version the director has added colors and sound, and given his story a blossoming rebirth. The colors are vibrant yet the cinematography is contemplative. Unlike some art house films, and despite its title, ‘Floating Weeds’ is enlivened by humor, human interests, and augmented by actions. Despite the pensive mood the title evokes, I found it to be more story-driven than many of his other works. However, it is characters that ultimately carry the story, and Ozu’s brilliant direction that makes viewers care about them.
The story begins with a train dropping off a troupe of travelling players to perform in a small town. The master of the company Komajuro takes the chance to visit his former lover and see his son Kiyoshi, now grown up to be a fine young man, aspiring to attend college in the big city. But Komajuro has kept his real identity as Kiyoshi’s father from his son because he does not wish his low social status as a travelling actor, and the vulgar circle he associates with to tarnish Kiyoshi’s future. The plot thickens as Komajuro’s current mistress Sumiko finds out about his secrets. Burnt with anger and jealousy, she plots a scheme to destroy Kiyoshi by bribing the young actress Kayo to seduce him. The young man soon falls for the actress, but the scheme turns into a full-blown mutual love relation. Sadly, a marriage with Kayo would mean the quashing of his aspiration for higher education, and possible social reverberations and disgrace.
At the mean time, the drama troupe hits a low with disappointing attendance. The company has to disband. Komajuro facing failure on different fronts, has to make choices not only for himself, but the future of his son. In the final shot, the train that once took the travelling players to town now carries them off as disbanded individuals facing uncertain future. Like floating weeds, they drift on in the stream of life. And for Komajuro, he leaves town with the slim hope that his son would fare better than he in the oblivious currents of time.
I’ve enjoyed the subtle style of Ozu. Here is one of my favorite scenes in the film, and the dialogues are as contemporary as you can find in a 2010 movie. Whether one sees it as insight or foresight (considering it was remade in 1959), both are gems one discovers while watching the story unfold as casually as a quiet flowing stream.
The scene is about Komajuro talking to his son Kiyoshi as he arrives to his former lover’s home. All the years, Kiyoshi has only known Komajuro as an uncle. Although Komajuro is ecstatic to see his son all grown up with a bright future, he is also wary that his travelling drama troupe does not measure up to what he would wish for his son. Here in this scene, father and son’s conversation seems to touch on another issue: art and popularity. Through this most casual dialogue exchange, Ozu might have conveyed his own ambivalence on the subject more sharply than any wordy treatise.
Kiyoshi: I’ll go see your show. What do you play?
Komajuro: Forget it. It’s not meant for you.
Kiyoshi: Who is it for?
Komajuro: An audience.
Kiyoshi: I’m an audience.
Komajuro: I know. It’s nothing high-class. Forget about it.
Kiyoshi: Why show such plays? Show something better.
Komajuro: But I can’t.
Komajuro: Audiences today won’t understand good plays. So you can’t come to see it.
In his commentary on the 1934 silent movie, writer and film critic Donald Richie notes that Ozu’s films are full of ellipses. There are story sequences he left out for the audience to bridge. As well, he handled the story with restraints. Such a subtle way of presenting the material is a very modern style of storytelling. That might explain why I would care for characters in a Japanese movie made half a century back, where I have to read subtitles, and watch in black and white, or even silent. Herein lies the ingenuity and artistry of Ozu, that an audience so far removed in time, space, and culture, would find universality and common ground to be totally absorbed.
The Criterion Collection 2-DVD set includes both the 1934 silent movie and the 1959 color remake. The first features commentary by Donald Richie, the later version by Roger Ebert. According to IMDB, ‘Floating Weeds’ (1959) is on Ebert’s list of 10 best movies of all times.
CLICK HERE to my review of Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story.
7 thoughts on “Floating Weeds (1959)”
wow. these pictures have such great perspective
Yes, Ozu’s visual poetry in almost every frame.
I looked up Ebert’s list, and found his comments about the movies on it very interesting. It was fun to see what he had to say about this film, especially, and compare his estimate of it with yours.
