Saturday, May 09, 2015

Japan Speaks Out: The Only Son

Arguably, no filmmaker ever handled father-daughter relationships with the sensitivity Yasujiro Ozu displays in Late Spring, one of his universally acknowledged “Noriko” masterpieces. Of course, he could also do mothers and sons. For Mother’s Day (more or less), Ozu’s very first talkie, The Only Son, screens as part of Japan Speaks Out, MoMA’s current survey of early Japanese talking pictures.

Although Tsune Nonomiya was widowed at an early age, she still manages to scrimp and save from her provincial silk factory job to send her one and only son Ryosuke to middle and high school. Even in 1920s Japan, she understands he will never amount to anything without an education. However, she may very well wonder if it was worth it when she finally visits her grown son in 1936 Tokyo. Much to her surprise, he has a wife and a young son. He has also lost his government job and now works as a night school instructor.

Her visit is awkward for Ryosuke because he knows how disappointed she must be. After all, he is bitterly disappointed in himself. The additional food costs are also an issue. Yet, an opportunity for redemption might arise for Ryosuke—maybe.

Ozu was one of the last major Japanese filmmakers to transition to sound, but arguably it is absolutely essential to his mature style. To fully appreciate the way he uses stillness and silence, you have to sound in order to recognize its absence. Like many of his great classics, Only Son is laden with his elegant visual haikus depicting home and hearth. Yet, there is a harder edge to the Nonomiyas’ story than one typically finds in the Norikos. Despite the trials and tribulations those characters endure, they are a warm, soothing presence. In contrast, it is rather uncomfortable to watch Nonomiya’s reunion with her son.

Chôko Iida’s performance as mother Nonomiya will just rip your heart out and stomp on it, while looking at you with sad eyes. She definitely makes you forget Irene Dunne. Frequent Ozu company player Chishû Ryû further pours on the pained dignity as Ryosuke’s former teacher, who also came to Tokyo brimming with optimism that was soon deflated like Tom Brady game-ball. Shin’ichi Himori is a bit cringey as Ryosuke, but that is sort of the point, while Yoshiko Tusbouchi quietly echoes Iida’s motherly virtue as his submissive wife.

Frankly, any Ozu film is always worth seeing, so if MoMA’s screenings of Only Son are your first opportunity to experience his masterful cinematic touch, by all means take it. Still, if you choose your introductory film at a later date, select one of his later works starring the incomparable Setsuko Hara. Regardless, Only Son paints a grim portrait of dog-eat-dog Tokyo, but it inadvertently captures the sort of generational sacrifice and resiliency that drove Japan’s rise into a global economic power, despite the devastating interruption of WWII. Recommended with all respect due to the master, The Only Son screens this coming Wednesday (5/13) and the following Wednesday (5/20) at MoMA, as part of Japan Speaks Out.