..

FLOATING WEEDS/A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Takeshi Sakamoto, Choko Iida, Hideo Mitsui, Rieko Yagumo, Reiko Tani; Ganjiro Nakamura, Haruko Sugimura, Machiko Kyo, Ayako Wakao.
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Audio: Japanese monaural
Subtitles: Japanese intertitles, English
Video: Color and black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary tracks by Donald Richie and Roger Ebert, trailer
Length: 205 minutes
Release Date: April 20, 2004

"Floating weeds, drifting down the leisurely river of our lives..." 

Film ****

By the 1930's, sound had become a standard feature in the film industry.  However, some corners of the international film community, Japan for instance, were still producing silent movies.  In 1934, a young and promising Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu, created one such silent classic - A Story of Floating Weeds.  Ozu, in his later years, would prove to be the most beloved director in Japan, much more popular than even Akira Kurosawa, but during the 1930's, he was still developing his expressive and cinematic style.  In this early film, though, Ozu already revealed a budding interest in subtle stories about family relationships.

Today, A Story of Floating Weeds is considered one of Ozu's finest successes.  In Japanese society, the "floating weeds" are emblematic of lonely wanderers.  In Ozu's film, they are the members of an acting troupe that travels across the lands of Japan.  A Story of Floating Weeds, as with many Ozu films, emphasizes characters over melodrama or plots, as the interactions between characters, no matter how small or trivial, provide the "drama" of the typical Ozu film.

Filmed in Kamisuwa, central Japan, A Story of Floating Weeds is partially an adaptation of a silent American film, The Barker (1928) by George Fitzmaurice, that had been popular in Japan.  Ozu's film focuses upon the theme of erosion of the family.  It starts with the arrival of a traveling Kabuki troupe into a small Japanese village.  Four years have passed since the troupe's last visit, and there is some excitement in the air.  The troupe's master, Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto), decides to visit a former mistress who resides in this town and who has raised their son, Shinkichi (Koji Mitsui).  The son, a recent graduate from an agricultural college, is a handsome young man, and Kihachi is proud of him.  However, Kihachi has hidden his true relationship to his son all these years, instead pretending to be Shinkichi's uncle while still secretly providing money to support his son's education.

Father and son spend time together, going fishing or playing traditional board games.  To Kihachi, his time together with his son is precious, each moment to be cherished.  Yet when Shinkichi raises a desire to see one of Kihachi's plays, Kihachi responds that his plays are not for his son, whose future should be in his study. 

This is an important point in the film, reflecting not only Japanese traditional familial bonds but ultimately Kihachi's own shame about his acting profession.  Kihachi is the typically proud Asian parent sacrificing of himself so that his offspring may find greater status or happiness in life.  Shinkichi represents a future success for Kihachi, so his love for his son is very strong indeed.

But as an actor, Kihachi's place in society is low, for common actors were not highly regarded in Japanese society.  To further emphasize this social alienation, the female actresses of Kihachi's troupe are shown to be heavy smokers at a time in Japanese society when smoking was considered the lot of fallen women.  Thus, these actors are all members of a fallen caste, the floating weeds of society, and disdain was cast upon any intimate association with them.

One actress, Otaka (Reiko Yagumo), is Kihachi's current mistress.  Grown suspicious of Kihachi's increasing absence between performances,  she becomes jealous and begins to suspect the worst.  She tracks down Kihachi's secret, former mistress and accuses Kihachi of unfaithfulness, not understanding that Kihachi's true love is a familial one for his son.  This subtle difference is lost upon Otaka, whose interference threatens to shatter what harmony Kihachi has experienced.  Otaka's response upon finally learning the truth is to convince a young actress in the troupe to seduce the young man; it is Otaka's manner of seeking retaliation for the unfaithfulness she falsely perceives in Kihachi, though she cannot truly understand how deeply this wound will hurt him.

Kihachi realizes that acting is not a praise-worthy profession - "My son belongs to a better world than yours."  For an actress to seduce his son, ruining his future in Kihachi's eyes, is nearly too unbearable to the old actor.  That the ultimate source of this pain should come from his current mistress is a grave betrayal indeed, one that will propel Kihachi and his two "families" (the troupe actors and his ex-mistress and son) towards the film's bittersweet conclusion.

Floating Weeds (1959) represents Ozu's return to his early silent classic.  Ozu had long expressed a desire to revisit his earlier film, and when the opportunity presented itself in 1959, he decided to remake the film.  The new film, shot on the island of Shijima, along the Wakayama Kii Peninsula and photographed in exquisite color with the participation of the celebrated cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, Ugetsu), focuses upon Ozu's love of everyday family life, with its happiness and its sorrow.

The plot is essentially very similar to that for Ozu's original 1934 film, although some of the names are different.  The master of a traveling Kabuki acting troupe is now named Komajuro, and the film is set in contemporary 1950's Japan when Kabuki groups were in the final waning days of their popularity.  The dissolution of Kabuki troupes of the time added to the pathos of the film in general, for the film's Japanese audience would possess foreknowledge of the ultimately inevitable fate of Komajuro's Kabuki troupe.