I laughed when you mentioned Ozu’s subtlety. One woman’s subtlety is another’s inscrutability, I think! I have such a hard time with Japanese and Chinese cultures – the sense of “difference” is just so pervasive. We read other cultures like a text, and it’s mystifying to me that I could have moved so easily in West African society and feel such an outsider when confronted with Chinese or Japanese culture.
Lack of experience plays a role, I’m sure – and it may be that I need to see some of these films as a way of entering such a different world, rather than focusing on books.
In any event, you’ve written a great review. Art & popularity – always an issue!
As I mentioned in my first Ozu post where I wrote about Tokyo Story, I am only a recent admirer. I have Muriel Barbery to thank because it is in her book Elegance of the Hedgehog that I first knew about Ozu. Since then, my appreciation for the master director has grown by learning from Ozu scholars like David Bordwell, Donald Richie, and many other film critics, screenwriters and academics. So far, I’ve only watched several of Ozu’s works, and the audio commentaries in the Criterion Collection DVD’s are most valuable to aid my understanding of both the technical and the cultural subtexts of the films. I started with very minimal knowledge, but Ozu’s quiet and ‘transcendental style’ as Paul Schrader puts it, has really appealed to me even at first sight.
Japanese and Chinese are two distinct cultures. Further, within one culture, there are wide variations in styles and expressions. So my appreciation for Ozu’s works does not necessarily mean I would naturally enjoy other Japanese films, or that I would fall for Chinese movies, which, I’m afraid I would not use the word ‘subtle’ to describe most of them. Ozu has his own unique style and cinematic language that I have not found in Chinese movies.
Here are some sites that might pique your interest:
Click to access 1972-TransFilmSeriesNotes.pdf
As for one who resolves to linger by the pond of quiet thoughts, I don’t suppose art and popularity would pose too much of a dilemma for me. The idea of slow blogging is a giveaway.
I really enjoyed the links, and have another to add.
The University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies has made available the complete text of David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. I skimmed the initial page last night and was absolutely entranced. It can be read online or downloaded as a pdf. What wonders we have available to us!
Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema
There’s been a fascinating discussion relevant to the art/popularity issue over at Weather Underground. A blogger there who has moved over to Facebook asked the question in his blog: should I give up my blog since I spend most of my time on FB?
Eventually the consensus began emerging: it depends on what your purpose is. If it’s social connections, keeping up with people, building a network, FB is the one. If you want to provide content, FB is useless and the blog is the way to go. It’s been very interesting to watch.
Thanks Linda for reminding me the Bordwell link. I remember reading about it at ‘Screenwriting from Iowa.’ I must download it this time.
And for the other issue, that’s why I’m not on FB. Blogging works perfectly for a recluse like me, interacting with commenters is the most gratifying socializing for me! And I can’t say enough… thanks for throwing all those pebbles into the pond.
Arti, the dialogue you share is so pointed. The kind of thing we should aspire to write. True, yet clean, with so much behind it. Thanks for sharing it. It reinforces so many things, including your shared love of Ozu.
Is the first picture in this entry also from the movie? It’s an “oh my gosh” picture in its clarity and comparison.
Having read “Hedgehog,” I am delighted to see you extend/expand our knowledge of the Ozu. It gives the book hyper meaning (a good thing!) and does what we should love our books for and that is, opening doors.
Yes, both pictures are movie stills from Floating Weeds. There are many more beautiful shots. As for Hedgehog, I know they have a movie adaptation made. Wonder if it has been shown in your area. Just tying the two together, it would be amazing if it were Ozu who made it!
You review movies that would never be in my horizon otherwise…visual poetry, I like the very idea of it ….thanks
It’s always my pleasure to have you stop by and leaving your response. Just wondering… is Ozu a better known name where you are than here in Canada…
I do love restraint in a movie, and it sounds like the writing is beautiful. Thank you for this excellent review.
Ozu’s films are quiet stroll by the pond of thoughts. Not necessarily all beauty, but they speak with eloquence and poignancy.