In 1934, Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu made a silent film called A Story of Floating Weeds, which told of a traveling group of actors who arrive in a small seaside town where the company’s star performer, Kihachi, had years ago left a mistress and a young son. The son, now a strapping young lad, doesn’t realize that Kihachi is his father, but rather believes him to be a rarely seen uncle. His true identity is a secret kept by the man and his mistress so the boy can have a normal life without the taint of being known as the son of a vagabond actor. The story’s drama, then, centers around the efforts of a vengeful actress in the troop, a former lover of Kihachi, to upset the harmony of this little arrangement.
Ozu was a great fan of American films, and this one was based on the relatively obscure The Barker (just as Tokyo Story, Ozu’s masterpiece — and a film considered to be quintessentially Japanese — reworks Leo McCarey’s ’30s melodrama Make Way For Tomorrow). A Story of Floating Weeds was different from what would become the usual Ozu family drama, a little looser in the telling and a little more up-front with the emotions, having an illicit aspect and a climactic series of slaps and shouts.
Twenty-five years later Ozu remade the film, now calling it simply Floating Weeds, and while much of the original was maintained, including certain lines of dialogue, the story now simmers with the full power of Ozu’s mature style.
The term “floating weeds” refers to the actors, unmoored from the conventions of bourgeois society, and from the responsibilities of family life (though they are, of course, a family of sorts). The actor who has fathered the illegitimate son must eventually come to terms with the consequences of his years of paternal neglect which, in a typically bittersweet Ozu touch, involves facing the fact that the son has a life that he will never be able to share. Ozu presents this potentially tawdry material with the famous controlled simplicity of his late period, with a dazzling use of color and those static and often mysterious compositions filled with the insinuating hum of stillness.
Like all of Ozu’s best work, it’s a demanding film, though the demands are less intellectual or even emotional than they are a matter of temperament. It’s necessary to dial down, forget about story arc, and settle into the moment. Then the paucity of dramatic incidents becomes irrelevant as you begin to appreciate the richly textured lulls.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, May 17, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.