Best known for his late period family dramas, Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu had an extensive, illustrious career before releasing 1953’s Tokyo Story (a film that is, arguably, his masterpiece). By the early 1930s alone, he had over a dozen films to his credit, many of which have unfortunately been lost. Compounding the erroneous perception of Ozu’s limited output is the fact that he would not enter into sound filmmaking until 1936. Japan was one of the slower countries to transition to talkies, and Ozu was among the slowest. He would not make The Only Son, his first movie with synchronous dialogue, until roughly 10 years after the technology had debuted. Nevertheless, among these comparatively underseen films, I Was Born, But… (1932) may be Ozu’s finest. It may, in fact, be the greatest Japanese silent film in existence.
Ozu started working at Shochiku studios in 1923, at a time when it was the lone company still operating in Tokyo (many had moved to the outskirts of the city following the Great Kantō earthquake in September of that year). As Japanese film scholars have pointed out, Shochiku was therefore well-placed to observe and record a major modern municipality as it underwent tremendous reconstruction and development. Adding further strain to its film industry, Japan took a significant hit after the 1929 stock market crash, and by the next decade, the country was embroiled in a lengthy clash with China, one that ultimately led to its involvement in World War II. Within this relentless framework of turmoil, an emphasis on two unique genres emerged in Japanese cinema, the shomin-geki, dramas about everyday people, and the nansensu, lighthearted comedy fare. As time would prove, Ozu could excel in either category. He already had experience in comedy, but he found his most poignant niche in drama. I Was Born, But… shows the best of both worlds.
For Japanese audiences of 1932, stories of the so-called “salaryman” were of particular interest, and in this general form, Ozu began to implement the formal and narrative strategies that eventually forged his signature blend of stately familial conflict tinged with a dash of humanistic humor. As an emblematic example, I Was Born, But… essentially revolves around brothers Keiji (Tomio Aoki), the youngest, and Ryoichi (and Hideo Sugawara), slightly older. Their businessman father, Yoshi, played by Tatsuo Saitō, just moved the family to the Tokyo suburbs and has started a new job working for executive Iwasaki (Takeshi Sakamoto). While Yoshi does his best to ingratiate himself with the boss, the boys struggle with their disinterest in school and their disposal to local bullies keen to tease the new kids in town. Among these ruffians is mischievous Taro (Seiichi Kato), who happens to be the son of Iwasaki. This sets up a multi-pronged skirmish, where the boys butt heads over acts of childish cruelty — stealing toys and food — and are at the same time exposed, in their curious, naïve way, to the more existential concerns regarding individual worth and one’s place in a socioeconomic hierarchy.
The constant in either struggle is the brotherly bond between Keiji and Ryoichi. In the face of pre-teen tyrants or when confronted by their fuming father, they fall back on each other as a source of comfort and sibling solidarity. They stick up for each other and routinely display an admirable allegiance, perhaps best and most subtly enacted when Keiji resolutely places his hand on Ryoichi’s shoulder as the two stare down their neighboring and domestic opposition. Things do not always work out, though, and in their despair, the brothers occasionally regress to some theatrically inflated crying. However, such histrionic motions are rare in I Was Born, But…, a film that generally resists silent cinema’s propensity toward exaggerated action (to say nothing of Japan’s own brand of Kabuki stylization). As with many in the film, specifically its adolescent cast, these two young actors give richly natural performances. While Ozu’s characters tend to play down their reactions (save for Setsuko Hara’s sunbeam smile), oftentimes expressing emotion in sedate nods and understated vocal acknowledgments of sentiment, Keiji and Ryoichi gleefully mug and gesture. With a youthful buoyancy, they make faces and strike silly poses, and their vigorous physicality — scratching, tugging, pushing and shoving — contributes to the film’s amusing depiction of crude boys-will-be-boys conduct.
Few filmmakers have adopted as consistent a visual pattern as Ozu, and just as it exhibits diverging performance styles, I Was Born, But… also incorporates a number of the director’s familiar configurations, albeit with a less pronounced frequency and with some surprising deviation. In addition to wide variations in shot size and moderately accelerated cutting, most contrary to his later output is Ozu’s conspicuously deliberate camera work. More than just movement for its own sake, in I Was Born, But…, Ozu tracks to underscore thematic significance. Especially striking is a series of lateral maneuvers that survey a group of children marching screen right to left as the camera crosses left to right. A cut then picks up in Yoshi’s office, maintaining the same directional movement but this time surveying the older men as they stand bored at their desks. A similar arrangement brings the film back to a focus on the children, now at school, only to then be contrasted with another cut to layabouts Keiji and Ryoichi, who have skipped class and are lounging in the grass.
