The Only Son (1936) was Japanese writer/director Yasujiro Ozu’s first talkie (like Chaplin, he resisted that particular expansion of the medium for as long as possible) and also the first of his films to offer specific examples of what would become the basis of his later, mature style. It’s a simplified version of the sort of family drama Ozu would eventually explore with greater subtlety and complexity. A synopsis of the plot might make it sound like soap opera material — which it potentially is — but, as with all great directors, Ozu’s genius is less a matter of the story than of how it’s told.
Ozu was a poet. His best films encourage the viewer to contemplate the bittersweet currents that run beneath our carapace of continual activity and our futile efforts to create and control our fates. In Son, a widowed mother reluctantly decides to further her young boy’s education though she knows she can barely afford it and will have to continue to toil in a silk factory. The boy leaves their provincial home for Tokyo, and 12 years later she visits him there. Although she tries, she can’t hide her chagrin when she sees how little his higher education has come to. He has a low-paying job as a teacher at a night school and can barely support his wife and newborn baby.
Though Ozu’s style in this early film is generally looser than in his later ones, even experimental at times (for example, a car traveling on a Tokyo bridge includes shots where the camera’s point of view is looking upward from the car’s sideboard), there are still intimations of the strict formalism to come. Especially indicative of future Ozu is the way that bits of the drama are punctuated by long-held shots of unpeopled spaces. It’s the director’s way of simultaneously pausing the story to encourage contemplation, reminding us of his characters’ specific environment, and offering something aesthetically pleasing (these held shots are among his most beautiful compositions).
The other way that Son points toward later Ozu is its uncompromising and very powerful ending. Although there’s some rapprochement between the mother and her son, there’s no cathartic resolution of their mutually inflicted unhappiness. It’s sadness undiluted by cynicism or sentimentality. It’s just the way life is.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m. DIA curator of film Elliot Wilhelm will introduce this movie, as well as the others in this 10-film Ozu retrospective, to be shown on consecutive Mondays. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].