I WAS BORN, BUT… (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 493). — J.R.

Umarete wa Mita Keredo (l Was Born, But . . .)

Japan, 1932 Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Yoshi moves with his wife and two sons, Ryoichi and Keiji, from

Azabu to a Tokyo suburb, close to the home of the director of the

company where he works. His sons are ostracized and persecuted

by the other boys in the neighborhood; arriving late for school

after Yoshi urges them to get high marks, they decide to play

hooky and do their lessons in a nearby field, forging high marks on

their papers which they bring home to show their father. But Yoshi

is informed by Ryoichi’s teacher that they were absent from school,

and makes sure that they attend the following day. After a delivery

boy whom they befriend overpowers a bully who previously

defeated Keiji, the boys are accepted as leaders by their local

schoolmates. Yoshi’s boss screens home movies for his family

and friends, including his son Taro, Yoshi, Ryoichi and Keiji;

the latter two are horrified when they see Yoshi making faces and

otherwise demeaning himself in the films to please his boss, and a

family fight ensues after they and their father return home. When

Ryoichi insists that Yoshi shouldn’t accept a salary from his boss,

Yoshi replies that he has to in order for them to eat. His sons

respond by going on a hunger strike, and Ryoichi is spanked by

Yoshi after throwing objects on the floor; both sons go off in tears.

In the morning, Yoshi asks his wife to fix them rice balls — which

they are eventually persuaded to eat — and, as usual, walks with

them part of the way to school. They meet Yoshi’s boss with Taro,

and after a moment of embarrassment Ryoichi advises his father

to greet him; Yoshi and his boss leave for work in the latter’s car,

while Ryoichi, Keiji, Taro and the other local boys depart for

school.

During the home movie projection which marks the critical

turning point in I Was Born, But . . . from comedy to tragedy, and

shortly before Yoshi’s antics appear on the inner screen, Ryoichi

and Keiji break into a debate about the zebra they see — does it

have black stripes on white, or white stripes on black? — creating

a disturbance that momentarily halts the screening. In comparable

fashion, a spurious, distracting and no less innocent debate has

been persisting for years about Ozu: is he a realist or a formalist?

The naïveté of such a question (and the related fallacy that

‘realism’ and ‘stylization’ are somehow alternative choices) has

effectively blinded many to Ozu’s genius, as well as Tati’s: whether

uncritically embraced for their ‘simple’ humanism or dismissed

for their ‘cold’, ‘boring’ or elusive’ formalism, the brilliance of

both is lost on a one-eyed public that wants to keep its pleasure

simple. If a demonstration is needed that cinematic and social

forms are so interrelated for Ozu that they become indistinguishable,

I Was Born, But . . . is there to supply it — along with strong

counter-evidence to the charge that his total absorption in the

commonplaces of middle-class suburbia reflects a reactionary

endorsement of its principal values. Because the society that Ozu

depicts is essentially bound up in formality, it naturally follows that

his sense of this society’s boundaries and limitations is intimately

related to its ritual social gestures: Ohayo (Good Morning), his

1959 ‘remake’, pivots around the boys’ questioning of why people

say “Good morning” to one another. And even more clearly in this

1932 silent version, Ozu is implicitly offering a radical critique of

prevailing social as well as cinematic forms, although the

boundaries of his world — like those of Oshima’s in Boy — ultimately

make it a tragic vision. Learning to master their immediate social

environment by establishing their power to humiliate others,

Ryoichi and Keiji are brought to the chilling realization that their

father’s power — which hangs over and determines their very

existence — is based on his capacity to be humiliated. Every formal

aspect of the film expresses the equivalence of and continuity

between the separate worlds inhabited by Yoshi and his sons:

two lateral tracking shots in opposite directions across a line of

schoolboys marched through drills is followed by another ore

proceeding back and forth across desks of yawning employees in

Yoshi’s office, with teacher and boss playing comparable roles in

the compositions. Low-angle shots from the boys’ eye level are

intercut with higher shots favoring Yoshi as he lectures them

(while undressing) on getting high marks; this ‘authoritarian’ view

is undercut and counterpointed by a less heroic shot of his ungainly

socks as seen by his sons. The routes to work and school partially

coincide as he walks with them beside railroad tracks to the crossing

(a path traversed many times in the film), where he departs in his

boss’ sedan and the kids (including Taro) join the others. The

field crossed on the latter’s route is where the boys do their

schoolwork when playing hooky, and parallel tracking shots link the

two there with the arrival of the delivery boy, from whom they ask

help in forging their high marks — an emissary between their world

and their parents’ who later protects them against the local bully in

‘exchange’ for the news that their mother will order beer because

it’s Father’s payday. And this same bully, moreover, is glimpsed

running ahead of his schoolmates in the film’s penultimate shot,

going out of his way to greet his teacher a second time. Indeed, if

the climactic family crisis registers with an explosive force –

Ryoichi screaming “I’m not afraid of you. You’re a nothing

you’re a nobody”, and getting brutally spanked after further

violence, followed by Yoshi telling his wife ”l give up”, and taking

out his liquor bottle — this is partially because everything preceding

it has led to this awful impasse. Even in the print under review –

evidently running short of the ‘original’ 89 minutes listed in some

sources or the 100 suggested by another — the extraordinary unity

of Ozu’s conception lends relevance and resonance to every fleeting

detail, so that neither the above synopsis nor any abbreviated

charting of relationships can begin to describe the film’s richness,

or the potential impact of its theme. Writing in Moviegoer nearly

a decade ago, James Stoller remarked that “it invites comparisons

to Vigo, but has charm and physical grace and density that eluded

the Frenchman; it surpasses Vigo’s schoolboy anarchy with its

sad, Olympian intimations not only of the spirit but of the closing

in of the culture upon it, of the absolute necessity of compromise

and the denial of animal will”.

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

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