If all you know of Yasujiro Ozu, Japan’s national treasure of a film director in the 20th century, is the quiet restraint and rigorous simplicity of his sound films, then you only have half of the story of the director’s remarkable career. The artist called the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors was a voracious film buff more interested in Hollywood movies than his own national cinema early in his career. He worked in every genre in his first decade of directing—lighthearted college comedies, crime dramas, romantic melodramas, and even social dramas of the hard times of economic desperation, as many as six features a year in his initial burst of filmmaking—but his most beloved films of the silent era, and certainly his most enduring, are his lively family comedies.
I Was Born, But… (1932), a portrait of self-absorbed childhood and frustrated adulthood, is comically egocentric and creatively crafty. This “picture book for grown-ups” (as the opening titles read) follows two young sons of salaryman Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito) as they move to a Tokyo suburb and a new school. These boys are truly little rascals, skipping school to avoid bullies, faking homework assignments to fool their parents, bribing a delivery boy to take care of the biggest bully on the block. Ozu’s affectionate peek into the social dynamics of the juvenile world is full of private games—hand gestures, taunting poses, comic faces—that define the playful adolescent world of their social competition. When the brothers finally establish their dominance in the childhood pecking order, they are appalled to see their father submit to his boss (Takeshi Sakamoto). “You tell us to become somebody, but you’re nobody. Why do you have to bow so much to Taro’s father?” they demand in an epic tantrum, and they stage a hunger strike to protest this unfair social order. (The hunger strike was reworked as a silent protest for a TV set in Ozu’s 1959 Ohayo, aka Good Morning, not quite a remake but certainly a family comedy indebted to this film.)
Behind the deft comedy and spirited performances of the two boys is a rather somber engagement with the compromises adults make to the demands of Japan’s strict social order. Yoshi has no illusions of his place in the company hierarchy and dutifully kowtows to his boss and plays the clown in his home movies. But his attempts to explain the realities of the adult world to his boys leads to an introspective talk between husband and wife after the boys have fallen asleep. Their faces glow with innocence as father blesses them with the wish: “Don’t become an apple polisher like me, boys.” Perhaps that ambivalence over such compromises explains the parents’ astonishing tolerance of the boys’ brazen impertinence and bad behavior. “I started to make a film about children and ended up making a film about grownups,” observed Ozu in a 1958 interview.
I Was Born, But…, which Ozu developed from his own story, is a social satire of comic delights and melancholy resignation to the innocence lost as the boys face up to the compromises that await them. The film won first prize at the Kinema Jumpo awards—the first of six such prizes he would eventually win—and is considered Ozu’s first genuine masterpiece. It’s also warm, witty, funny, and beautifully observed, a coming of age tale for of adolescence getting their first glimpse of what awaits them in adulthood.
Also on Criterion DVD (in a box set)
Eclipse Series 10: Silent Ozu – Three Family Comedies (Tokyo Chorus / I Was Born But… / Passing Fancy) (The Criterion Collection)