Yasujiro Ozu gives us a quiet, musing mini-masterpiece about childhood in his 1932 silent comedy-drama.
“Father you always want me to be a great man, but you’re not very great.”
Recently, I caught a screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s comedy drama I Was Born, But … at the Barbican, and it was really quite something. The film was presented to us very much in the same way as it would have been upon release: a 35mm print of the film was lent by The National Film Centre Japan, and live piano was performed by Mie Yanashita. On top of that, they kept to tradition by having the movie narrated by a katsuda-benshi. The reason I mention this is because it almost definitely affected the way I saw it, compared to how it would have been at home, on DVD or something.
One of Ozu’s earliest surviving films, I Was Born, But… centres around a family of four moving from the heart of Tokyo to the calm, idyllic suburbs. Brothers Keiji (Tomio Aoki) and Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) are having a hard time fitting in, and especially have trouble with the local kids, who don’t give them a lot of respect at first. One of those kids is Taro, son of Isawaki (Takeshi Sakamoto), the owner of the company the father Kennosuke (played with complexity and heart by Tatsuo Saito) works at. Throughout the story, the boys learn about the complexities of growing up, and of the real world.
That’s pretty much the long and short of it, because I Was Born, But… largely is about capturing that small moment in childhood, between living carefree as a child and understanding the realities of the world beyond you. The family move so the father can earn a decent living, but only as a humble salaryman, who has to bow to Taro’s father, all the while the boys are doing everything they can to make gain respect for themselves among the other neighbourhood kids.
Ozu’s story is an incredibly relatable one, and this is largely due to how simple he keeps everything. The story never gives in to cheap drama, and instead draws heavily from the real world, giving us characters we can all relate to in one form or another. Tatsuo Saito and Mitsuko Yoshikawa are very good as the parents, with both of them providing enough differences in their characters so as to appear properly human, and Aoki and Sugawara do excellent jobs as the boys, giving their silent characters plenty of genuine emotion throughout. Considering how easy it is to overact in a silent film, to say that everyone’s performances are subdued is a testimony to how much.
The benshi, naturally, only spoke Japanese, so with the exception of a few phrases and words here and there, I found myself largely unable to understand him, which is fine because the film pretty much speaks for itself. What the benshi provided, though, was a sense of tone, which went hand in hand with the piano and helped the audience relate the characters even more.The three elements of benshi, piano and film really elevated the story to a higher place. That said, the movie by itself is still a great one, and worth watching in any format. It’s a sense of what’s to come for Ozu, who would later come into even more prominence with movies like Tokyo Story, which has a similar feel. I was Born, But… is a snapshot of life in 30s suburban Japan, one told in a sympathetic and almost autobiographical manner and is definitely worth checking out.
Verdict: Filled with humour, heart and great performances, I Was Born, But … is a gem of Japanese silent film.
Overall entertainment: 10/10
Violence: 2/10 for spankings
Trains: In just about every exterior shot
Hunger strikes: Effective?
Deaths: So many deaths
Resurrections: Also tonnes, so it balances out.
I Was Born, But … (1932)
Also known as: 大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど [Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo] “An Adult’s Picture Book View — I Was Born, But…”
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Writers: Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Fushimi
Tatsuo Saito as Chichi
Tomio Aoki as Keiji
Mitsuko Yoshikawa as Haha (mother)
Hideo Sugawara as Ryoichi
Takeshi Sakamoto as Iwasaki
TeruyoHayami as Fujin (Iwasaki’s Wife)
Seiichi Kato as Taro
ShoichiKofujita as Kozou
Seiji Nishimura as Sensei
– – – – ZentaroIijima, ShotaroFujimatsu, Michio Sato, Kuniyasu Hayashi, Akio Nomura and TeruakiIshiwatari as Asobinakama (Friend) – – – – –