Still, other customary Ozu motifs remain, from scenic elements like clotheslines and trains, to his trademark low angle vantage points. Heavily debated for decades, Ozu’s classically rigorous camera positioning has been attributed to the view of one sitting on a traditional tatami mat, as his character often are, or to a balanced, proportional placement akin to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.” A third reasoning seems expressly appropriate to I Was Born, But…, and that has to do with the lowered point of view of a child, so low in some cases that adult heads are partially cut off. Here, given that so much of the film is from the perspective of Keiji and Ryoichi (literally and figuratively), the approximation of how they perceive the world is particularly apropos.
With I Was Born, But…, Ozu said he started to make a film about children, but ended up with a film about adults (an opening title card alludes to the duality of its age application by dubbing the movie a “picture book for grown-ups”). Such a conclusion is not wholly accurate, though. This is a film very much inspired by the ideals and insights of children. That may in turn lead to its more adult implications and equivalents, but its central focus and primary emotional thrust depends on the portrayal of children and their own complex struggles. Keiji, Ryoichi, Taro and the others are at a precarious crossroads in their young lives. While these boys are still utterly dependent on their parents (one youngster walks around with a sign on his back reading “Upset tummy. Please don’t feed him anything”), they also want to assert their own dominance, usually in conventionally masculine feats and feigned assertions of strength (absurdly attaining power by consuming the yolk of a sparrow egg, for example, or by affecting an embellished tough-guy posture).
When Yoshi scolds his sons for skipping school and forging their homework, he reproaches them by asserting the overriding question of I Was Born, But…: “Don’t you want to be somebody?” Of course they do, but how? And what exactly make a person “somebody”? Fed up with the bullies, Keiji and Ryoichi get the older delivery boy, Kozou (Shoichi Kofujita), in their corner, and after he confirms his commitment to their side, the other children assume deferential obedience as the brothers now hold court. This is certified when they are able to exploit a humiliating hand signal that “forces” their subordinates to lie on the ground at their command. In their immature circle, this is the ultimate expression of authority. Their confidence wavers, however, with the notion of true power derived by the status of one’s father. One child’s dad has dentures, a point of pride for his son, while another brags, “My dad’s got lots of suits” (which is fine, except, as another boy notes, his dad is a tailor). Keiji and Ryoichi grow confused and troubled. They thought Yoshi was an important businessman, so why then does he kowtow as he does to the wealthy, cigar chomping, tennis playing Iwasaki? And how does he explain his goofy antics, embarrassingly captured for all to see in a home movie? What makes him a success, if he is one? In the most powerful sequence of I Was Born, But…, the boys confront Yoshi and deride his standing, calling him a weakling and a yellowbelly, throwing a fit to test his apparently insipid constitution. This proves as physically detrimental to them as it does emotionally wounding to Yoshi.
I Was Born, But… was written by Akira Fushimi, a frequent Ozu collaborator, and many of those in the film were likewise veterans of the film business. Saito, Yoshikawa and Sakamoto had all appeared in other Ozu films and eight-year-old Aoki was appearing in his sixth for the director. The film won first prize at the prestigious Kinema Junpo Awards, the first of six such honors Ozu would receive. All the same, Shochiku production head Shiro Kido actually delayed the release of the film, concerned about Ozu’s conversion from straight comedy to serious social commentary. In hindsight, the apprehension may have been valid. Just within the narrative of I Was Born, But…, to say nothing of where the film situates itself in terms of Ozu’s evolving filmography, the shift is jarring, though quite eloquently realized. Like I Graduated, But… (1929) and I Flunked, But… (1930), Ozu is again stressing a turning point but with qualification. Something has happened, good or bad, but what comes next? The future remains uncertain. Yoshi confesses to his wife that he does not suck up to Iwasaki because he likes it, and in this tragically affecting scene, Chichi’s disheveled beaten man acknowledges the reality of his own shortcomings, something hard enough to accept on his own, let alone to hear from his children. And yet, he holds out hope, at least for Keiji and Ryoichi. Looking over their children as they sleep, Yoshi wonders aloud: “Will they lead the same sorry lives we have?” He says so with a smile. It is the type of heart-rending optimism seen often with Ozu, a graceful resignation of life’s misfortunes, hardships and inevitable ups and downs. “And so, as usual…” a title card says as I Was Born, But… concludes with a new day. Waking up the morning after this explosive, cathartic confrontation, the father and his sons share a new, if differing, perspective. Grief may be unavoidable, but for now, Keiji and Ryoichi can carry on as innocents only just puzzled by the ways of the world. Enjoy it while you can, kids. If Ozu has taught us anything, it’s that life doesn’t get any easier. But life does go on.
Watch ‘I Was Born, But…’ at FilmStruck.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.