‘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.