Stories of Floating Weeds

A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa monogatari)
Year: 1934. Running time: 86 minutes. Black and white. Directed by Yasujiro Ozu. Starring Yakeshi Sakamoto, Chouko Iida, Hideo Mitsui, Rieko Yagumo, and Yoshiko Tsubouchi. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1. Mono. In Japanese with optional English subtitles. DVD release by The Criterion Collection.

Floating Weeds (Ukigusa)
Year: 1959. Running time: 119 minutes. Color. Directed by Yasujiro Ozu. Starring Ganjiro Nakamura, Machiko Kyo, Ayako Wakao, Hiroshi Kawaguchi, and Haruko Sugimura. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1. Mono. In Japanese with optional English subtitles. DVD release The Criterion Collection.

Review by Derek Hill

Few film critics would disagree that director Yasujiro Ozu was Japan's greatest director in the post-war years. Akira Kurosawa, of course, was the other towering giant of Japanese cinema during the same time period, but his numerous magnificent achievements ostensibly catered more readily to Western tastes with their action-oriented plots of doomed samurai and lost honor. Influenced by the western films of John Ford and such literary sources as Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Gorky, and Ed McBain(!), Kurosawa's films illuminated the human struggle in ways that seemed easily understandable for Western audiences, even when the stories and characters themselves were still very much bound by Japanese tradition and history. Ozu's films, on the other hand, seem quintessentially Japanese; at least as far as Western audiences were concerned. The irony in that statement, though, is that Ozu was likewise influenced by Hollywood films of the time (he loved slapstick comedy and Charlie Chaplin, for example) and foreign audiences eagerly awaited his latest productions as much as they hungered for Kurosawa's epic cinematic struggles.

But this review is not intended to argue which director was more "Western" and was more easily marketable to foreign audiences. Ozu and Kurosawa each distilled and recycled their gaijin influences in their own distinct and remarkable ways, giving audiences the world over a myriad of reasons to identify with their respective characters without ever losing sight of how Japanese culture and history shaped the stories and characters themselves. Like all great art, the themes, ideas, and emotions flowing through their films were universal and greater than any cryptic (as far as outsiders are concerned) cultural mores embedded within the film.

Over the course of 54 films (of which only 33 survive) Ozu's intimate portraits of Japanese family life--and the numerous conflicts that arise primarily between parents and their children--still stand as some of the greatest, most unforgettable films ever made. Ozu's trademark style of never moving the camera, always keeping its position objective and unobtrusive (low and/or at the level of a person seated on a tatami mat), the skillful and frequently visually arresting mise-en-scene, and his disinterest in allowing plot to usurp the flow of the narrative at the expense of character could understandably be mistaken for a very static and visually unimaginative style of filmmaking, at least for someone unacquainted with his work. But for anyone who has ever had the pleasure of sitting through Ozu's 1959 masterpiece, Floating Weeds, that misunderstanding is unfathomable.

Although his 1953 film Tokyo Story is generally considered his greatest film and one of the greatest films of all time, Floating Weeds is another of Ozu's brilliant, rhapsodic, and emotionally powerful statements of fallible people trying to understand the choices they make in this world and how those choices ripple across the waters of family and friendship. Focusing on a small, itinerant kabuki troupe (and a rather bad one at that) and their leader, Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), as they play a series of dates in a small provincial fishing village, Ozu and his co-screenwriter Kogo Noda carefully detail all of the boredom, inter-relationship conflict, and humor that goes on behind the "showbiz" curtain. But the main thrust of the film is Komajuro's story, and his desire to reunite with his common-law wife, Oyoshi (played by Ozu regular Haruko Sugimura) and now teenage son, who he hasn't seen in over ten years. The son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), is unaware that Komajuro is his father, for he has been led to believe that the man is his uncle. But when Komajuro's leading actress (as well as his companion), Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), finds out about the illegitimate son, she devises a plot to corrupt Kiyoshi and taint the one sliver of goodness and hope in Komajuro's life.

