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September 11, 2011

Japanese film: I was born, but... (Umarete wa mitakedo, 1932) by Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu’s Umarete wa mitakedo... (I Was Born, But…, 1932) is a moving comedy that is the first great film Ozu made, still in the silent era. While many of Ozu's early films are shomingeki, stories about "blue collar workers," this one treats us to a "home drama" type view of the middle class and life as a "salaryman." It is on a par with Ozu's post-war movies.

It is a film about hierarchy. A family composed of a father (Saito Tatsuo), mother (Yoshikawa Mitsuko) and two sons aged eight and ten (Sugawara Hideo and Aoki Tomio) moves to a suburb of Tokyo and is shown settling in during the first five days in their new neighborhood. This was a normal move for such families in the 1930s, when the suburbs of Tokyo were developed at a furious pace by railway conglomerates as Tokyu, Odakyu, Keio, etc. Today these suburbs are tightly packed with houses, but in 1930 there were still many empty fields were the children could play.

The one hierarchy the sons know is that of physical strength. This is enveloped in lots of myths, such as the idea that the eating of bird's eggs makes one stronger, or a weird game where the boys give their friends the sign of the evil eye on which they have to fall down and only may get up again when the boys make a Catholic cross. The boys have to fight their way into the hierarchy of the local boys and defeat the local bully. They finally do this with the help of the delivery boy from the sake shop. He helps them because their mother buys beer from the shop, and that is the first intimation that social relations are more important than pure strength.

The other hierarchy is the normal social hierarchy, where power is held based on income and position rather than on muscles or other merit. The father lives close to his boss and every morning greets him by bowing politely in the hope of getting ahead. The boys wonder: isn't their father stronger than the boss? They themselves can easily beat up the empty-headed son of the boss, who is of their age but walks around in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. Why must their father behave so slavishly? The climax comes when the boys are allowed to join a showing of home films in the house of the boss and see their father clowning for his pompous and bullying superior. The father even bows for the boss's son! A classic confrontation between the innocence of childhood and the hypocrisy of the world, one could say. While this film in particular criticizes the social rigidity of Japanese society, hierarchies in themselves are a thing of all societies.

The boys create a scene at home and refuse to eat. The father explains that this is the way the world is (although the father realizes the life he leads is a sorry one) and the next morning the boys eat rice balls together with their father and peace is restored. The family warmth makes it possible for the boys to accept what they and their father must be. But innocence has been lost. A film about children has become a film about grown-ups, a bright little comedy has become darker and more serious. The defeat of the boys is as inevitable, as is the continuance of social hierarchy.

A third hierarchy the film addresses is that of the family. One could also say (as Joan Mellen has done in The Waves at Genji's Door, New York, 1976) "that the Japanese family functions to socialize the young into acceptance of the status quo." The boys challenge parental authority as they see little value in studying hard at school when the outcome of that toil will be that - like their father - they become subservient to bosses with less talent than oneself. By losing respect for their father, the boys upset the equilibrium of the family. Although the father knows in his heart that they are right, it is his duty as "traditional patriarch" to instruct them in the acquiescence to authority that society expects. There is no place in Japanese society for the rebel or dissenter, certainly not in the 1930s.

Some remarks:
- The two men helping with the removal in the beginning of the film are staff members from the office of the father. In Japan it was (and still is in many cases) normal that subordinates help with the removals of superiors, sacrificing their free Sunday. This is another case of hierarchy. Later, we hear them remark that the father (their boss) is a very shrewd man because he moves house to a location close to the big boss so that he can better pay attention to him.
- Ozu clearly takes a negative view of school and the office. Both are shown as boring places of group discipline by a shot of the boys marching in military style at school, followed by one of the employees who are similarly disciplined and regimented. In the authoritarian-structured society of pre-War Japan everybody must behave identically.
- Ozu himself was a school drop-out and never worked in an office. In both the school room and office we see people yawning. Even the boss is not working, he sits playing with his personal film camera (this must have been an expensive toy in the 1930s!). In such a rigid society, small rebellions are as natural as when the boys show their father forged school results.
- At ages 8 and 10, the boys are still indulged as young Japanese children are - in the few short years before full conformity will be exacted. That is why they still can openly criticize their father and call him a "nobody."
- The father commutes by train - we see the small, tram-like cars riding through the suburbs. His boss, however, is collected at home by a car with driver. In large Japanese companies, all persons of the level of director and higher have such shiny black chauffeur-driven cars at their disposal. But although Japan is clearly hierarchical, it also knows restraint, i.e. we never see the extravaganzas (also not as regards the salary) of American corporate directors.
- Ozu did however not "disapprove" of hierarchy. He knew that hierarchy is part and parcel of human society and that changing social systems will only change the persons in the hierarchy, not remove it as such. As in his later films, also here people bow to the inevitable - which may be a very Japanese world view. They are the casualties of things as they are (and we, all of us, are similar casualties), as Donald Richie expresses it in his book about Ozu (Ozu, Berkeley, 1974).

- Ozu liked I Was Born, But… so much that he remade it as Good Morning (Ohayo) in 1959.