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At the author’s request, Japanese names are given here in their traditional form: surname first.
Ozu Yasujiro’s personal feelings about Japanese militarism in the 1930s and 1940s are not on record. Perhaps, like most people around him, he accepted the escalating role of the military in political and social affairs as a fact of life and had no strong feelings either way about the annexation of Manchuria or the invasion of China—or, later, the attack on Pearl Harbor. We do know that Ozu joined the military reserve in the 1920s specifically to avoid being conscripted for military service. But that was almost certainly because spending the odd month away on reserve training was preferable to spending years away from his beloved work in filmmaking.
Once the war in China began in earnest, in July 1937, Ozu was twice drafted to serve in the army. The first time was from 1937 to 1939, mainly spent in occupied China; the second was in 1943, when he was sent to occupied Singapore and was delighted to find there prints of such American movies as Fantasia and Citizen Kane, for obvious reasons unavailable to him in Japan. Between his time on the front in China and his cinephile break in Singapore, he made two features for Shochiku in Japan, both inevitably marked by the “national policy” requirements of the day. These were the relatively expansive (and covertly playful) Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941) and the decidedly sober There Was a Father (1942).
The war itself is never shown in Ozu’s cinema, and the only soldier characters he ever invokes are war casualties, mourned by their families and widows, such as the late Shoji in the elegiac Early Summer (1951). We learn that Ryohei, the son in There Was a Father, has breezed through his army medical and so will certainly be called up before long, but in the surviving print (a version cut by General MacArthur’s censors for postwar rerelease), there’s no mention of the war or of being sent overseas—or of the effect this will have on Ryohei’s new bride, Fumiko. But then the character of Fumiko (played by Mito Mitsuko) is a pure cipher, the most uncomplicatedly polite, docile, and obedient woman in any Ozu movie, a simple and simplistic image of dutiful Japanese womanhood subserviently meeting all of the male’s needs. This is because There Was a Father is a resolutely masculine film that treats the unbreakable bond between a father and his son as symbolic of national unity and resolve. By 1942, as war casualties mounted, there were plenty of young Japanese men who needed to be reassured that “Father” knew best.
Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family and There Was a Father placed first and second, respectively, in the magazine Kinema junpo’s annual critics’ poll of Japan’s Best Ten films, and were both considered exemplary national policy movies. This may surprise Westerners who expect to find Japanese equivalents of the patriotic rhetoric and individual heroism seen in American and British wartime movies. But the Japanese answer to the question of why we fight was always couched in anti-individualist terms, with the emphasis on self-sacrifice, fortitude in the face of hardships, and putting the nation’s interests first. There Was a Father is typical in its insistence that “duty” trumps all personal considerations. Later movies, such as Kinoshita Keisuke’s Army (Rikugun, 1944, also coscripted by Ikeda Tadao, and made when the specter of defeat was beginning to loom), channel the pain of those left behind, the parents whose sons were sent off to die in China or Southeast Asia, while still promoting the sense of duty essential to Japan’s war effort. Ozu’s pre- and postwar films show his own acute sensitivity to bereavements and family breakups, but There Was a Father bites the bullet of national policy by foregrounding the nation’s expectations of its dutiful “sons.”
There Was a Father was first cowritten with Ikeda and Yanai Takao in early 1937, soon after the release of The Only Son in September 1936 and just before Ozu was drafted for the first time. We have no way of knowing if Ozu consciously intended the film as a counterpart to The Only Son, and the film he finally made in 1942 was anyway based on a thoroughly revised version of the script, but there are still several striking correspondences between the two films, from the parent-child separations to the classroom scenes of geometry lessons. Where The Only Son deals with the struggle to maintain an optimistic outlook in worse than trying circumstances, though, There Was a Father brushes aside material hardships and spiritual setbacks to focus single-mindedly on patriarchal strengths: the transfer of dutiful feelings and resolve from father to son.