Admittedly, the plot of Floating Weeds sounds melodramatic. But Ozu, who was a master of subtlety and understatement, gently reveals the pain and guilt that Komajuro feels at not being a father to his son, let alone a middle-aged leader of a financially unsuccessful acting troupe, with a grace and insight that modern filmmakers would be wise to study and follow. Much of the film's power comes from what the characters don't say to one another. This, of course, more likely stems from the time period the film is set (i.e. the 1950s) and the rather stringent cultural mores of Japanese society. But that lack of confrontation only makes the moments of outspokenness and actual physical violence (rare for an Ozu film) even more shocking when it does occur, as when Komajuro slaps Sumiko. Such a mundane act of violence seems almost quaint today, but it is anything but timid when Sumiko is called out on her treachery.

Floating Weeds was one of only a handful of films that Ozu made in color. Teamed with the esteemed cinematographer Kazuo Muyagawa, who worked closely with Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa, Ozu crafts a visually subdued yet dazzling and picturesque film. Each frame delicately composed, lit, and choreographed, Floating Weeds is arguably Ozu's most exquisite cinematic statement.

The Criterion Collection's equally exquisite two-disc set also gives the viewer the chance to see Ozu's earlier, and equally excellent, A Story of Floating Weeds (1934). This black-and-white silent film is structurally the same as the latter incarnation--both films begin and end with the acting troupe arriving into the village by train and boat respectively and both end with the leader of the acting troupe and his companion reconciled and aboard a train fleeing into the night-and there are few differences between the two other than setting (the 1934 version takes place in a remote mountain village instead of a coastal community) and perhaps moments of tone. The 1934 version, at times, leans more toward broad comedy in some of the scenes with the acting troupe (especially when focusing on the young boy in the group), which makes sense when remembering that Ozu was a big admirer of Harold Lloyd and Chaplin. It is also difficult to say which film contains the stronger performances, except in the case of the son--played by Koji (Hideo) Mitsui in the 1934 version and Hiroshi Kawaguchi in the 1959 film--in which the earlier performance is by far preferable. Mitsui is effectively earnest and believable in the role, whereas Kawaguchi comes off as stiff and unsure of himself. The performances in A Story of Floating Weeds are so perfectly nuanced and well realized that you may frequently have to remind yourself that you are in fact not listening to them.

Ozu was no stranger to revisiting his older films. His film Late Autumn (1960) was a retelling of his 1949 Late Spring, and his satirical Good Morning (1959) was influenced by his 1932 production I Was Born, But . . . . But as Donald Richie writes in his excellent liner notes to the DVD set, Ozu never formally discussed the similarities between the films mentioned above. Only Floating Weeds was ever considered by the director as an official remake.

The last year or so has been a boom time for lovers of Ozu's films, as many cities around the world showcased a number of his greatest productions in celebration of the director's 100th birthday. The Criterion Collection has also been doing their part in honoring Ozu by releasing Tokyo Story and Early Summer during the last year, and hopefully there will be more to come. This two-disc DVD contains new digital transfers for both films and newly recorded commentary tracks from Japanese film scholar Donald Richie for A Story of Floating Weeds and critic Roger Ebert for Floating Weeds. Richie's track offers up plenty of useful and astute observations as he reflects on the plethora of similarities between the two versions, among other things. Ebert's commentary track is far more casual though no less interesting. Admittedly not a scholar of Ozu's nor Japanese film in general, his passion and enthusiasm for Floating Weeds is without question and his track is always fascinating (except for a few redundancies) when discussing Ozu's technical style and how the film carefully reveals more and more of its secrets over repeat viewings. Although the set lacks any substantial extras other than the two commentary tracks, the films themselves are more than worth the price. A must-have DVD set for any serious film lover.

"Stories of Floating Weeds" contains two films by Yasujiro Ozu: A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and Floating Weeds (1959). Both films are presented in new high-definition digital transfer with restored image and sound. Both films contain audio commentary tracks: Japanese film historian Donald Richie provides the commentary for A Story of Floating Weeds and film critic Roger Ebert provides the commentary for Floating Weeds. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.