For better or worse, appreciation of this latest entry in DFT’s ongoing Ozu retrospective is somewhat dependent on familiarity with the director’s oeuvre. Taken by itself, it seems like a fairly stilted soap opera with funereal pacing and long digressive scenes in which people exchange inconsequential small talk. This, of course, is a criticism that could be lodged against any number of Ozu films, though it would be a superficial assessment. Ozu’s dramatic sense is indirect, and his narratives tend to sidle up into your consciousness, the crux of the matter in each scene being something that’s happening beneath the surface. If you’re acquainted with his style you can see it here in inchoate form and it’s that recognition that deepens the story. Somewhat.
There Was A Father (1942) is a father-son tale about a man who pushes his boy away from him and encourages an independence the son doesn’t want. As with many of Ozu’s films, a great deal of bottled-up emotion leads to a sad conclusion, but this time, rather than suggesting it’s just the nature of things, the director offers some extenuating circumstances. The first is that the father has been given an explicit psychological motive for his tough-love approach, having been traumatized by an incident that happened when he was a teacher. He’s determined that his son will be a better man than he is. The father’s willed detachment can also be seen as a desire not to get emotionally burned again.
The second unusual circumstance is that the movie takes place during wartime Japan when there was a certain propaganda value in presenting the idea of self-sacrifice as a virtue. And though Ozu keeps the wartime subtext subtle, certain scenes were snipped in the film’s postwar release. One of the “happy” moments in the movie is when the son passes his conscription test (though just what that involves isn’t clear) and at one point when Dad gives Junior an encouraging pep talk and tosses “remember your country” in among the bromides.
Though this is lesser Ozu, what one savors in this film is what one has learned to savor by watching his other films — for example, the way Ozu regular Chisu Ryu as the father seems rather bland in early scenes but once he’s required to don his old man makeup, he conveys that singular (and signature) serene discontent that the director relies on more and more in his mature films. In this film the Ozu style starts to solidify and becomes a bit more reflective than this particular story deserves.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (Inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave.), Monday, April 5, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.