This week Jason Julier introduces Ozu to Eastern Premise, with an early silent, I Was Born, But….
Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo lit otherwise known as I Was Born, But… is an early silent film from Yasujiro Ozu. Filmed in late 1931 until early 1932, it represents one of his most beloved works and a film he would remake in 1959 as the enjoyable but admittedly inferior Ohayo (Good Morning). Conveniently the excellent BFI Ozu blu ray series, offers both films in a single dual format release. Only Good Morning is in high definition however, as sections of I Was Born, But… are scratched and damaged but remain entirely watchable.
This edition of Eastern Premise marks the debut of Yasujiro Ozu, rated by some as the greatest ever film director. Unlike many of his contemporaries that I’ve already covered, Ozu prefers to depict the daily lives of the Japanese middle-class. The harsh realities of street life and prostitution that have formed common themes in Eastern Premise to date are nowhere to be seen. Instead in I Was Born But… we have the typical family unit with the husband as the sole breadwinner and a company ‘yes’ man. Ozu wanted to make a film about children, but the initial light hearted feeling changes midway to a more pessimistic outlook, switching attention to the adults in the story.
The change in social class brings new dynamics to proceedings. The lives of the middle-class here are tranquil and without threat of starvation or where the next wage packet will come from. Instead the social circle consists of playing tennis, enjoying films and relaxing in spacious homes. Ozu tended to focus only on a handful of topics, identifiable to us all, even today, which imbeds his films with a timeless and universal quality.
Clearly by 1931 Ozu was an extremely confident and capable director. This is evident from I Was Born, But… where he even manages to coax exceptional performances out of the most disruptive, volatile and challenging of resources, i.e. children. The cast and events of the film are dominated by children of a young age. Perhaps it’s just me, but whenever I watch this film I think of Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, where the children have adult sensibilities and their own persona. Underneath such an exterior they are kids and can call upon this defense mechanism when required. A perfect example in I Was Born, But… comes when the father punishes his oldest son, Ryoichi. Clearly knowing that his time is up, the youngest son (Keiji) considers his options before embracing tears, like his beaten brother. It’s one of my favourite moments from the film, an enticing mix of humour, emotion and violence and at the same time, a touch of relief.
We join the Yoshii family as they are making the move out towards a Tokyo suburb. It soon transpires that this move not only offers the opportunity for the two sons to have more freedom, but also (much to the delight of office gossip) means Yoshii’s boss will be a neighbour. Already evident is the pressure from both parents for their sons to excel at school and receive top grades; a trend that continues today. Beneath the confident exterior of Yoshii, we realise through the course of the film that he is unhappy in his job and feels (as many of us do) that his promise and talent remain unfulfilled. This aspect highlights the universal quality of Ozu’s films, as we all can look back on our youth, and at times feel disappointed by how our life has panned out. This regret is turned towards his offspring who must not repeat the same mistakes.
Both of Yoshii’s sons are excellent and deliver charismatic and engaging performances. At times the duo is capable of widespread mischief and a range of facial emotions necessary in the silent medium. They generally run amok and have little to worry about, yet feel threatened by the school bully, which in turn forces both boys into truancy and potentially their future in society. This prompts a series of confrontations with the bully, his gang and ultimately their own father who is seen to display qualities that disappoint both his two sons. For both lads it is a wakeup call that life will continue to be unfair, even after school.
The original running time of I Was Born, But… was 100 minutes but this was cut and the version we have today clocks in at 86 minutes. This is typical of many releases in Japan where studios and censors played an important part in a theatrical release. The initial release was actually delayed for two months by the Shochiku Kamata Studio, as by all accounts the dark subject matter was not expected. As I suggested in Eastern Premise 48 with Kurutta Ippeji (A Page of Madness), we have to be thankful for what little Japanese silent films remain in existence.
For this release the BFI commissioned a new score by Ed Hughes. This works well and doesn’t interfere with onscreen events, although the option to watch the film without any accompaniment is available. Such a move allows you to appreciate the trademark Ozu transitions, camera angles, lack of movement and why Ozu resisted the temptation to embrace the dawn of sound. Preferring to carry on with the silent medium almost 6 years after other directors had embraced sound technology; it was partially helped by the Japanese benshi. Ultimately Ozu did change tact but it wasn’t until 1936 that his first talkie arrived in the form of The Only Son.
The BFI release offers the ability to compare both films from an influential director at the dawn and sunset of his career. Apart from the informative booklet, there are no extras to be found which given the status of Ozu I find disappointing. It is a consistent trend that the BFI has kept throughout their Ozu series. Even today, the films do speak for themselves, although a little more background or educational introduction would have been appreciated.