Monday, June 21, 2010

Ozu’s I Was Born But . . .

Though the talky era was well underway internationally, the Japanese film industry still produced silent films well into the 1930’s. Director Yasujiro Ozu was particularly slow to embrace synchronized sound, yet he would eventually be hailed as Japan’s great auteur. In fact, his reputation partly rests on his late silent films, including 1932’s I Was Born But . . ., which opens in New York at the IFC Center this Friday.

On the surface, life is good for the Yoshi family. Kennosuke has bought a home out in the Tokyo suburbs, where his two mischievous sons, Ryoichi and Keiji, will have more room to run wild. It will also be more convenient for sucking up to his boss, Iwasaki, who lives nearby. At first, the headstrong brothers have trouble adapting to their new school, landing themselves in big trouble when they play hooky one day.

Nevertheless, they quickly rise to their rightful place as top dogs of the neighborhood boys. Yet, all their social assumptions are challenged one night when they get an uncomfortably candid look at their father currying favor with his boss. Feeling publically humiliated, they rebel against Yoshi’s parental authority. While their father resents their resentment, he also partly shares their contempt, but such are the realities of life, as seen through Ozu’s gently subversive lens.

Pulling off a delicate balancing act, Ozu never lets the scenes with the boys get too slap-sticky, nor his social commentary become too pointed. Essentially, he presents an early step in the Yoshi brothers’ maturation, but not a shattering end to their innocence.

Indeed, Ozu brought a highly sensitive eye to bear on Born, coaxing charming performances his young actors. Often unfairly overlooked in discussions of the film, Tatsuo Saito and Mitsuko Yoshikawa also bring a genuine sense of humanity to the family drama as the boys’ ever-patient parents.

Even if his visuals are not exactly arresting, it is a very welcome event to have Ozu’s closely observed masterwork digitally restored. However, while the accompanying soundtrack may well be perfectly fine and respectable, it is not the best music available for Born. Eri Yamamoto’s latest release In Every Day Something Good includes her original alternate soundtrack to the silent classic that is far more expressive of the characters’ personalities and the film’s overall spirit. Happily, she will be playing her regular sets at Arthur’s, practically right around the corner from the IFC Center on Grove Street this Friday and Saturday, so theater patrons can hear the difference for themselves.

Wistful rather than cute, the subtly winning Born is one of the last classics of the silent era. A fitting introduction to Ozu’s canon, it opens this Friday (6/25) at IFC’s Waverly outpost.