At the author’s request, Japanese names are given here in their traditional form: surname first.
Nineteen thirty-six was a decisive year for imperial Japan, marked by extreme violence at home and abroad. In the very early morning of February 26, during a snowstorm, some 1,500 junior army officers and men launched murderous surprise attacks on political leaders, elderly oligarchs, and the heads of the zaibatsu, the four powerful financial conglomerates that dominated Japanese industry and retailing. It was a mutiny provoked by factional rivalries within the army but guided by emperor worship, fanatical nationalism, and a belief that capitalism was responsible for Japan’s economic ills. (The economy had survived the first impact of the Wall Street crash in 1929 surprisingly robustly, but by the mid-1930s, Japanese exports were in trouble and poverty was widespread.) The mutiny led to a four-day standoff between the rebels and other armed forces, which paralyzed large areas of Tokyo. Meanwhile, Japan had annexed Manchuria as its puppet state Manchukuo and had withdrawn from the League of Nations rather than accept censure for its imperial “adventure”; the army went on to abrogate various disarmament treaties it had signed with the European powers, and continued its incursions into China. In November 1936, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany to help protect its army in China.
These events and their implications were endlessly picked over in Japanese films in the postwar years—the long list of titles set in or in the run-up to 1936 includes Mishima’s Patriotism, Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, Suzuki’s Fighting Elegy, and Gosha Hideo’s Four Days of Snow and Blood—but conspicuously not in the culture of the time. One reason for that, of course, was censorship. But it’s also true that political assassinations, army mutinies, and colonial conquests had little impact on most Japanese, who were far more concerned about unemployment, shortages, and the cost of living.
In 1936, the thirty-two-year-old Ozu Yasujiro was a director on the rise. In February, he moved with his widowed mother and one brother from the family’s old home in the working-class district of Fukagawa a short distance across Tokyo to the relatively up-market residential area of Takanawa. By then he had directed more than thirty silent movies for Shochiku and enjoyed strong support from one of the company’s two managing directors, Kido Shiro, who also managed the new Ofuna Studio. Ozu’s films were not among Shochiku’s top-grossing titles, and his stubborn refusal to make talkies must have rankled, but his work had been appearing regularly since 1930 in the annual Best Ten critics’ poll organized by the magazine Kinema junpo—he was clearly a company asset. But despite these happy circumstances, Ozu’s mood darkened in 1936.
We know from the accounts of his friends—and from the evidence of his early films themselves—that the young Ozu was both playful and earnest. He took enormous pleasure in watching and thinking about movies, particularly imports from Hollywood. His early favorites included cowboy star William S. Hart (who is name checked in Late Spring, 1949) and heroine-in-peril Pearl White, and, in the 1920s, Harold Lloyd, Ernst Lubitsch, and Frank Borzage. But although the young men in his student comedies and gangster movies sometimes make like characters in American movies they’ve seen, Ozu never imitated Hollywood. His more earnest side showed itself in his doggedly idiosyncratic development of his own film language and editing syntax, nothing like anything seen in Hollywood models. His playful side was crystallized in the pseudonym he adopted for his work on scripts: James Maki—said by Ozu to “combine the smartness of his American father and the delicacy of his Japanese mother”—who is given gag-writing and story credits on many of the early films.
James Maki is credited as story writer on both of the features Ozu released in 1936—College Is a Nice Place (Daigaku yoi toko, currently believed lost) and The Only Son (Hitori musuko, planned under the working title Tokyo yoi toko: Tokyo Is a Nice Place)—but this is a James Maki with his penchant for gags kept firmly in check. We know from the surviving script that College Is a Nice Place reversed the tone of the earlier student comedies with sour scenes of empty classrooms and unemployed graduates going hungry and killing time. The Only Son offers a similarly ironic take on the dashed hopes of those who have invested more than they can afford in getting a good education—and in the contemporary image of Tokyo as a beacon of opportunity for incomers from elsewhere in Japan.
The Only Son is the only Ozu film chaptered in distinct time periods (1923, 1935, 1936), and the only one built on a contrast between rural and urban life. As the title suggests, it centers on a parent-child relationship, in this case between a widowed mother and her son. (The prevalence of single parents in Ozu’s work from this point on no doubt reflects the death of his own father in 1934.) The opening and closing scenes are set in Shinshu, a textile industry area near Nagano, some two hundred miles from Tokyo. In 1923, the widowed Otsune is slaving in a silk mill and has just decided that her son, Ryosuke, will have to forgo an expensive higher education when his teacher, Okubo, visits to congratulate her on agreeing to pay the boy’s way through high school and college. She’s angry with her son for deceiving her about his ambitions but goes along with the plan. Twelve years later, she excitedly tells her workmates that she will visit Tokyo to see for herself Ryosuke’s success in life.
