Saturday, January 27, 2018

Ohayo (Good Morning)

Yasujiro Ozu's family comedy Ohayo ("Good Morning") is probably the most intricate and profound film ever to be structured around fart jokes.  The 1962 movie explores relationships between four families living in what appears to be, more or less, identical government housing beneath a high grassy sea-wall.  The movie is shot in Technicolor but retains all of Ozu's stylistic traits -- the camera doesn't move and is, generally, positioned quite low as if at eye-level for a person seated on a tatami mat.  Ozu's mise-en-scene is fantastically precise, involving fairly quick edits between shots that alternate between rigorously symmetrical and off-balance asymmetrical images.  Characters frequently appear framed by one or two or three thresholds -- the effect is essentially cubist:  the frame is conceived as a series of box-shaped openings occupied by people at various distances from the camera.  Characters generally occupy the middle of the image and talk directly to the camera.  Eye-lines often don't match and people frequently aim their words in an unexpected direction.  Subsequent shots show us that the interlocutor is in that place -- a location that we didn't expect.  In some ways, Ozu's way of constructing space in his movies is similar to the way that Wes Anderson designs his movies -- the curious difference is that Wes Anderson movies always give me the impression of whimsy, childish tableaux, and miniaturization; by contrast, Ozu's movies, although very strictly confined, give an impression of freedom, space, and distance -- this is achieved, I think, by Ozu's "empty frames", that is images that don't show people but merely their environment:  many of  these empty frames are exceedingly prosaic -- in Ohayo, we see wastelands criss-crossed with power-lines and, in fact, an important love scene (it is highly reticent) happens on a railroad platform against a backdrop of high tension wires. 

Ohayo is about two hours long, but doesn't have any discernible plot until about 35 minutes have passed.  The film leisurely surveys the four families and their environs and, only very gradually, does a sort of plot emerge from the documentary-like study of the characters.  The Hayashi family consists of husband (Chishu Ryu), wife, the wife's unmarried sister, and two boys, Minoru (who is about 11) and Isamu (about 7).  Mrs. Hayashi has paid money to the plump and nosy Mrs. Okubo.  (The Okubo's have a son named Kozo who has what is euphemistically called "loose tummy" -- this is diarrhea and one of the jokes in the film is that he continuously soils his underpants when he engages in the farting competitions that entertain the other boys.  An old woman called "grandma" who is very pious and manipulative lives with the Okobu's -- she is the plump Mrs. Okubo's mother and she wears one of the most beautiful garments that I have seen in any film, a sort of house-coat of many subtle colors, checked and tinted as if by Paul Klee.)  The money paid to the Okubo's is some kind of rent or dues owed to the landlord with respect to the housing.  The money seems not to have been ultimately handed to the landlord -- this has led the neighbors to suspect one another of perfidy and there is even an allegation that Mrs. Okubo or Mrs. Hayashi has misappropriated the money to buy a dryer. (It turns out that Granny Okubo has simply forgotten to hand the envelope to Mrs. Hayashi.)  An older couple , the Tomizawa's, lives nearby, troubled by the fact that the husband has retired and now has insufficient funds to support his wife.  The old man is a drunk and sometimes sits in the train station bar drinking sake with Mr. Hayashi.  (He's also a great farter, albeit in a lower baritone register -- his wife mistakes his farts for words summoning her.)  The quartet of families is completed by a brother and sister (at first, we think they're a  young married couple) -- they are conspicuously modern in their tastes:  the girl smokes cigarettes and sings in a cabaret; the boy plays guitar and ekes out a living translating from English into Japanese.  This couple have a TV set and the neighborhood children, a group of four kids (Minoru, Zen, Kozo, and Isamu), often come over to their house to watch TV with them -- everyone likes to watch TV sumo wrestling.  (At the brother and sister's house, we hear in the background opera singing and, sometimes, jazz -- one of their neighbors is either a musician or has a radio loudly tuned to classical and jazz stations.)  At about the 40 minute mark, the film begins to take shape under a very loose, seemingly improvised narrative:  Minoru and Isamu throw a temper tantrum to coerce their parents into buying them a TV set.  The conservative Mr. Hayashi not only refuses, but barks at them angrily using his best, and phoniest, samurai-authority voice.  (The man is otherwise too mild-mannered to be credible as a disciplinarian.)  The boys are angered by their father's reproach -- they resolve that they will communicate only by farting; no words are allowed.  (The boys chew on pumice stones to build up gas in their stomachs or joke about eating "sweet potatoes.")  The boys go way too far with their vow of silence and end up in trouble at school where they also refuse to speak.  In the end, they steal some rice from a neighbor and run away from home.  The young man with the TV set hunts them down and brings them home.  At home, Mr. Hayashi relents and buys a TV set.  The TV sits in its box in a doorway during the last five or ten minutes of the film.  The curious aspect of the film is that the boy's bad behavior pays off -- Ozu is surprisingly non-didactic and seems to suggest that disobedient children are best managed by simply complying with their wishes.  The film also develops an odd, and, even, profound theory about language -- the boys claim that they have been forbidden from speaking because they talk too much.  (This doesn't seem exactly accurate to what we see.)  They extrapolate this idea into the notion that in general people talk way too much and that most of what they say is absolutely meaningless -- indeed, no more meaningful than the dozens of high-pitched farts that Ozu uses on his soundtrack.  In a late scene, we see the beatnik boy approach the unmarried sister who lives the Hayashi family -- the boy and girl speak in absolute banalities about the sky and the weather and, yet, the subtext is clear:  they are romancing one another.  Ozu's subversive point is that they might as well be farting for one another's benefit since the communication between them is not at all based on words or meaning.  The film is very complex with many tiny subplots -- for instance, the retired Mr. Tomizawa, who is a drunk (he cheerfully goes home to the wrong house after one night in the bar) decides to become a traveling catalog salesman to supplement his income.  His first customer is the Hayashi's who buy the TV from him.  The film is childish but, I suppose, one would have to say "profoundly childish" -- it inhabits the world of the children from inside and complies with their logic.  At the film's end, the boy's are back to speaking.  (Little Isamu ends every conversation with the English words:  "I love you.") The kids engage in a farting competition and, of course, poor Kozu soils his pants.  We see him sitting ashamed at home while his mother reproaches him.  The last image in the film is three pair of underpants blowing on a clothesline -- a classic Ozu "empty frame" but one that here has both a comic and narrative meaning:  the shot alludes to Kozu's "loose tummy" but also to the way in which the whole complicated narrative began -- the allegation that someone misappropriated rental funds to buy a dryer.  There's even the faintest hint of menace in this sunny plot -- one of the women wonders whether mice chew pumice and she thinks that it might be appropriate to smear the pumice stone with rat poison.  For some reason, the film, a very brilliant entertainment, reminded me of the old Dick Van Dyk show -- it's a kind of early 60's idyll.  It also suggests the loose and shaggy way that Murakami novels often begin -- lots of things are happening but it takes a long time for them to coalesce into any kind of a plot.  The pleasure that the audience experiences is seeing how the different apparently unrelated and trivial incidents add up to a story.

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