If Yasujiro Ozu were alive today, 2003 would mark the 100th anniversary of his birth year. Regrettably, Ozu passed away in 1963, but not before gifting the world with 54 films (of which, purportedly, only 33 survive): works of masterly craft, execution and unique insights into the human condition. Though regarded as a staple of Japanese cinema and a major influence on filmmakers both within Japan and abroad, his works in the West have had only limited releases. With this year's New York Film Festival salute to Ozu and the related month long screenings of his entire cannon at the Lincoln Center Walter Reade Theater in New York City, many of his early works finally received their premiere screenings to rave reviews.
Were one to try and define the common element within all Ozu films, they would discover that he had an eye for human tales about daily life. In choosing to capture this quality, Ozu used many diverse genres and their conventions to highlight specific points he was trying to make. Though perceived as being a filmmaker with a penchant for slow moving, conventionally lensed films, the reality proves to be far different. While it is true that Ozu has largely made dramas, he also shows, in Good Morning, that he is a skilled director of comedy. Naturally, the comedy has a larger emphasis on character interaction and quirks, as opposed to slapstick and absurdist humor, but it is unique in its depth of view into human nature.
Shot in primary colors and filled with Ozu's trademark rigid framing, Good Morning tells of a small working-class community and their interactions in (then) contemporary Japan. The majority of the action is set in and around the bright blue roofed community houses that are clustered under looming high-power lines. The story, while ostensibly being about two boys, Isamu and Minoru, and their silence strike to pressure their parents into buying a television set, it is also about the adult world of empty conversation and, conversely, double-speak. In addition, it should be noted, that the storytelling in Good Morning is divided up into two blocks: the parents and the children. Within the parental block, the wives and the husbands are further given separate treatment, while the children are left as a single unit, seeing that they are, oddly enough, only comprised of young boys.
The action begins with the wives embroiled in a debate about who embezzled the Wives' Club dues. Fingers are pointed and friendly allegiances are abandoned over misconstrued actions and comments. The husbands, on the other hand, are happily oblivious, instead meeting up at a local snack shop and getting blotto together. Concurrent with this, the children in the neighborhood would rather not do their homework, but instead watch Sumo at the neighboring young hipster couple's house who has the lone television in the community. Naturally the parents disapprove of this shirking of homework responsibilities, but they additionally object to the young hipster's lifestyle and fashion, and, as a result, keep the children from going there to watch TV. After begging, pleading and yelling, Minoru and Isamu are admonished for making such a big fuss and talking too much about such frivolity as a TV. They, in turn, complain that adults fill their day with useless small talk and refuse to speak directly to one another about important issues. As a result, Isamu and Minoru vow to not speak again until their wish for a TV set is granted.
The parents are confident that the silence strike will be short-lived. When it becomes apparent that the children are serious and will not renege on their vow of silence - to such an extent that they cause trouble for themselves both in and out of school - the parents become aware of their own use of empty conversation in their daily lives. Once the children go missing, the parents realize that they have to address their children directly and not ignore them. And that maybe they can learn something from the children after all.
Part of what makes Good Morning so amusing is the fantastic performances of the two young boys who play Isamu and Minoru. Children can be the best and worst aspect of a film about family. On the one hand, children are natural actors due to their penchant for make believe, but due to the amount of time, repetition, and distractions that there are in making a film, guaranteeing that one will be able to get a good performance out of a child is extremely difficult to do. Children's attention flag easily and if they aren't having a good time on set, then tough luck, there won't be anymore good scenes with them. Ozu obviously has a gift for working with child actors, as illustrated by the number of films with children in them, and Good Morning is certainly a triumph in this regard.
The children in the film are, by and large, incredibly sincere in their performances. What we find amusing are the little truths that we spot about growing up, the things that are important kids, and what they'll do to acquire them. Further detailing this quality in the film is a hilarious take on the oddball fixations of little boys. For me it was snails, spiders and the like; for Minoru, Isamu, and friends it's eating pumice rock shavings to help them fart. They idolize one of the dads for his incredible ability to pass gas and ridicule a boy who soils his pants when he tries to break wind on command - some, it seems, just don't have what it takes. Rather than being treated as a simple fart joke and left at that, Ozu shows it as an adolescent bonding mechanism, illustrating to what extent boys will compulsively go to do the thing they love. In this case it's eating rock shavings.
In so far as the silence strike is concerned, as a result of watching it for a large portion of the film, the audience becomes more sensitive to the nature of adult conversation and, quite frankly, the inanity of some of it. In a particularly profound moment towards the end of the film, we see how inept adults can be in trying to make imaginative conversation, when they are aware of how bereft of substance much of their casual conversation actually is. The adults are too self-conscious and Ozu leaves us wondering whether people can really change how they talk and interact, and whether adults are capable of a quality conversation. Ozu seems to feel that some change is better than no change, but he never goes so far as to show explicitly that this change will be permanent nor complete. Like a good artist, he shows the audience the world around us and then allows us to consider how we can change it.
From a technical standpoint the craft is solid in the film. The production design, make-up, and costume design are first rate and the entire color palate seems to have been derived from a box of crayons. The lighting is subtly beautiful at times and practical at others, but it never gets in the way of the storytelling by drawing attention to itself. The formality of the shot framing and mise-en-scène is typical of an Ozu film and the editing is comprised of simple broad cuts primarily based on who is speaking, from which direction they are coming from, and montage. Ozu's penchant and incredible skill in jumping the 180-degree line is almost like magic at points. Though long a no-no of basic filmmaking, Ozu's films are a good argument for how it can be done successfully without totally disorienting your audience. I was impressed with the craft of this film, how all of the elements existed primarily to tell the story, and the value of the story that was told. This is great filmmaking.