The bulk of the film’s running time is dedicated to Otsune’s visit to Tokyo in 1936. She’s given a tour of the city’s sights (we hear about it, though we see only one modern bridge) but is confronted by a series of shocks: she has a daughter-in-law and grandson she didn’t know about, and finds that her son has only a low-paying job teaching math in a night school. Worse, his former teacher Okubo is now running a forlorn tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) restaurant in a very unmetropolitan part of town. The drama hinges on two frank conversations between mother and son about work, morale, and prospects, the first set against the backdrop of a garbage-burning plant, the second in the middle of the night in Ryosuke’s shabby rented rooms. There’s no mention of political turmoil, of course, but the economic conditions of the time could hardly be sketched more vividly. It was a fact of life in 1936 that the grand zaibatsu were hiring only graduates from Japan’s most prestigious universities; others faced a choice between accepting unskilled, low-paying jobs and humble self-employment.
Even in this somber context, though, Ozu’s playful streak puts in appearances. When Ryosuke is seen teaching a class of head-scratching boys about circles and right angles, the scene is (covertly) an exposition of Ozu’s own schema for filming domestic interiors: he habitually placed his characters in an imaginary circle and framed his shots of them from angles 45 degrees apart on its circumference. There are also hints of playfulness in the editing syntax: see, for example, the eccentric placement of shots of the fluttering tonkatsu flag outside Okubo’s restaurant, always seen from behind so that the hiragana characters have to be read backward.
And then there’s the business of belatedly accepting the need to make talkies. Shochiku had a contractual arrangement with the Tsuchihashi Sound System and used it to make talkies from 1933; some 1934–35 productions (including Ozu’s) were silents released with synchronized music and effects tracks. But Ozu had promised to use a sync-sound system invented by his regular cameraman, Mohara Hideo, and adamantly refused to use the Tsuchihashi technology to record dialogue. Ozu and Mohara first tried out Super Mohara Sound in a couple of brief sync-sound sequences in their 1935 kabuki documentary Kagamijishi, and The Only Son marked its first full-scale deployment. Ozu’s intransigence on this point created serious problems between Shochiku and Tsuchihashi, and Kido Shiro had to intervene personally to restore relations. He succeeded in placating Tsuchihashi (which had threatened to end its contract with Shochiku if any other sound-recording system was used) by sending the production of The Only Son out of the new Ofuna Studio and back to the recently vacated Kamata Studio, where Ozu had worked since he joined Shochiku as a camera assistant in 1923. Unlike Ofuna Studio (whose logo appears at the start of the film), Kamata had no soundproofing, and so the filming was plagued by neighborhood noise. Worse, demolition had already begun, so Ozu was forced to rebuild to create his own makeshift soundstage. We can tell from the film’s opening scene, though, that Ozu kept his equanimity and sense of humor in these trying circumstances: when we hear two clocks striking nine in rapid succession, it’s an aural version of a gag about nonagreeing timepieces used in his silent movies.
The same wry humor informs the scene in which Ryosuke takes his mother to the movies as one of her Tokyo treats. Typically, Ozu disconcerts us briefly by opening the scene with a glimpse of the startlingly Aryan heroine of the film they’re watching: Willi Forst’s directorial debut, Unfinished Symphony, a biopic about Schubert, apparently shown without either Japanese subtitles or a benshi narration. Ozu shows us enough of the German film to make a contrast between Forst’s florid style and his own, but the real joke is that Otsune is so unimpressed by her first talkie that she keeps dropping off. Ryosuke, embarrassed, puts on a brave show of enjoying himself while sneaking sidelong glances at his mother. The entire scene points up the fact that the only decoration Ryosuke has put up in his home is a travel poster advertising Germany; the students and graduates in earlier Ozu films always had Hollywood posters on their walls. It would be foolish to imagine that Ozu was risking a political point by highlighting a kitschy German movie and a German travel poster in this way. But in a year that saw 270 Hollywood films on Japanese screens—and only 25 from Germany—Ozu’s choice of Forst’s film for the scene in the cinema clearly wasn’t accidental. And Ozu was certainly sly enough to think it worth dissing Germany in 1936.
Tony Rayns is a London-based filmmaker and critic with a special interest in East Asian cinema. He was awarded the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Commendation in 2008 for services to Japanese cinema.