Floating Weeds starts with the arrival of Komajuro Arashi (Ganjiro Nakamura) and his drama troupe to a small coastal village, home to Komajuro's ex-mistress.  Like many of Ozu's films, Floating Weeds is a contemplative and quiet exploration of the dynamics between parents and their offspring, in this case between a father, his former mistress, and the son they share.  The son, Kiyoshi, believes that the father, Komajuro, is an uncle who visits from time to time.  The truth, however, will eventually be revealed after Komajuro's current mistress interferes into Komajuro's private affairs and brings sadness to everyone involved.

Ozu's two films, although quite similar in dialogue/intertitles, camera setups, and shot composition, differ in their overall tone.  The original black & white film is more somber and at times bitter (although it does contain several comic passages, mostly involving rehearsals or performances).  It possesses a poignant lyricism evident in some of the best silent films.  Ozu's later film, on the other hand, is more upbeat and optimistic, being brighter and filmed in color.  Thanks to the cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa, Floating Weeds is also considered the most visually picturesque of Ozu's films.

Some of the symbolism remains intact in both films - the image of rain as a harbinger of bad luck or the downward drift of cherry blossom petals during scenes of intense emotions, for instance.  Some themes are absent in the later film - for instance, the progressive establishing shots of the son's bicycle in carefully composed shots to indicate his loss of innocence and his budding maturity.  One new aspect of the later film is the parallel it draws between the elderly Komajuro and the younger actors in the troupe, who are mirror reflections of a younger Komajuro exploring the town in search of love.  But in the end, both films end similarly with the dissolution of the acting troupe and the troupe master leaving town in face of a cloudy, uncertain future.

Which version of the film is more appealing?  I imagine people will generally prefer Floating Weeds simply because it is a modern film with sound and extremely bright colors.  A Story of Floating Weeds may probably appeal more to art or film students.  Both versions are excellent, however.

This is not to say that the later color film is more superficial, because it is a fine film that represents Ozu at the pinnacle of his craft.  The very fact that Ozu could essentially make the same film twice with nearly identical plots, yet have each film be considered a classic in its own right, is a true homage to Ozu's great talents as a director.  Ozu remade his own films not only once but several times over the course of his career, a true testimony to the undeniable universality and timelessness of his simple stories.

BONUS TRIVIA - Chishu Ryu, Ozu's favorite actor, makes a cameo appearance in Floating Weeds as a theater owner.

Video ** 1/2

A Story of Floating Weeds is shown in its original black & white, full-frame format.  The transfer was created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive.  The film is technically a silent one, but it looks a great deal better than most silent films.  While there are some inevitable signs of age, such as minor scratches, frame jitters, emulsion fluctuation, or mild stock degradation, relatively speaking the film still looks superb.  Furthermore, the projection speed gives a very natural, fluid feel to motion in the film, unlike the sped-up appearance of many silent films.  Of course, A Story of Floating Weeds was made in the mid-1930's, so the comparison may not be entirely fair, but nevertheless, as a silent black & white film, the picture shows great clarity and black levels, with no wash-out of images.  Details are fine and the film also appears luminous at times.  Even surprisingly, the camera work shows some movement, a stark contrast to the virtually static and meticulously composed shots of Ozu's later films.

Floating Weeds is presented in its original color, full-frame format.  The transfer was created from a 35mm low-contrast print made from the original camera negative.  The picture is generally sharp with often-brilliant colors and extremely clear details.  Dust and age spots are minimized.  However, the frame occasionally jitters around scene changes, and there is a rare flickering of the image density every so often, concessions to the film's age.  Also, there is grain evident throughout the print, and a few digital artifacts do arise, such as edge enhancement and interlace artifacts.  None of these flaws are really evident on smaller sets, only on 36" screens or larger.  For an old Japanese film, Floating Weeds looks decent enough.

Audio **

A Story of Floating Weeds is presented with a new, optional musical score by Donald Sosin.  The score has a Schumann-like quality which is pleasant albeit not very Japanese-sounding.  An ethnically-themed score would have been ideal, but Sosin's score is still fine here, played by keyboards with a distinct piano tonality.

Floating Weeds is presented in its original Japanese monophonic sound.   Dialogue is clear and upfront, although the original sound is slightly thin and the musical track is slightly distorted early in some early scenes, including the title sequence.  The score, as in many later Ozu films, has a simplistic and innocent Ye Olde Village quality.  It adds a sense of timelessness and tranquility to the proceedings, which at times can be sad.

Features **

This is a two-DVD release from Criterion.  The first disc contains A Story of Floating Weeds and a commentary track by Donald Richie, a film scholar on Japanese cinema.  Richie is quite chatty and concentrates on Ozu's directorial style as well as themes within the film.  Donald Richie also provides a very extensive written essay comparing both films.  The essay discusses Ozu's idiosyncratic style as a director and the similarities and differences between the two versions of his film.  The essay is excellent and can be found on the package insert.

The second disc contains Floating Weeds and its trailer, as well as an audio commentary by film critic Roger Ebert.  Ebert spends much of his time describing the composition and framing or cinematography of the film.  However, he does occasionally discuss some of Ozu's stylistic touches and common themes.

Summary:

This solid Criterion release offers two classic Ozu films, which should be a boon to any admirers of the noted Japanese filmmaker.  Let's hope that Criterion continues to release more Ozu films onto DVD!