no filmmaker ever handled father-daughter relationships with the sensitivity
Yasujiro Ozu displays in Late Spring,
one of his universally acknowledged “Noriko” masterpieces. Of course, he could
also do mothers and sons. For Mother’s Day (more or less), Ozu’s very first
talkie, The Only Son, screens as part
of Japan Speaks Out, MoMA’s current survey
of early Japanese talking pictures.
Tsune Nonomiya was widowed at an early age, she still manages to scrimp and
save from her provincial silk factory job to send her one and only son Ryosuke
to middle and high school. Even in 1920s Japan, she understands he will never
amount to anything without an education. However, she may very well wonder if
it was worth it when she finally visits her grown son in 1936 Tokyo. Much to
her surprise, he has a wife and a young son. He has also lost his government
job and now works as a night school instructor.
visit is awkward for Ryosuke because he knows how disappointed she must be.
After all, he is bitterly disappointed in himself. The additional food costs
are also an issue. Yet, an opportunity for redemption might arise for Ryosuke—maybe.
was one of the last major Japanese filmmakers to transition to sound, but
arguably it is absolutely essential to his mature style. To fully appreciate
the way he uses stillness and silence, you have to sound in order to recognize
its absence. Like many of his great classics, Only Son is laden with his elegant visual haikus depicting home and
hearth. Yet, there is a harder edge to the Nonomiyas’ story than one typically
finds in the Norikos. Despite the trials and tribulations those characters
endure, they are a warm, soothing presence. In contrast, it is rather uncomfortable
to watch Nonomiya’s reunion with her son.
Iida’s performance as mother Nonomiya will just rip your heart out and stomp on
it, while looking at you with sad eyes. She definitely makes you forget Irene
Dunne. Frequent Ozu company player Chishû Ryû further pours on the pained
dignity as Ryosuke’s former teacher, who also came to Tokyo brimming with
optimism that was soon deflated like Tom Brady game-ball. Shin’ichi Himori is a
bit cringey as Ryosuke, but that is sort of the point, while Yoshiko Tusbouchi
quietly echoes Iida’s motherly virtue as his submissive wife.
Frankly, any Ozu film is always worth seeing, so
if MoMA’s screenings of Only Son are
your first opportunity to experience his masterful cinematic touch, by all
means take it. Still, if you choose your introductory film at a later date,
select one of his later works starring the incomparable Setsuko Hara.
Regardless, Only Son paints a grim
portrait of dog-eat-dog Tokyo, but it inadvertently captures the sort of
generational sacrifice and resiliency that drove Japan’s rise into a global
economic power, despite the devastating interruption of WWII. Recommended with
all respect due to the master, The Only
Son screens this coming Wednesday (5/13) and the following Wednesday (5/20)
at MoMA, as part of Japan Speaks Out.
Labels: Japan Speaks Out, Japanese Cinema, MoMA, Yasujiro Ozu