Ozu’s Fading Simplicity

Ozu’s camera always remains motionless in his film Floating Weeds from 1959. The camera acts as a passive observer – its angle stimulating an individual sitting in the traditional seiza-style. Much like his camera, Ozu was a traditional and passive observer to the immense changes undergoing Japanese society following the accession of Japan’s first independent post-war government in 1952. The film’s title derives from a famous Japanese metaphor: “Floating weeds, drifting down the leisurely river of our lives,” which has long been favored by poets. Ozu’s films often feature scenes of everyday life and capture their message in simplicity and observation.  Floating Weeds, according to Ozu, is a remake of his 1934 silent, black and white film titled A Story of Floating Weeds. Following on the heels of the 1931 conquest of Manchuria, Ozu’s film was received by an audience in the midst of a societal shift towards militarization and imperialism. Less than 20 years later, Ozu’s film found a different set of societal circumstances, but its almost identical plot still placed on display the steady decline of Japanese tradition as well as historical and cultural identity.

The film follows a traveling theater troupe which arrives in a town, by boat, to put on a series of kabuki performances. Kabuki is a traditional Japanese theater performance originating in the 17th century. The year is 1958.  The troupe’s leader, Komajuro, spends his time away from the theater visiting his mistress and secret son much to the disdain of his current lover, Sumiko. The theater troupe struggles to attract a crowd and when their manager abandons them they become stranded in the small town. After a defector steals all the troupe’s money, Komajuro must dissolve the group and send them all their separate ways. Komajuro returns to his first mistress Oyoshi appearing to have resolved to settle down and reveal the truth of Kiyoshi’s parentage. While all this is happening, Kiyoshi falls in love and has intercourse with Kayo, a member of Komajuro’s troupe who was enlisted to seduce Kiyoshi by Sumiko. The revelation of this relationship brings Komajuro into a conflict with Sumiko and Kiyoshi, a conflict not resolved until the final scene. In the end, Kiyoshi refuses to accept Komajuro as his father and dismisses his father’s disdain for Kayo because of her unclean past and his own abandonment of an educated future. In all of this, Sumiko suffers the most. She faces the potential loss of her son and his dreams to Kayo. Her realization she will never see her former lover Komajuro again is made more poignant because she knows Kiyoshi will live knowing he never had a relationship with his father. The film ends similarly to how it began – Komajuro, an old itinerate stuck in his ways, leaves to continue performing, but now he is without a collection of young companions in tow (Floating Weeds).

On its surface, Floating Weeds follows the story of a family losing its traditional Japanese structure and values. After World War Two, the new Japanese constitution provided women legal equality and the right to vote. Marriage was legally defined and the new civil code demanded property be disturbed among all descendants, breaking with the traditional household family organization (Wagatsuma 406). Ozu does not explicitly introduce these political changes but rather demonstrates their subtle ramifications in everyday life; this technique fits with his classic shomingeki style of approaching his films with the genre of common experience. In Floating Weeds, Ozu takes this a step further by writing as if “the whole world exists in one family” (Richie 321). Komajuro and Kiyoshi’s fishing scene offers a prime example of the clash of traditional and contemporary family values. Kiyoshi desires to leave the small town and receive further education while Komajuro warns him against leaving his mother alone. From post-war to contemporary society, Japan has seen a decline in the traditionally rigid house system where the eldest son would exclusively inherit the family’s assets (Wagatsuma 422). Like Kiyoshi, many youth abandoned their familial obligations in order to pursue occupational and family lives of their own. Ozu’s portrayal of Komajuro and Kiyoshi’s generational split on familial structure speaks to the modernization and westernization of the concept of family in Japan at the time.

