Good Morning

 
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   M O R R I S

Of the three great directors of classical Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) remains the least known and appreciated in the West. Mizoguchi has several textbook classics (Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, The Life of Oharu), while Kurosawa, whose career lasted the longest, tapped themes of loyalty and honor in a body of work that was both widely seen and highly influential outside his native country. Much of the oeuvre of both Mizoguchi and Kurosawa is based on historical subjects with a broad canvas, and both men are noted for their bravura visual style. Conversely, Ozu, considered the most "Japanese" of the three, dealt almost entirely with contemporary settings and themes. And his visual style is a triumph of minimalism, his camera typically positioned about three feet above the ground and rarely (in some films never) moving.

Ozuís reputation rests largely on a series of austere, quietly wrenching shomin-geki, domestic dramas (Tokyo Story, Late Spring) about the lives of average working-class people. Typically, these center on parent-child conflicts, which often work themselves out to the benefit of neither. Good Morning (1959), a Technicolor re-working of Ozu's silent I Was Born, But ... (1932), abandons some of the more tragic aspects of the genre for a witty and good-hearted look at a different kind of intergenerational problem.

Now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection, Good Morning is set in a tidy Tokyo neighborhood of close-quartered homes where everyone runs in and out of each otherís houses and pries into each otherís business. Minoru (Koji Shidara) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) are schoolboy brothers, 13 and 7 respectively, obsessed with sumo wrestling, which they watch religiously on a neighborís TV. Eventually they want a set of their own and when their parents refuse, they take a vow of silence not only at home but in school. Ozu interweaves, and eventually connects in very witty ways, a parallel plot about the possible theft of the local womenís club dues by the treasurer, Mrs. Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura), who inexplicably has just purchased a washing machine.

DVD cover artwork for The Criterion Collection release of Good Morning.
[click photo for larger version]

Good Morning neatly dovetails these two plots when the boys refuse to say good morning to the neighbors. This happens after the alleged theft of dues is cleared up. (Mrs. Haraguchiís mother forgot to give the money to her.) The boysí apparent snubbing is interpreted as an extension of their motherís secret anger over the incident (which is far from true), and Mrs. Haraguchiís spreading of this gossip triggers some of the filmís cleverest dialogue. One distraught neighbor says, "Our cat stole her dried fish. Should I return it?" Ozu is at his best in observing the progress of rumor into seeming certainty and showing the viewer the endless comic complications that ensue from simple misunderstandings in a society that values good manners over truth.

One reason why the film did not find wide distribution upon release may be its pervasive flatulence motif. Isamu and Minoruís other interest, besides sumo wrestling, is farting. They play a typical childhood game, which Ozu records with detached amusement, where one boy presses on anotherís forehead to produce a fart. The director has been criticized for dragging out his jokes, and this one certainly qualifies for the criticism. But Ozu manages to give it a larger significance by contrasting this silly, "childish" activity with the banal conversation and foolish concerns of the adults. The filmís title "Good Morning" is a reference to the over-politeness and humdrum exchanges that the adults engage in consistently in Japanese culture, and which aggravate the boys no end. Ozu seems as delighted with the boysí flatulence as they are, and more so than he is with the adultsí backbiting and boring "polite" conversations ó for example a protracted chat about the weather between the boysí aunt and a teacher secretly in love with her. The endless talk about what a nice day it is acts ultimately to cover and deny true human feelings, much more so than the farts, which are treated as both authentic and amusing.

VHS cover artwork for Home Vision Cinema release of Good Morning.
[click photo for larger version]

The Japan portrayed here is being subtly, perhaps irrevocably, encroached upon by Western culture. Salesmen creep in and out of doorways with an array of American convenience products; a poster for The Defiant Ones (a significant title) graces the wall of the only hip couple in the housing development, the ones who have the TV set where all the kids congregate to watch sumo wrestling. And in a bar sequence, one of the characters says "Someone said TV would produce 100 million idiots!" but the context in which itís said portends that the process of consumerism American style ó television, washing machines ó is inevitable.

Stylistically, this is one of Ozuís simpler films, but itís as resonant in its own quiet way as his better-known work. Shot in a muted Technicolor (which looks great in the DVDís mostly flawless transfer from a 35mm print), Good Morning has the look of an old Kodak photograph, with soft pastels predominating. The score is appropriately whimsical with one surprising, perhaps unique innovation: the boysí farts are rendered not realistically but musically! And Ozuís camera is typically neutral, his vision steady and unvarying as he records the comings and goings of neighbors, the boysí hissy fits and farting contests, the subtle bickering of the women. Ozu has been criticized in some quarters as too conservative, endorsing the values of excessive courtesy and repression that afflict his characters. But Good Morning, at least, makes it clear which side he stands on. In endorsing the boys and their seemingly childish behavior, he shows that while human values can change, human nature remains happily consistent, with all its flaws.

 


Good Morning is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. The disc features a new digital transfer and new and improved English subtitle translation. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site. Good Morning is also available on VHS from Home Vision Cinema.