Friday, January 07, 2011

The Only Son

Praise, Sing Out

Hitori musuko [The Only Son] by Yasujirô Ozu, 1936:

David Bordwell said the following in the video piece on the Criterion DVD featuring him and Kristin Thompson: "I think that Ozu is the greatest director ever to work in the history of cinema. And if I had to choose his competitor, it'd be Mizoguchi. And if I lived on a desert island I would just take all their films with me and that would be fine — that's cinema as far as I'm concerned." / Among the '30s films that really worked sound we can count M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Modern Times, Vampyr, The Lady Vanishes, The Only Son... / Ozu uses sound in The Only Son to concatenate shots, environments, 'memes' — sounds carry over on top of the shots, effectively glue together scenes or spaces; at times they give way to a sound-form that rhymes with the original — Ozu employs the soundtrack in this film, his second talkie (following the documentary/essay Kagamijishi), the same way he uses image-forms to carry the viewer deeper into the environment of the story and the network of resonances that orbit the star-protagonists / He suggests the metaphorical (sometimes gently symbolic, often metonymic) import of forms usually by way of the "pillow shots" which 'cleanse the palate' of the viewer between scenes that overtly advance the narrative — these pillow shots also ground the action geographically — however, as in a film like The Only Son, the pillow shots frequently reveal themselves as the set-up (the Shot A) to a series of 'establishing shots,' all of which are understood by the viewer, even as quickly as by the point of, say, Shot B, to represent the further 'penetration' into a place, keeping aloft a form evoked in Shot A / Sometimes the form may be a sound / Ozu and Lang / The tick-tocks of the clock(s) at the beginning (two clocks which ring the hour, several moments out of synch: the profound implications of Ozu-ian metaphysics) morph into the factory sounds outside the house / The factory sounds give way to the spinning wheels at the silk mill / The lantern in the opening shot finds its partner first in the lantern hanging near a wagon-wheel, as the silkworm-delivery-squadron parades through the background (the wheel itself linking the spinning wheels of the mill; more wheels than in early Eisenstein... you can read a bit more about this in my post on Ozu's A Picture-Book for Grown-Ups: I Was Born, But... here), then in the pile of bric-à-brac (here to inform us that the action has moved back into a household) / In Ozu scene-movement comes sidelong, absolutely oblique, totally clear / Baby chicks topple from and hop about some steps / Their chirps carry over / And Otsune (Chôko Iida) grinds a wheel picking up the circular action (literal/metaphorical) from her day at the mill, while her own offspring sits nearby, on the floor of the ramshackle home of the deceased father, a workplace away from the workplace, the domicile itself an abandoned mill / Thirteen years later, after Otsune has committed herself to putting her son through school, and this son, Ryôsuke (Shin'ichi Himori), has moved to Tokyo and taken a wife, Sugiko (Yoshiko Tsubouchi), the mother will at last take a break from the job to visit her son — presumably their first contact in years (his wife and his baby come as a surprise), in any case her first glimpse of Tokyo / Ozu films the prosperous capital with a camera mounted upon the running-board of an automobile — low-angle, overwhelmed, slightly abstract shots of a world that exists nebulously for the mother and for the son as well / The pair remove to Ryôsuke's house, located in a patch of bungalows which no road or path accesses directly — you have to cross an overgrown lot to arrive at the front door / A blighted district in Tokyo, where chimney smoke tricks the eye into spotting arson / When Ozu first moves us into the family's home (in the 'prelude') or into the son's home (in the film's 'body-proper'), we note that every coordinate of the frame has been appointed / A life that leaves its mark on, and by, the objects... the objects of production / Ryôsuke never smiles when he talks to his wife / What year did Japan learn geometry / Ozu-Antonioni-Tokyo (down to the cable spools from Il grido) / A caged bird leaps in the background of Ookubo's (Chishû Ryû's) restaurant / At the same time: Ryôsuke: "But in Tokyo you can hear cuckoos brought from the mountains in Nagano." / In Ookubo's tonkatsu joint, he remarks that his son Jirô ("Bakudan Kozô") has been giving him a lot of grief — cut to: long shot with sake cup in foreground, then Ryôsuke/Otsune POV angle of bottles propped on the counter — cut to: Ryôsuke: "Aren't you busy?" — Ookubo with a smile: "Not really." / On the walls of Ryôsuke's home: Joan Crawford — the "Germany" poster (ewige getaway — given the film being watched by mother and son, the 