By personifying changing family values in his character’s actions, Ozu associates a negative connotation and a loss of spirit with Japan’s loss of the traditional family. Komajuro on his own represents an absent father figure – a theme for many youth who lost fathers during the war. Kiyoshi’s fatherless upbringing alludes to the displacement of the family hierarchy as a direct result of the destruction of the war. Indirectly, the war strengthened the right to divorce in Japan, a right which began to be utilized more and more by women weakening the traditional family structure and value (Wagatsuma 415). Kiyoshi’s later sexual unorthodoxy can be traced back to his untraditional family environment. For children who lost fathers in war or through a divorce, a similar loss of traditional values could be in store for them. Kiyoshi further dissolves the traditional Japanese family by attempting to marry without the consent of his mother. Such premarital sex and independent marriage mirror the trends among Kiyoshi’s fellow youth at the time (Wagatsuma 420).While Komajuro represents the absent father, he, unlike others, made the conscious choice to abandon the traditional family structure, a decision which did not end well. In Komajuro, observers see the warnings of an older generation for those precipitating the loss of the traditional family.  Komajuro and Kiyoshi’s sexual immorality casts a bleak shadow on the loss of family tradition they represent.

While Ozu provides insight into the impact of the changing family in Japan, his film also highlights the loss of a shared cultural and historical memory. Floating Weeds showcases a staple Ozu motif – mono no aware. Mono no aware demonstrates “a serene acceptance of a transient world”  (Silver 120) through a loss or tragedy. When Komajuro dissolves his acting troupe, they celebrate their memories together with a drink and move forward with their lives with a shrug and smile, a classic component of mono no aware (Silver 120). Yet, the dissolution of the troupe characterizes the decline of traditional cultural rituals in post-war Japan in favor of western popular culture. The very fact Ozu employs the classical mono no aware atmosphere during the scene spotlights the fading of historical memory. During the 1950’s, kabuki theaters “gradually became monopolized and institutionalized by large corporations” (Nakamura 117) and eventually faded away as actors sought modern performances. While the troupe’s dissolution may seem a mere plot point to move the film forward, Ozu depicts the final days of a dying art form. Furthermore, the play the audience sees performed by the troupe, “Chuji Kunisada”, depicts a folk- hero, who after he abandons his family to disaster, attempts to redeem himself by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Yet, the troupe only attracts small, nostalgic crowd. With the fading of kabuki, Ozu shows Japan losing a tool for passing on its historical memory and cultural values.

Ozu portrays a third transformation in Japanese society – urbanization and its corresponding idealization of simple, rural life. Unbeknownst to Ozu at the time, a multi-million dollar domestic tourist industry would arise to satisfy the Japanese desire for nostalgic tourism (Creighton 240). During Japan’s reconstruction, a massive urbanization occurred moving labor to rebuild and industrialize Japanese cities. With the help of the Americans, Japan became a manufacturing hub of the world economy. The migration to cities left many Japanese disconnected from their rural roots. Ozu’s portrayal of a life in a simple rural town sparks in viewers a “desire to emulate tradition and a lost rural lifestyle in a quest for community and collective identity” (Creighton 241). The family businesses and casual afternoon sake found in Floating Weeds stand in stark contrast to the realities of a new, urban life. The loss of rural roots creates a sense of identity loss in the Japanese people and has led to the idealization of communities such as the one Ozu portrays. It is a telling choice that Ozu decided to set his film in a rural community of the past and not in an urban center of the future. By contrasting the movie theater audiences would have seen his film in with the rural setting, Ozu reminds his audience of the loss of simple, traditional rural life. A loss which invokes in the Japanese a sense of nostalgia and disconnect from their traditional identity further establishing the film’s backdrop as a presentation of Japanese tradition’s decline and ramifications.

