Ozu's masterpiece There was a Father... was released in 1942, but bears only the faintest traces of war-time austerity: school-boys wear military uniforms and address their teachers as if they were commanding officers, there is much obsessive talk about "duty," and, when the boys go for a long hike, they sing martial songs like Hitler Jugend marching through the Westerwald. In a couple of scenes, people mention conscription and the movie is dominated by male institutions -- workplaces and boys' boarding schools and sex-segregated classrooms. (Apparently, General MacArthur's censors edited the film during occupation and they may have excised more explicit references to the world war raging when the movie was made.) Despite, it's subtlety, Ozu's film was planned as part of the war effort, designed to showcase particularly Japanese values of duty and self-sacrifice, and, yet, transcends the circumstances of its making. Like much great art, There was a Father... is more real than reality, a grave and profound picture about a family that verges on the tragic, but without ever succumbing to the pathos and sentimentality of melodrama.
The film's narrative is simple: a widower works as a respected teacher, caring for his little boy who lives with him. During an excursion, a kind of field trip, for the last days of the school year, one of the teacher's students drowns in an accident. The teacher assumes full responsibility for the mishap and, despite the support of his fellow instructors, resigns from his prestigious job. Deprived of his customary income, the teacher places the little boy in a boarding school and works in industry to support himself and the child. We see him visit his son at the boarding school in a small city remote from Tokyo where the father lives. The two of them go fly fishing, the motion of their rods and lines exactly coordinated like a kind of beautiful, elegant dance. Seventeen years pass. The little boy has grown up and now works as a gymnasium (or high school) teacher himself. (We see him giving a lecture to his students on the explosive characteristics of TNT.) He and his father have always lived far apart, separated by hundreds of miles. The young man and his father meet at a hot springs resort, take a convivial bath together, and the son says that he intends to quit his job and move to Tokyo where his father works in a textile plant. He wants to spend time with his father. The father refuses the offer and the two go their separate ways. A while later, the two meet again, apparently over the holiday break -- they go fly-fishing once more. The father suggests that his son consider marrying the daughter of one of his old teaching colleagues. There is a reunion in which former students fete the father and his colleague. The father doesn't feel well, has a kind of seizure and, then, dies with his son at his bedside -- they have spent nine days together of a ten day vacation. As he dies, the father says that he's had a happy life and that he has done his duty. The old man's colleague says that it was a beautiful and dignified death, that the former teacher was a great man, and that he always did his duty. We see the son traveling with his new wife or wife-to-be, the woman that his father suggested that he marry. The camera shows us a long, completely still and empty shot -- a still life of the son's valise on an overhead rack in the train. There is a final shot of the train in steep perspective sweeping away from us and the film ends.
The film is brilliantly acted. Chishu Ryu, Ozu's surrogate in many of his films, plays the father -- it's a virtuosic performance, tracking the character from his youth (he is about 35 when the film begins) until his death as a enfeebled old man (he seems to be about sixty on his death bed). Ryu is one of those rare actors who lets you see him thinking -- his always recites his lines in Ozu films with a sort of sigh, a kind of soft grunt of acquiescence with the circumstances, as if he must first reflect carefully upon everything he says. The other characters in the film are all peripheral to Ryu's father, but they are uniformly memorable and well-defined. Ozu's hyper-precisionist camera emphasizes geometric compositions -- shots alternate in such a way that the different characters are generally matched by their position in the frame. Notwithstanding Ozu's fantastic lucidity, the mise-en-scene is characterized by odd ellipses and moments of fascinating indirection. Each new scene begins with a sort of pictorial question-mark -- what are we seeing and why? These pictorial question-marks enliven the film and impose upon it a kind of rigorous but playful complexity -- the plot is simple, but the way that Ozu presents the story, although not convoluted or mannered in any way, often creates additional depth to what we are seeing. The film's limpid surface is disrupted by Ozu's characteristic pictorial puzzles. A good example is the opening sequence: we see two figures with huge burdens on their backs standing against an idyllic landscape. The figures move to the right and vanish out of the frame -- are these the protagonists in the film? Then, additional figures appear also moving from right to left, all carrying burdens strapped to their backs and passing out of the frame. The movie cuts to an image of more people moving along a suburban street, carrying burdens of some kind, and hastening in one direction -- it seems as if, perhaps, a factory has just released its shift workers to go home. Then, in a change of perspective that has a visceral impact, we see the street on which the people are moving from the end of a very long lane -- a steep perspective in which the fronts of buildings lead to a very remote opening onto the main street where the people carrying burdens are now passing far from the camera. It turns out that the heavily laden people