Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Ozu's children, Ishiguro's butler and the merits of idle talk

In the comments section of this post (starting here), there was a short discussion about Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day, including the passage where the butler Stevens, nearing the autumn of his life, considers trying his hand at light banter (something he has never before done). The justification of banter or idle talk as a way of coping with the daily grind of life happens to be a theme in Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 film Good Morning, which I saw recently, and it made me wonder: Ishiguro, who has admitted to being influenced by Ozu's work, was born in Japan in 1954 and moved with his parents to England when he was five, around the time that Good Morning was released. Perhaps he carried to the new country a fragmented memory of seeing this film?

At any rate, little Kazuo would definitely not have seen Good Morning in Britain. Ozu is often described as the “most Japanese” of the major filmmakers from his country, and his restrained stories about contemporary family life were seen as being too provincial and unfashionable for Western audiences, especially when set beside Kurosawa’s action movies or the anti-war epics of Ichikawa and Kobayashi. In this light, it’s amusing to come across an Ozu movie that lightheartedly comments on the growing influence of Western culture in late-1950s Japan.

The plot synopsis gave me the impression that Good Morning was about two children protesting their parents’ refusal to buy a television set, but I should have known better – Ozu’s films are less about plot than observation. (Sidenote: on the DVD commentary for Tokyo Story, film scholar David Desser suggests that one reason why the film is Ozu’s best-known work internationally is that it’s more driven by a conventional narrative arc – complete with a climactic act involving the death of a neglected old mother – than most of his other movies.) The story of young Minoru and his little brother Isamu throwing temper tantrums because they don’t have a TV to watch sumo matches on is really just one thread in the bright tapestry that makes up Good Morning. The others involve the complex personal equations between the neighbours who make up the film’s cast of characters: their gossip with and about each other, a minor controversy about society funds that have gone missing, a fractious relationship between a woman and her near-senile old mother, the possibility of budding romance between two eligible young people.

However, the children do play a crucial part in this film – their behaviour, shorn of social niceties and excessive displays of etiquette, is used as a counterpoint to that of the grown-ups. Actually, many of Ozu’s movies have kids who raise their voices and talk back to parents and grandparents (and these scenes introduce rare moments of discord in the overall quietness of his work), but Good Morning is probably his most extended look at the child’s point of view. This allows him to show the natural childlike propensity for bluntness and scatological humour (they enjoy playing “fart games”), which contrasts in interesting ways with the reticent, mannered (and sometimes hypocritical) ways of the adults. At one point Minoru has an outburst where he tells his parents that he’s fed up with their polite, vacuous conversation – their repeated “good mornings” and “how are yous” and so forth, which don’t add up to anything very much.

“But such talk is essential,” one of the grown-ups says to another later, “it's a lubricant for the world.” The implication here is that exchanging “meaningless” small talk with someone you aren’t especially fond of, or gossiping emptily behind a neighbour’s back, is a vital part of being human - though as is usual with Ozu, he doesn't endorse a particular viewpoint but simply presents it for our scrutiny.

I thought the contrast between adults and children was particularly notable because Japanese society tends to frown upon strong displays of emotion or raised voices. It might be said that the role of the disruptive children in this film is similar to the role of television, which is seen as an undesirable Western product that will bring the crassness of American popular culture into Japanese houses. Good Morning depicts the fears of people encountering change with gentle, perceptive wit. At one point the boys’ father explicitly voices his concern that TV will turn millions of Japanese people into idiots, but there are other cues to globalisation, to a society cautiously letting the world in through its doors: in the many references to English lessons for the boys (and Isamu's mechanical “I love you!”, his parting exclamation every time he leaves a room); the language translation being done by a young bachelor for a schoolteacher; and a sub-plot about a bohemian couple who have a TV set in their house (and a poster of Stanley Kramer’s film The Defiant Ones on their wall).

Incidentally some of the outdoor shots in Good Morning reminded me of scenes from Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (which I briefly wrote about in this post), with its joyous sights of the “old” Paris in danger of being swamped by modern architecture (much as the old-world Japanese suburb in Good Morning is now increasingly being dotted by TV towers and cables). The background score is similarly lilting and lyrical, and the school-going children seen from a distance through the gaps between the buildings – skipping about, playing their little games – are nearly as uninhibited as Tati’s awesome dogs.

P.S. 1959 was quite the annus mirabilis for world cinema; a non-exhaustive list of great films made or released that year would include Godard’s Breathless, Hawks’ Rio Bravo, Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder and Bresson’s Pickpocket (honorary mention to a few others like Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, which I’m not a fan of personally but which had quite an impact on filmmakers and on the art-circuit generally). Compared to most of these films, Good Morning is modest in scope and apparent ambition, but it’s a warm, absorbing slice-of-life tale that deserves to be better known.


  1. It's really interesting that you consider 'Anatomy of a murder' as a great work. It doesn't really fit with some truly memorable films in that list.

  2. Rathesh: oh I think it's right up there with almost anything else on that list - and Preminger's work generally speaking tends to be underrated. Even when he makes an epic featuring lots of stars (Exodus, for example), it's done with a lot of moral complexity and subtle use of audience-manipulating technique.

  3. Thank you very much for introducing me to this wonderful filmmaker. I had not heard of Ozu before but after reading this entry I watched 4 of Ozu's movies and am looking forward to more. Have you seen "Equinox Flower" but Ozu? I loved it!

  4. I loved this movie. It is said to be a remake of one of his silent films. Other movies of ozu that i liked are late spring, early summer and tokyo story. My favourite is late spring and love setsuko hara, the leading lady. she reminds me of suchitra sen,somehow. also loved another movie called, the millenium actress which is supposed to be an ode to setsuko hara. I love the way these small things connect one good movie to another :)