d. Yasujiro Ozu / 1959 / Japan / 119 mins
Ozu is sometimes regarded as the least accessible of the great Japanese directors for Western audiences. Somehow, this is blamed on him being “too Japanese”, as if the issues of cultural belonging aren’t universal to all. Its seems to me that his nationality is not the decisive force in his filmic identity. Although his films in their time never achieved the popularity that Kurosawa’s did in the West, it’s simplistic to see this as simply being a cross-cultural issue. Ozu was a truly individualistic director who managed to free himself from the creative shackles that much of cinematic convention and Hollywood demanded, marking a distinction between his lack of accessibility and a refusal to pander. His films are quintessentially human and Ozu uses very specific and meticulous methods to allow his audience to meet and co-exist with his characters fully. Floating Weeds is a wonderful film that, although cannot quite compete with the heights of Tokyo Story, holds all the hallmarks of Ozu’s stylistic sensibilities at their best.
Ganjiro Nakamura plays ageing troupe leader Komajuro, leading the players of his kabuki theatre to a small seaside town. Whilst promoting their tour, Komajuro visits his old flame, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) and his own illigitimate son Kiyoshi (Hirochi Kawaguchi), who erroneously believes that Komajuro is in fact a visiting uncle. When Sumiko (his current mistress played by Machiko Kyo) learns that Komajuro is giving his attentions to Oyoshi and Kiyoshi, she enlists the help of younger actress Kayo (Ayako Wakao) to seduce Kiyoshi. As the rest of the performers attempt to find company in the small town and deal with the failure of their troupe, the film follows the twisted web of Komajuro’s secret past unravel, pulling in those around him as it does so.
Nakamura and Kyo give outstanding performances and at its most melodramatic, the film is carried by their believability and Ozu’s visual flair. Ozu is famed for eschewing melodrama, preferring not to show moments of great emotional conflict but focus on the moments in-between. It’s lucky for us that he breaks that rule on occasion as the scene with Sumiko and Komajuro rowing in a rainstorm gives the film its most visually evocative moment; framed and separated by a torrent of falling rain, Ozu perfectly captures the feeling of a relationship in wreckage.
This uncharacteristic turn towards the melodramatic makes it difficult on occasion to relate to Komajuro’s plight, his predicament is almost entirely self-inflicted and upsettingly, could be easily resolved were he to be less cack-handed in handling his affairs. This could wind up being frustrating for viewers were it not for the deftness that Nakamura uses when portraying Komajuro in his myriad emotions. If Floating Weeds is remembered for anything, it will be for the self-destructive maelstrom its hero inhabits. That Ozu is able to make Komajuro so likeable (even after we see two occasions of violent outbursts) makes us realise why he has such a reputation as a tender director.
Ozu was a late adopter of the talkies and held on to silent-cinema longer than most directors, Floating Weeds being a remake of a film (A Story of Floating Weeds) he himself had made as a silent feature in 1934. His film-making style owes as much to photography as it does cinematography, every shot being static and flying against the winds of convention. He famously ignores the rule of standard shot-reverse-shots that allow an audience to follow who is talking to who; instead he positions his camera mere feet from the ground, his actor in mid shot, looking towards the viewer. Oddly enough, these motifs play against the kabuki-like staged characteristics they should imply and that acts as the film’s setting. What such cinematography allows is a huge amount of control for the viewer, the lack of movement especially allowing an audience to position themselves amongst the drama and invest in the events as they see fit. Put simply, Ozu opens the window but never drags you along with it.
Floating Weeds is not Ozu’s masterpiece but is a fine example of his work and a wonderful character piece of a man, a floating weed himself, without roots, reacting to the events around him as he coasts forwards to an unknown future.