have nothing to do with the formal plot, they aren't part of the fabula, but rather simply moving figures designed to attract our eye and lead us through the landscape. (And, yet, the motif of people weighed down by heavy burdens may well be symbolically central to the film -- the father's debt of guilt and responsibility for his student's death, the burden that he figuratively carries, dominates the entire film.) We later learn -- and this is about three minutes deeper into the film -- that the lane shown in steep perspective leading to the street is the road where the father and his son live. Inside the house, the father is seen shutting a sliding, paper door. He interacts with his son. There is a startling violation of the 180 degree rule -- we see a colloquy between the boy and his father and, then, see them with positions reversed from exactly the opposite angle. What is this for? It turns out that before father and son leave the house, one of them will shut a paper door on the opposite side of the room, an action that mirrors the father's first action in the house before the encounter between the teacher and the little boy -- the violation of the 180 degree rule, smashing across sight-lines, is designed to highlight to domestic symmetry in closing doors in the house, a door on each side of the room that has to be shut. Again the symbolic weight of this symmetry is unclear at this moment in the film -- but, ultimately, one theme of the picture will be opportunities being closed down, limited, thresholds shown that can not be crossed and, so, the reciprocal gestures of closing the doors have both a graphic weight, a kind of heavy, impassive symmetry and also a symbolic and thematic meaning. After the door has been closed, the father and son depart down the street from exactly the same perspective on the lane that we have earlier been shown -- and, so, it is shown to us that the lane represents the home where the boy and his father live. The pictorial question-mark posed by unexpected shot looking in steep perspective down the alley way to the street has now been answered -- we know what the shot signifies. But we have had to wait for that meaning to become clear to us. (Later, in a classroom, the father is teaching students about equal angles created by a circle inscribed in a square -- the equal and opposing angles seem somehow connected to the explicit violation of the 180 degree rule in the earlier scene.)
There was a Father... shows Ozu's famous contemplative style from the fifties fully developed. In fact, the movie contains more of the director's Zen-like "empty frames" than some of his later pictures. These empty frames punctuate the movie -- sometimes, they are narrative and intended to show us where we are located, but, in other cases, the frames function as a symbolic commentary on the action. For instance, a brilliant and moving shot of a group of black umbrellas drying in a lodge corridor suggests that every effort has been made to protect the students from the elements but that, in light of the drowning that will shortly occur, these efforts are unavailing. There is something slightly sinister in the horde of umbrellas expectantly opened and tilted on their noses in the corridor. (The valise shown in the penultimate scene relates back to a long dialogue in which both father and son are carefully packing their things into luggage to be taken on the train.) Throughout the movie, moments of happiness or tranquility, for instance, the serene, dance-like fishing scenes, are punctuated with images of stacked stones, Buddhist graves, and the film is haunted by death -- the young man, upon being conscripted, is told to tell his mother, that is, pray to her spirit at a shrine in the corner of the room. Life is depicted as short and full of suffering and labor, but Ozu's camera is stoic -- when the child cries, for instance, at being separated from his father, we see only the back of his hunched and miserable figure. Three cadets sitting on a pier talk of their loneliness and homesickness -- one of them wants a leave to go home and see his mother who has just given birth to a new baby. Although the boys speak emotionally, the camera keeps us at a distance. Emotions are more powerful for being inferred.
The film is profoundly ambivalent and poses an insoluble riddle. Why does the father blight his life and that of his son over a drowning accident that can't be construed to be his fault? Why does he sacrifice his life on the altar of abstract duty? Is the father a hero, a sort of every man protagonist, virtuously sacrificing his own happiness for the good of the group? Or is he a masochistic martyr -- someone luxuriating in his loneliness and guilt? The film authorizes both readings. The old teacher's sacrifices are unnecessary and self-indulgent -- his slavish devotion to duty is a kind of madness, possibly the same sort of madness that will end up destroying Japan. And, yet, the father's devotion to his work and to the support of his son, his willingness to sacrifice his own happiness, may also be a portrait of virtue of the highest type. Indeed, even when we are most angry at the father for his self-abasing choice of martyrdom, we must concede that he is nothing if not a virtuous man. And images of virtue are very rare in films.
The movie has been restored from a 16 mm print and it is a sorry mess -- blizzards of rot flow across the screen, there are jumps where frames are missing, and the soundtrack is mostly illegible. We can understand what is going on from the subtitles but I would assume a Japanese audience would not be able to hear the voices under the hiss of white-noise on the soundtrack. Parts of the movie are almost impossible to see -- and, yet, the film is so intrinsically powerful and majestic that it's beauty shines through the ruin of the images on this Criterion DVD.