Floating Weeds illustrates one last degeneration in Japanese tradition and culture by picturing the fading of itinerant life. Closely tied to the loss of the traditional kabuki performance, the loss of itinerant segments of society facilitate a move away from tradition. In the past, the tekiya, an itinerant group in Japan, were at the center of masturi, a religious Japanese festival. They see themselves as “indispensable to the Japaneseness of this very Japanese event,” (Raz 218) even though many itinerants were marginalized or minorities. Matsuri and other itinerant population’s contributions, such as kabuki, have faded in Japanese society. The reasons for this fade can be seen in the breakup of Komajuro’s troupe – there is no profit or interest in traditional rituals because of modernization’s disconnection from past values. As the itinerant lifestyle declined, the Japanese lost a part of their tradition. Ozu foreshadows the end of the itinerant lifestyle, as he did with other aspects of traditional decline, subtly. The final scene of the film, where Komajuro leaves with Sumiko best reveals Ozu’s message: the itinerant lifestyle is over and not because it clashes with traditional values but rather modern values. The poor, not materialistic lifestyle Komajuro opts for in the end clashes with the rise of the middle class in Japan. Ozu presents his audience an opportunity to ask themselves, would I choose Komajuro’s path? The rhetorical answer helps shine a light on how the loss of tradition and culture intertwined with the increasing prevalence of sedentary life. While itinerant groups had traditionally been minorities, they impact on traditional Japan ritual remains essential (Raz 211). The victory against sedentary life made by Komajuro is small compared to the defeat of the remainder of his troupe. The contemporary Japanese individual cannot mimic Komajuro because of the decline in other traditional values. Urbanization does not provide access to the roaming countryside and the loss of the traditional family did not provide freedom to move freely but incentive for individuals to construct their own sedentary lives. By presenting the cultural tradition of kabuki, Ozu gives the audience an example of how the decline of itinerant existence takes with it a piece of Japanese tradition. Ozu’s subtle portrayal of the decline in itinerant life encapsulates his depiction of the loss of tradition in Japan and its resulting impacts on the everyday life of his characters and the reactions’ of his viewers.

Ozu’s film Floating Weeds, when taken in the historical context of its production, reveals a loss of tradition and historical culture in the Japanese post-war era. Ozu never explicitly comments on if the decline in tradition and culture is good or bad but rather provides an ideal image in which to visualize the decline. While Ozu’s first version released in 1934 similarly contrasted its setting and characters with industrialization, its second remake displays the continuation, even speeding up, of the decline of tradition in Japan. The film highlights four specific losses as a result of this usurpation of tradition: loss of the traditional family, loss of cultural rituals and historical memory, loss of rural lifestyle, and loss of itinerant existence. Through the interplay of plot, Ozu personifies these losses in his setting and characters to provide audiences a context to which compare their own lives and realize the true victims of modernization. Ozu sparks an emotional nostalgia for rural life by placing his film in a rural setting – probing his audience to examine the impact of urbanization on tradition and their sense of identity. He displays a dysfunctional and unorthodox family structure which parallels the evolution of the family structure in contemporary society. Ozu presents the audience with the reality that their caretakers of tradition are turning more and more to sedentary, modern life. Ozu is often characterized as the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers, maybe this is because he created his films in holdouts of tradition instead of looking to contemporary, ever less traditional Japanese life for inspiration.

References

Creighton, Millie. “Consuming Rural Japan: The Marketing of Tradition and Nostalgia in the Japanese Travel Industry.” Ethnology, vol. 36, no. 3, 1997, pp. 239–254.

Floating weeds. Dir. Yasujirō Ozu. By Yasujirō Ozu and Kōgo Noda. Prod. Masaichi Nagata. Perf. Ganjirō Nakamura, Machiko Kyō, and Ayako Wakao. Shochiku Co., 1959. Web.

Nakamura. “Performance Arts Practices in Japan: Historical to Obsessional Movements.” Chikushi Jogakuin University · Junior College Department Human Culture Research Institute Annual Report (2013): 115-20.

Raz, J. “Self-presentation and performance in the yakuza way of life.” Ideology and Practice in Modern Japan, 2002, pp. 210.

Richie, Donald y Joseph L. Anderson. The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, Princeton: University Press, 1982.

Silver, Larry A. “OZU, CINEMA, AND CULTURE.” The Journal of Ethnic Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 1976, pp. 117 Periodicals Archive Online

Wagatsuma, Sakae. “Democratization of the Family Relation in Japan.” Washington Law Review and State Bar Journal 25.4 (1950): 405-426.

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