Reviewed by: Cassandra Goh
“I started to make a film about children and ended up with a film about grownups; while I had originally planned to make a fairly bright little story, it changed while I was working on it. The company hadn’t thought it would turn out this way. They were so unsure of it that they delayed its release for two months.” – Yasujiro Ozu, Kinema Junpo* (1958).
*A Japanese film magazine.
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu, I Was Born, But… (大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど) -1932 is a silent black and white avant-garde film that portrays the financial and psychological toils society imposed on a family. The film started off lighthearted, however as it progresses, it subtly transits into the darker side. I Was Born, but… revolves around the concept of having to balance between resignation and optimism.
Often described as a comedy, the main gist of the story focuses on the family of a typical white-collar worker, his stay-at-home wife, and two school-age sons. The two young boys became the leaders of a gang of children, after moving into the new neighborhood with their father, Mr. Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito). The story revolves around the growth of the brothers – having them losing the innocence and simplicity of a child’s life and growing to understanding and see how complex and harsh the society is. As the story progresses, the brothers realized that their father was playing the clown in front of his boss. Feeling humiliated and being unable to empathize with their father, the brothers went on a hunger strike. The image of their father – someone whom they look upon to – was shattered by the harsh reality society, the need to follow the social-economic class.
The theme of this film is a classic example of the coming-of-age, especially so when the film is being shot in the eyes of a child. This is one of the few early films that Ozu has worked with kids, and in order to capture the children on camera properly, he lowered placed his camera at a very low angle. He liked the effect of having the camera at such an low angle so much that he continued using it for the rest of his films, and the angle became Ozu’s trademark shot.
In this film, since Ozu shot the film at a kid’s height, it creates the illusion that the audience is being indulged in the children’s world instead, portraying scenes through the perspective of a child. This further enhances the beauty of the film, as the children acting in the film were able to fully express themselves through their gestures and expressions, without the sense of awkwardness having to ‘look out’ for the camera. Additionally, this style of framing portrays the adults to appear like giants, as giants as they are relatively bigger, thus reflecting the relationship of the children and adults.
Ozu, who has an impressive total of four contributions to the Sight & Sound list, frames and composes his shots distinctively. With good establishing shots and framing, as well as the production’s interior set design, Ozu was able to capture the essence of the film. In most father and sons scenes, Ozu places the three characters into position, in a manner where all three are visibly clear within the frame where the characters are able to communicate synchronically. Additionally, by bringing the adult down to children’s height portrays the image where they both of equal standing.
Probably because this is silent film, the children are able to concentrate and focus mainly on their gestures, movements and expressions. This further enhances the inner feeling – nuances of worry, wounded pride, bewilderment – through the expressions of emphatic gestures, as well as evoking the deeper meaning of the film.
There are a few panning shots in this film. One of the more memorable shots is the shot where he pans from a line of schoolchildren exercising to a line of office workers yawning at their desks. As Nick Wrigely said, “Ozu here effectively associates school and office work as regimentary and the transition between the two as inevitable.” (senses of cinema). It is a technique that he would later discard.
Ozu grew up watching and getting inspired from American films, and it is quite clear from this film that Ozu was inspired by American films. “The car in the opening shot breaks down and gets stuck in the mud; malfunctioning cars were a staple of American silent comedy. Ozu’s film has a movie within the movie, as does Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. (1924). All of the construction of roads and buildings seems minimal and fresh, as if it were just built. This too is the look of LA suburbs in Keaton.” (mikegrost.com)
However over the years, Ozu decided to stop infusing Hollywood techniques in his films and instead he started to remove all camera movements. This enabled all the focus to be placed on the characters which makes Ozu’s film even more human.
Ozu breaks the 180 degre rule in all his films and this time, it was accepted by critics who termed this as the 360 degree rule, where the character speaks directly into the camera. Ozu breaks rules and creates his own, and this has changed the world of film. The 360 degree rule makes it seem a little documentary style, and I think shows such as Modern Family and Miranda(both documentary style sitcoms) are only possible now because the Ozu successfully made everyone accept the ‘360 degree rule’.
Similar to his other films, such as Late Spring, Floating Weeds, Tokyo Story etc., Ozu narrowed the scope of his filming style, maintaining only the bare essentials and simplicity of each films. The theme of his films is coherent and follows a certain flow – no heroes or villains – just ordinary people.
JUST SO YOU KNOW: I Was Born, but… is the 24th of Ozu’s 54 completed films, being Japan’s most acclaimed and treasured silent film. Ozu’s quiet, transcendent vision of humanity is an influence on diverse directors, such as Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders.
List of References:
1. Fan With a Movie Yammer, 2013. #183 – I Was Born, but… (1932), dir. Ozu Yasujiro. [Online] Available on: http://fanwithamovieyammer.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/183-tie-i-was-born-but-1932-dir-ozu-yasujiro/ (Accessed on 6 July)
2. Ozu-San.com. I Was Born, but… [Online] Available on: http://www.a2pcinema.com/ozu-san/films/iwasbornbut.htm (Accessed on 6 July)
3. San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2013. I Was Born, but…1932. [Online] Available on: http://www.silentfilm.org/pages/detail/1241 (Accessed on 6 July)
4. Nick Wrigely. “Yasujiro Ozu”. Sense Of Cinema. May 2003. web. 7 July 2013. <http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/ozu/>
5. Mike Grost. “Yasujiro Ozu”. Mikegrost.com. web. 7July 2013. <http://mikegrost.com/ozu.htm>