Yasujiro Ozu, “Floating Weeds” (1959)
In the hands of a lesser director, the soap opera plot of this film would have become sensationalist drama, soon to be forgotten, but because the director is Yasujiro Ozu, the story becomes a comment on the generation gap and a society undergoing profound change under Western influence leading to the death of tradition, family break-up and people lost and anchorless on life journeys. A small struggling troupe of actors who perform kabuki plays comes to a sleepy seaside town in 1950s Japan. Its main actor, Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), drops in on an old lover of his, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), to see how his son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), has progressed in his absence. Progress might be an understatement: the son has just left high school and hopes to go away to college to study electronics – an unbelievable ambition for a child of humble village origins. Kumajuro’s mistress in the acting troupe, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), is jealous that her man has gone to see an old flame and plots revenge: she persuades fellow actress Kayo (Ayako Wakao) to seduce Kiyoshi, aware that a liaison would ruin Kiyoshi’s plans and thus his future. Kiyoshi falls hard for Kayo and is prepared to throw everything away for her. In the meantime, Komajuro’s acting troupe, failing to draw full houses for their tired stage productions, break up and Komajuro is faced with having to depend on Oyoshi for a living and admitting to Kiyoshi that he, Komajuro, supposedly his uncle, is really his long-lost dad.
The style of the film is very understated and the acting is restrained, rendering the intense emotion bubbling beneath the actors’ quite stoic veneers all the more acute. Tension when it breaks out is sudden and shocking. We get a real sense of things careening out of control as Komajuro finds that his hitherto neatly compartmentalised life breaks down thanks to Sumiko’s scheming. People get upset, fall into messy and socially embarrassing relationships and Komajuro lashes out violently; his behaviour just leads to more misunderstanding and fall-out. What could have been reunion, reconnection and reconciliation becomes instead alienation. Komajuro has to learn what is of real value and where his loyalties should lie; they do not necessarily lie with traditional family structures but with family based on common experiences and life-long bonds, whether blood-based or not.
Apart from Komajuro and Sumiko, the characters are one-dimensional and represent particular stereotypes in the Yasujiro Ozu universe. The real glories of “Floating Weeds” lie in the creation of atmosphere and in the camera’s delight in stills of house interiors and village life. Sometimes the camera is placed on the floor or at knee level which affords a very intimate viewing of the action that occurs and the conflicts that are brewing. The camera rarely moves and the action takes place as if on a stage. In several scenes, we really do see plays within a play. The film’s approach tends to be cool, remote and objective, very formal, and the actors move and behave in restrained and formal ways as if the whole film itself is a kabuki performance. Even Komajuro and Sumiko’s first vicious argument is staged in an unusual way that at once stresses the distance between them personally and between them and the audience, yet intensifies the heated emotion: the two argue across an alley during a heavy downpour of summer rain. At one point in the film, Komajuro and Kiyoshi together discuss the troupe’s first performance: Kiyoshi jokingly tells Komajuro that he overacts but then later says that the troupe and its repertoire are too old-fashioned and stale for younger audiences who want something more current, while Komajuro tells Kiyoshi his troupe’s plays appeal to unrefined tastes and therefore Kiyoshi shouldn’t waste his time watching them. The two might very well have been talking about Ozu’s movies, the state of the Japanese film industry and popular tastes in cinema at the time!
Slow in pace, picturesque in a small-scaled way, intimate and revolving around human relationships rendered intense by studied acting, the film won’t appeal to everyone but to those not afraid of watching Ozu’s particular style of story-telling, “Floating Weeds” is a graceful work that casts no judgement on human frailty but instead urges compassion for people as they struggle and cope with life-long consequences of decisions they foolishly made years ago and now must come to terms with.