“I started to make a film about children and ended up with a film about grownups; while I had originally planned to make a fairly bright little story, it changed while I was working on it …. The company hadn’t thought it would turn out this way. They were so unsure of it that they delayed its release for two months.” Published in a 1958 issue of the Japanese film magazine Kinema Junpo, this quote is the only record of what director Yasujiro Ozu thought about 1932’s I Was Born, But…. The 24th of his 54 completed films, it brought Ozu immediate critical acclaim and remains Japan’s most treasured silent film. Yet Ozu rarely mentioned it in interviews about his work.
Speculating about Ozu’s unique, low-set camera style, critic Tadao Sato once wrote, “Ozu never explained anything.” Sato could as easily have been referring to the director’s method of working with
his actors or even his views on the vast social and political changes that swept through Japan during his lifetime. While we know what Ozu did, in the end, all we really know of why has to come from the films themselves.
Usually described as a comedy, I Was Born, But… has been compared to Hal Roach’s Our Gang series. Yet it is much more, reflecting a tumultuous 1930s Japan being shorn of its traditions. The film focuses on the family of a typical white-collar worker (“salaryman”), his stay-at-home wife, and two school-age sons, who have just moved from Tokyo’s crowded center to an unfinished suburban development. As the boys struggle to find a place in the pecking order among neighborhood kids, they outwit the dandified young Taro and his bullying protector with their wily antics, only to be humiliated when their father plays jester to his boss, who happens to be Taro’s father. Ozu uses schoolboy politics to mock the hypocrisies of adult hierarchies.
Japan fell hard after the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing worldwide financial depression. The salaryman’s economic position was particularly precarious—one-fifth of all unemployed Japanese were white-collar workers. At the same time, a surge of right-wing nationalism led by the military was upending the liberalism of the 1920s Taisho democracy, which had instituted universal male suffrage for the first time in Japanese history. Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria began a decade-long conflict with China that culminated in World War II. By 1932, military leaders rather than politicians ruled Japan, asserting control over the education system and mass media. Officers assigned to each school ensured that textbooks promoted anti-Western perspectives and that boys were drilled, military style, in their schoolyard exercises, a practice memorably depicted in I Was Born, But…. Military control over film studios was less pervasive, but government censors did monitor film production. The civilian government had already put an end to “tendency films,” low-budget melodramas with blatant proletarian themes, after the immense popularity of What Made Her Do It?, Shigekichi Suzuki’s 1930 tale of an impoverished arsonist. Over the next 15 years, tolerance for overt leftist statements in Japanese films fell sharply. Because Ozu’s films avoided the doctrinaire messages of tendency films, censors generally left them alone.
After an adolescence of moviegoing and academic loafing, Ozu began working at the Shochiku studio in 1923, the year every other film company abandoned Tokyo following a devastating earthquake. Shochiku operated the only remaining major movie studio located in the nation’s capital, so, for years, its filmmakers were uniquely positioned to chronicle Japanese modernity. While other studios focused on jidai-geki (period drama), Shochiku encouraged its directors to develop the shomin-geki (common people’s drama) and nansensu (nonsense) comedy genres.
At first, Ozu specialized in comedy. He drew on his love of American slapstick and its master craftsmen Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin to make films set among university students, working people, or the dispossessed. As his confidence grew, he branched into subsets of shomin-geki: films about salarymen or low-level gangsters and “home dramas” that anticipate the family-centered films of his later career. By the end of 1931, Ozu had directed more than 20 films. Nine of these still exist, at least in partial form, including a pair of social comedies about the difficulty of finding a job after college. I Graduated, But… (1929) borrowed its title from a popular catchphrase of the day and its theme appealed to the critics who favored tendency films. I Flunked, But… (1930) features a student lucky enough to be held back academically while his graduating friends flounder.
In these early films, Ozu perfected many of his filmmaking practices. He wrote his own scripts in collaboration with others, taking the anglicized pseudonym James Maki to appeal to urban audiences who appreciated Shochiku films for their Western influences. He filmed without a continuity sheet, keeping all his camera angles and compositions in his head. Once he cast his actors, he never discussed with them how their characters should feel. Instead, emulating his directorial heroes Ernst Lubitsch and Chaplin, he demonstrated the desired performance, often down to the smallest gestures.
Most of his cast and crew were veterans of his sets. Tatsuo Saito, as the father Yoshii, Mitsuko Yoshikawa, as his wife, and Takeshi Sakamoto, as the father’s boss and neighbor, had all appeared in multiple Ozu films. Eight-year-old Tomio Aoki was making his sixth appearance in an Ozu film. He had created a sensation as an unruly captive in A Straightforward Boy (1929), which was inspired by the O. Henry story “The Ransom of Red Chief.” The young actor took the film’s Japanese title, Tokkan Kozo (literally, “a kid who blunders into things”), as his screen name.
Ozu shot I Was Born, But… from November 1931 to April 1932. Midway through, filming was interrupted when one of the child actors was injured and, during the interval, Ozu directed another film. It is also believed that he used the hiatus to make changes to the shooting script for I Was Born, But…. The original ending for the film included a gag built around a troop of marching soldiers encountered by the older son when he runs away from home. For the rewritten ending, the boy stages a short-lived hunger strike whose resolution leaves the film on a more ambiguous note. According to one contemporary reviewer, some audience members left the movie theater thinking the film cheerful, others melancholy.
Production chief Shiro Kido delayed the release of I Was Born, But… because of Ozu’s shift from gags to social commentary. But Ozu’s subtle films about Japan’s everyman were increasingly appreciated among critics. I Was Born, But… was the first of his films to be ranked at the top of Kinema Junpo’s annual poll, a feat swiftly repeated by Passing Fancy (1933) and A Story of Floating Weeds (1934). For the rest of his career, Ozu’s films were regularly included on domestic “best of” lists. Western audiences finally got to see Ozu’s early work at international retrospectives put together by Tokyo-based film historian Donald Richie just before the director’s death in 1963. Ever since, I Was Born, But… has been the most commonly seen and beloved of his 34 silent films.
Preceded by an outtake from the orphan film St. Louis to Chicago Airmail (1926)
Presented at SFSFF 2011 with live music by Stephen Horne on grand piano