A Story of Floating Weeds ★★★½

The first Ozu film that feels distinctly "Japanese." Which is funny because for a time many believed Ozu's films were "too Japanese" to be appreciated by western audiences. The irony? Ozu was making western-inflected, Hollywood tributes and films about Japan's modernization since the beginning of his career long before anyone from the West even really knew about him. To call his films "too Japanese" is to be entirely unfamiliar with the kinds of stories he frequently told, which wouldn't grow in popularity in the West till after the war. A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS is the first film I've seen from Ozu that feels like a period piece. Every character wears traditional Japanese garb, the setting reflects traditional kabuki theater and performances, even Ozu's use of iconography draws upon Japanese religious traditions and motifs. More jidai-geki (historical) less gendai-geki (contemporary) in nature. It’s one of the few films Ozu shot outside of Tokyo to capture the ancient spell. 

One noticeable difference compared to previous films is the absence of comedy and emphasis on mood, the kind of serious tone that would become signature of Ozu later on. Themes of generational conflict between fathers and sons, specifically a father who wants to gain his son's respect, is more developed here than PASSING FANCY (1933) but less intriguing than I WAS BORN, BUT (1932). Ozu had previously told stories about eroding families but had usually included comic flourishes to lighten the mood. Here we have a more complex and somber situation going on. 

Families are living on the margins of Japanese society, floating like weeds in the wind without roots to tie them to the earth. It's a symbolic image that reflects the lives of the story's traveling actors, but more specifically the life of a father who abandoned his son as a boy and who now wants to reconcile with him as an adult. I love how the father is never painted as a villain, but as a secret anti-hero whose hidden motives begin to shed light on a favorite Ozu-theme: Parents will often visit their estranged children who despise them, and it is these same parents who will have made great sacrifices for their children that their children can't or won't appreciate. That's not to exonerate the choices Ozu's parents often make, as there is often collateral damage the children must bear because of their parent's neglect. As one reviewer put it, it is the children of Ozu's stories "who must always face the specters of their parent's lies and disappearance from their lives." 

Here we have a story about a father who loses his claim of patriarchal authority, but whose deception towards his son was a necessary component to give him an education and a good job. It's the story of a father who doesn't want his son to grow up to be like him, poor and forever floating like weeds in the wind. A story about Ozu's own conflicted relationship with his father? Perhaps. But it's an important milestone in the auteur's career that carries him deeper into human relations, deeper into complex emotions, and deeper into the kinds of films he'd ultimately be known for.


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