All the elements of classic Ozu are present in this curious film — such as the placid establishing shots or the nearly ritualistic conversations where true meaning lies just below the surface — but this time we’re not heading toward some sad epiphany. This results in a slight cognitive dissonance. It’s strange, for example, to see this masterly, austere style at the service of a series of fart jokes.
The farters in question are four little boys, neighbors who walk to school together and whose latest obsession is the television owned by a young couple that lives nearby. These two young mods lounge around their house in their pajamas, providing an amusing contrast to the boys’ more traditional parents, who come across as well-meaning if a bit rigid. An ancillary plot, involving some missing money, is an amusing critique of one aspect of traditionalism, in which innocuous conversation can be a cover for a certain amount of malice.
Here Ozu spoofs the linguistic cliches that lubricate everyday conversation, the “good mornings” and “nice weather” exchanges that adults use to make safe contact and which the children think a bunch of bunk. They find it annoying that grown-ups continually talk so much without saying anything. Conversely, the parents of two of the boys wish the kids would shut up, especially since they’re constantly complaining about not having a television. To retaliate the two boys take a vow of silence, both at home and at school, which leads to predictable complications.
This 1958 Yasujiro Ozu picture is a comedy that recycles bits of his earlier silent film I Was Born, But...(1932) and weaves them into a decidedly more modern theme. Although it has a featherweight story, its generally light mood has a somber tug to it. Ozu and his longtime collaborator, writer Kogo Noda, obviously see television as one more step in the decline of civilization, but the famous Ozu resignation prevents the movie from becoming an anti-TV screed.
The most caustic criticism of this new, intrusive medium occurs during the obligatory drunken bar scene, where a certain amount of bitterness is allowed, even expected, to be expressed, though it would be extremely inappropriate in any other situation. Generally the film’s mood is gentle, and the feeling, as expressed by one character, is that the boys will eventually learn the value of small talk and the simple kindness of not always saying what’s on your mind.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) Monday, March 29, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.