'talkie') — an upside-down charm against the baby's crying which, as it turns out, either does seem to work, or the baby... just isn't much of a wailer (one of the film's lovely grace notes) / Grace: the repeated shots of the mother dozing off, head bobbing, seated at the theater in front of the film, in correspondence with the rhythm of the music, an early precursor of the Martin child's dream of music in Film Socialisme / In his interesting booklet-essay, "Japan, 1936", which accompanies the Criterion disc, Tony Rayns identifies the talkie as Willi Forst's 1934 Unfinished Symphony / Rayns calls the footage "florid", but I think that Ozu's selections from the picture highlight the paradise for a Ryôsuke, any proletarian viewer, or any viewer, of the kitsch-dream / The movies were their getaway, their Lufthansa / In Japan, 1936, America, 1936, entertainment was exactly that and that was the movies / When Mártha Eggerth rushes through the grass it's almost as good as City Girl, and more desperate / Anyway, you can see ten-thousand films in this Only Son from before and after, it is as definitive as it is open (n.b.: Bordwell articulates the crucial point that in Ozu a pillow shot of a window, taken from inside a structure, is highly charged: the succeeding shot might present a wider-shot of a room inside of the domicile, or might move to the world outside the window — calm/anxiety at once) — for example, look at the cut from the film-within-the-film footage, the insert-shot of the tossed kerchief, to the fade-to-black, which picks up again back in the 'film world,' — this is pure Godard, pure Vivre sa vie / From that very fade-to-black, Ozu cuts back into, in fact, a sleeping-pillow in the foreground: Ryôsuke's gift to (just-dozing) Otsune / The mother built of sacrifice and expectation costs (no, really costs) a son a great deal / When Ryôsuke juts his head through his neighbor's window: intro to the Tomio (Tomio Aoki) thread — it's like Costa's Fontaínhas / And the sound of the pork vendor's clarion... / And it's an amazing scene when Ryôsuke remarks to his mother, the two exposed in the afternoon light: "The skylarks are singing so loud and clear." — cut to: angle, empty sky, bird-chirps on the soundtrack — repeat with Otsune — she looks up — cut to: angle, empty sky — (Chaplin's The Great Dictator: "Hannah, look to the sky...!") / Ryôsuke the geometry teacher, trapped in geometry / Otsune before the rice cauldron, as Otsune before the grinder thirteen years prior / (I love when Ozu returns to a specific shot setup, or a slight variation thereof, throughout a film but each time inflects it to a new focal point, literally by altering the plane of focus, a once prominent detail present only as a blur, like purely now a detail of 'landmark'; the Joan Crawford irasuto is just such one of these anchors) / "Here we're all the same. That's Tokyo." / The gravity of emotions pushes down on the skull and makes the head bow / Peaceful-sleeping baby is the counterpoint to the gravity, horizontal on the floor, prone (calm/anxiety; "an equal and opposite reaction") / The mother (a grandmother) holds her grandson, the breeze blows her kimono as she bobs, dancing and soothing the boy, echoing the movement of the drying laundry, while the wheels of an adjacent wagon, blocked in part by the window, recall the wheels of the silkspinners, thirteen years before — a connection between all generations / Tomi-chan appears before Otsune here like a spirit of premonition, before his accident (i.e., when he gets kicked by a horse) / The Tomio episode seems at first to represent an extreme tonal shift from the main story of the mother and the son — its connection to that thread is in remission until the accident / Two successive epilogues to the film, Ozu's most uniquely structured film to date / (The episode with the horse — precursor to something out of Fellini) / Ryôsuke — standing in the hospital before the anatomical model, the half-flayed man (cf. Ray's Bigger Than Life and the x-ray machine) / Crossing the field / "Think about it — would we be happy if we visited Gi'ichi many years from now, and saw that he was just a night-school teacher?" / At the end — the ineffable image of the mill gate, — the weeds that sway in the wind, as the trees before the mountain / To return to Bordwell, sidelong: The Only Son is cinema of the highest order / The work of a kami/creator who in Japan-'36 hasn't yet advanced into his three final decades of work / Each richer than the preceding

Hitori musuko [The Only Son] by Yasujirô Ozu, 1936:


Previous pieces on Ozu at Cinemasparagus:

A Straightforward Brat [1929]

Friends Fighting Japanese-Style [1929]

Tokyo Chorus [1931]

A Picture-Book for Grown-Ups: I Was Born, But... [1932]

Where Have the Dreams of Youth All Gone? [1932]

Passing Fancy [1933]

A Tale of Floating Weeds [1934]

Kagamijishi [1936]


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