Thursday, October 1, 2015

Watch This: Good Morning

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Good Morning (1959)
Co-written and directed by Yasujiro Ozu

With the probable exception of the great Akira Kurosawa, no other filmmaker looms larger over the world of Japanese cinema than Yasujiro Ozu.  He is justly considered one of the greatest film directors of all time, and his stylistic influence can still be felt today, more than five decades after his death.  Ozu's poetic depictions of generational relations and familial life in masterpieces such as The Only Son (1936), Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953), and Floating Weeds (1959), reveal a keen eye for the nuances of human interaction and an astonishing depth of sentiment.  The later years of his career were devoted to making sober, often heartbreaking portrayals of parent-child relationships, in particular a series of films about aging parents sacrificing their own needs in order to marry off their dutiful daughters.  However, in the midst of all these somber domestic dramas came Good Morning (1959), a light-hearted depiction of suburban Japanese life and postwar modernization that stands not only as an oddity in Ozu's filmography, but also as a welcome reminder of his deep-rooted sense of humor.  Good Morning is that rarity among the works of the great cinematic masters, a film that reveals the director's predominant narrative themes and common stylistic motifs, but also contains a running fart gag.

Good Morning portrays the day-to-day lives of the residents in a small, suburban, middle-class Japanese neighborhood.  The film offers a delightful portrait of the interactions between neighbors, in a setting where one can slide open one's door and seem almost face-to-face with those living next-door.  At the center of the story is the Hayashi family, made up of the father Keitaro (Chishu Ryu), the mother Tamiko (Kuniko Miyake), and the two sons, Minoru and Isamu (Koji Shitara and Masahiko Shimazu, respectively).  The boys have been spending more and more time at the home of their pajama-clad, Bohemian neighbors, watching sumo wrestling on TV with their friends.  They beg their father to get a set for the Hayashi home, but he refuses, proclaiming that television will create a society of idiots.  In protest, the brothers begin a silence strike, refusing to speak at home or at school until their parents buy a set.

Meanwhile, Tamiko is dealing with the problem of missing club dues for their local women's association.  There are suspicions that the money was taken by the local group head, Mrs. Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura), who has just purchased a new washing machine.  The money is later found, and it is revealed that the washer was purchased on an installment plan, but the suspicions linger.  The theft rumors can be traced to Mrs. Okubo (Toyo Takahashi) and Mrs. Tomizawa (Teruko Nagaoka), both of whom seem to relish every chance to spread a new piece of gossip.  There is also an amusing, subtly developed romantic plot line involving the Hayashi boys' aunt Setsuko (Yoshiko Kuga) and their English tutor Mr. Fukui (Keiji Sada), whose obvious mutual attraction cannot seem to move beyond basic pleasantries and chit-chat about the weather.  One of the film's well-observed preoccupations is the way in which we pass so much of our lives in idle conversation.

Good Morning provides a fascinating glimpse of society in postwar Japan, in particular the effects of westernization and modernization that became apparent as the country began to rebuild.  The influence of western culture and innovation can be seen throughout the film.  Modern apartment buildings border the characters' small neighborhood, where the homes are surrounded by white picket fences.  French and American movie posters can be seen in the home of the young Bohemian couple.  The purchase of a new appliance such as a television or washing machine symbolizes not just a family's economic stability, but also their embrace of modernity.

More than almost any other Ozu film, Good Morning focuses on the perspectives of its child characters.  In most of his work, the protagonists are aging parents struggling with generational tensions as their grown children begin lives of their own, but in Good Morning, there is a sympathy with the neighborhood boys.  Their daily rituals and preoccupations, and even their growing obsession with television at the expense of their schoolwork, are presented with great affection.  The boys have a recurring joke, a sort of variation on the classic "pull my finger" gag, where one boy presses on a second boy's forehead, and the second boy passes gas.  However, the unfortunate Haraguchi boy cannot seem to master the skill, and always pushes too hard, soiling himself on an almost daily basis.  Ozu seems to share the boys' amusement with these activities.

Yasujiro Ozu has been called the "most Japanese" of Japan's great film directors, and it's undeniable that his films are very specific to their Japanese setting.  Indeed, due to the perceived difficulty of marketing his films overseas, Ozu remained relatively unknown outside of his native country during his career.  This was true even after the growth in popularity of foreign films among English-speaking audiences in the 1950s, when Ozu's fellow Japanese director Akira Kurosawa gained widespread international fame with films like Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954).  And yet, one reason that Ozu's films have stood the test of time, and have remained so beloved by cinephiles around the globe, is that they are so immensely relatable.  Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ozu's body of work is that his films are so intrinsically Japanese, and yet simultaneously so universal.

No comments:

Post a Comment