Yasujiro Ozu, a critical figure in cinema, the innovator of domestic storytelling, finding the penetrative heart of our familial and residential lives; this is a filmmaker who remains loyal to his intentions, up until his death, his films never reached a feeling of sensationalism that one would expect from a more experienced filmmaker, growth is instead found in the more complex emotions that bubble beneath his familiar characters, each one rarely a repetition from the last, at least in their essence.
The Only Son, a relatively early film for the director, isolated from his more renowned period that would contain titles like Tokyo Story and Late Spring; it was a film that I found myself slipping into comfortably, even if my exposure is only limited to a singular entry into his entire filmography, not to mention the final entry, but it all felt familiar, still retaining that sense of honest heart that can easily be reflected upon our own, that family and social dynamic that can easily be viewed as mundane and trivial, spoken in volumes here as Ozu captures it with minimal melodramatic frills.
It opens with a view of provincial Japan, a town named Shinshu in 1923, introducing us to Tsune, a woman, a widower, a mother, a worker of a silk factory hoping to make ends meet, provide a decent life for her and her only son, Ryosuke. One day prompted by Ryosuke of an opportunity, secondary school, which she initially sees as an extra baggage onto her workload and finances, therefore hesitant. But Ryosuke’s teacher visits their home, with an assumption of Ryosuke forwarding his education, this was initially a blow to the mother’s heart, to be lied to by her only son, an anger that slowly fades and becomes replaced with acceptance and sacrifice, Ryosuke promising to her mother that he would become something of himself.
Cut to 1935 in Shinshu then 1936 in Tokyo, Ryosuke now far from home for many years in Japan’s capital city, Tsune now hoping to see his son after many years of separation, hoping that his journey have taken him somewhere fruitful, but in her arrival she finds something far less idealised, her son earning as a night school teacher, now with a wife and a child that wasn’t previously communicated to her mother, a shock certainly that was felt after such an announcement, and was done so with such banality that it comes off as more bewildering for her. Indeed Tsune’s son has changed, but for the better? Not yet clear, Ryosuke basks himself in the modern culture, an occasional attendee of the local cinema, donning smart business like clothing for his job, experimenting with foods from other cultures, but he still remains at a struggle, having very little savings, scraping by as if he never left Shinshu, revealing his insecurities and guilt for not earning her mother’s pride, especially after revealing the further sacrifices that she has made to ensure his position.
A defeatist attitude is viewed as the central issue to Ryosuke’s condition, and it is through these moments when confronted by his mother that aches heavy emotion, one that recalls to the conversations of my own past, to feel such guilt and defeated when life throws a barrier, willing to strive only for mediocrity for the sake of comfort from further failure. Yet such a powerful moment never aims to strive for so much more, Ozu refuses to sensationalise such interactions, the camera remains static, focused but technically unengaging, capturing his naturalistic cast almost as portraits, evoking appearance unglamourised as compared to the standards of Western cinema of its time, its camera positioned close to the floor, a defining and admirable trademark for Ozu as he proves that such moments contain such rich emotional power even when unassisted, aiming to mirror the conversations of our own, technically far from but intrinsically cinematic.
The Only Son a powerful early film from Ozu, his first “talkie”, only restricted by its more amateurish construction as scenes are edited with an occasional jarring sense of pace and environment, highlighted further by the film’s far from perfect print, a dying need of a restoration, anomalies that could be removed to further engage its audience. Despite its condition, I was able to sit through it and be far beyond content with the results, an early essential from the legendary filmmaker.