Ozu himself was forced to spend his teenage years apart from his father (his mother raised him and his siblings in Matsuzaka, a town near Nagoya, while his father stayed in Tokyo), and so the decision of Horikawa Shuhei, the father in the film, to leave his son in a boarding school in Ueda while he moves to Tokyo to earn enough to pay for it certainly has autobiographical resonance. But the similarities end there: unlike the film’s son, Ryohei, the young Ozu was anything but dutiful. He frequently played hooky from school to go to cinemas in Matsuzaka, he forged his mother’s household seal to help cover up his absences, and he was eventually expelled from his school dormitory for writing a love letter to a junior boy. Ryohei, by contrast, quickly overcomes the pain of being separated from his stern but kindly father and becomes a model son of Japan. The father’s guidance is paramount. In the early scenes, when Horikawa works as a teacher, he sees himself failing as a surrogate parent; no one else blames him for it, but a child dies on his watch. The “failure” leads him to resign his teaching post, but it also stiffens his resolve to be an unimpeachable father to Ryohei. We hear nothing of his wife’s evidently early death (both father and son pay respects at her butsudan household shrine), but her absence intensifies the film’s masculine stoicism.
The film is uncompromisingly didactic in its fidelity to Japan’s wartime ethos. Besides promoting the cardinal virtues of loyalty and obedience, it teaches that every man should be content with his role in society, however modest, and should find fulfillment in doing his best. Our first glimpse of Horikawa and his then young son even stresses the virtue of making do with nearly worn-out shoes. All this is backed up by a web of Buddhist references (Japan’s Buddhist establishment had come out in support of the war the year before) and by images symbolizing Japan’s imperial identity: the Great Buddha at Kamakura and Mount Fuji.
And yet there’s an underlying feeling that Ozu is slightly ambivalent about the film’s overt messages. It would be wrong to overstate this, and there is certainly nothing to suggest that Ozu was a closet pacifist or that he covertly opposed the war effort. The feeling arises only because of various continuities with Ozu’s pre- and postwar work, suggesting that he cared more about his own procedural and aesthetic choices than he did about the demands of wartime propaganda. The most immediately striking of the continuities is the casting of Ryu Chishu as Horikawa Shuhei. Ryu was a long-term Shochiku contract actor who owed his career as a leading man almost entirely to Ozu: he was handpicked by Ozu from the casting pool to appear as an extra in the director’s first feature (Sword of Penitence, 1927, now lost) and went on to appear in virtually all of his films, including the three he made outside Shochiku in the last twelve years of his life, sometimes as an extra, sometimes as a bit player, and latterly as a star. Ryu himself reckoned that he’d acted in all but two of Ozu’s films (we can’t be sure that he was right, because seventeen of the early silents are currently believed lost)—a unique case in world cinema of a lifelong collaboration between a director and an actor.
Ryu’s role in There Was a Father is heavily circumscribed by national policy considerations, but his mere presence in Ozu’s idiosyncratically framed shots and equally idiosyncratic editing syntax is enough to conjure associations with his roles in other Ozu films. Horikawa’s relentless probity as a teacher and father is the flip side of Ryu’s easygoing laxity in earlier movies like The Only Son, where he plays another teacher who resigns his post, only to end up running a humble tonkatsu restaurant. And Horikawa’s drunken night out with his former headmaster, Hirata (played by Sakamoto Takeshi, another veteran of Ozu’s bittersweet comedies of the 1930s), hosted by a group of their former pupils, looks forward to Ryu’s portrayals of heavy-drinking patriarchs in several of the postwar movies. (That reunion scene, incidentally, was the one most heavily cut by the postwar censors, which probably means that it did originally include references to the war.) Other continuities include Ozu’s penchant for train imagery, here symbolizing the closeness and distance in a father-son relationship. Is the ostensibly positive ending, with Ryohei and his bride traveling back to Akita with his father’s ashes in an urn on the luggage rack, so very different from the ending of Tokyo Story (1953), with Noriko (Hara Setsuko) fingering her late mother-in-law’s watch as she takes the train back to Tokyo and contemplates life’s disappointments?
But Ozu’s possible ambivalence is felt most keenly in the way he dramatizes Ryohei’s emotional longings for his father, expressed not only in the protracted scene of the boy’s tears when he first learns that they are to live apart but also in one of Ozu’s highly characteristic pieces of dramatic patterning. There are two scenes in which father and son go fishing together, the first when Ryohei is a boy, the second when he is a young man. On both occasions, they cast their lines in perfect sync with each other, a “replicated motion” shot of the kind Ozu found amusing and used in many films. But the boyhood version of the scene shows first father and son casting their lines in unison and then the boy standing stock-still as his father casts again. The effect of that momentary refusal to act in sync is indescribably poignant, and it reflects Ozu’s mastery of the poetic film language he had developed. The boy’s misery is expressed in the mise-en-scène of the shot itself. At that moment, feeling decisively trumps any notion of duty.
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.