There Was a Father (1942)
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
After The Only Son, Ozu made one more film before being drafted into the Japanese Army. During World War Two he completed only two films, both made in the brief interval between his service in China and Singapore. The second of his wartime films, There Was a Father, is another story of a parent's sacrifices to get an education for a child and the consequences of that decision. In this film Ozu regular Chishu Ryu—this was the fourteenth of thirty-three films he made with Ozu—plays a provincial school teacher, Shuhei Horikawa. When two of his students are drowned in a boating accident during a field trip he is chaperoning, Horikawa is devastated, even though the accident happened through no fault of his own, and gives up teaching. "I don't want to be responsible for other people's children anymore," he tells a colleague. "It's too frightening." Horikawa, a widower, moves back to his provincial home in Uedo with his young son, Ryohei.
During the time they spend in Uedo, Horikawa and his son develop an especially close bond, conveyed in a series of scenes of shared moments—a visit to a nearby castle, the father helping the son with his math homework, a fly-fishing trip together. So when Horikawa sends Ryohei away to boarding school and later moves to Tokyo and gets a job in a textile factory so that he can continue to pay for his son's education, both feel the separation acutely, but especially Ryohei. The passage of the next thirteen years is succinctly limned in a series of brief scenes—Horikawa telling a colleague his son has graduated from high school, then from college, then become a teacher at a technical school. At the same time, Horikawa has progressed from a job on the factory floor to an executive post in the company's offices. About midway through, the film finally focuses on a reunion visit by the adult Ryohei to his father in Tokyo and the events surrounding this visit, which include a fly-fishing trip that mirrors the one in the early part of the picture.
During the visit Ryohei reveals that he wants to resign his teaching job and move to Tokyo to be near his father. "I can't stand living apart like this," he explains. Horikawa, though, is horrified by Ryohei's plan, telling him that the duty of every teacher is to be a good role model for students (perhaps amplifying his own reason for leaving the teaching profession, that he feels he failed to be a good role model for his students). "Our duty is to our jobs," he tells his son. "There is no room for personal relationships." This message of blind obedience to duty and paternal authority must have been a welcome one to the Japanese government and military during World War Two, when the obligation of every citizen was seen to be loyalty to the emperor's will. Ozu and leading man Chishu Ryu, however, manage to make Horikawa's actions seem less like wartime propaganda than observations about the attitudes of a certain type of character.
Ozu's postwar films—he didn't make another picture until 1947, five years after There Was a Father—tend to be remarkably consistent both in style and in subject. While neither The Only Son nor There Was a Father exactly establishes a template for Ozu's later work, elements found in both point ahead to the direction Ozu would take in his postwar films.
In their general outline, the plots of these films are quite alike: parent makes sacrifices for child's education, parent and child endure a painful separation, parent and child are reunited in the big city, parent and child come into conflict over the child's attitudes. This similarity is perhaps understandable, since the original script for There Was a Father was written only a year or so after the completion of The Only Son. Although the organization of There Was a Father in many ways parallels that of The Only Son, there are important differences between the two. The Only Son technically takes place over a period of twelve years, but the interval between these two times is covered in one cut between two scenes, and the emphasis is clearly on the later time. The first part of the film is quite brief, essentially an introductory passage used to set up the main part of the film, the visit of the mother to Tokyo, which is then presented as a simple linear narrative without subplots or narrative digressions.
In contrast, the early part of There Was a Father, when Ryohei is a boy, is developed in far greater detail than in The Only Son. This gives us a much stronger sense of the intimacy of the bond between parent and child, and of the child's feelings of loss when the two are separated. The middle part of the plot, which covers a period of thirteen years, is also given much more detail than the corresponding section of The Only Son, which is essentially an ellipsis. In There Was a Father, this bridge between the two main parts of the narrative seems particularly dense with Ozu's trademark pillow shots*, used as transitional devices between the several time periods covered. The final section of There Was a Father doesn't last as long as the equivalent section of The Only Son, which occupies nearly the entire running time of that film, yet it contains a far more intricate plot than the simple linear narrative of The Only Son.
Compared to The Only Son, There Was a Father shows a clear advance in Ozu's skill with integrating image and sound, in particular the way he uses dialogue to fashion a much more complex screenplay, succinctly using a single scene, or even a single line of dialogue, between two characters as a way for them to express their emotions to each other, or to describe important changes that occur over a number of years. But if Ozu used sound and dialogue to expand the scope of the narrative in There Was a Father, he didn't pursue this direction of narrative sprawl after the war. None of the later Ozu films I've seen covers such a long period of time as There Was a Father. Instead Ozu returned to the restricted focus on time and place of earlier films like The Only Son, using conversations between characters to fill in background events. Still, within this concentrated focus, he reproduced the surprisingly complicated narrative line of that last section of There Was a Father, with its compressed structure, frequently shifting point of view, and almost literary blend of plot and subplot.
One thing that sets both The Only Son and There Was a Father apart from Ozu's later films is the way he portrays the parent-child bond. In those two early films, he shows us stern but not unsympathetic parents and dutiful, compliant children. His postwar films present a much less idealized vision of the parent-child relationship. Just as Ozu's later films often touch on the cultural changes in postwar Japanese society, they also tend to dwell on the changing attitudes of parents and children—in particular, grown children—toward their traditional roles. Children may be too obedient and dependent for their own good and their parents troubled by their excessive devotion, as in Late Spring and its semi-remake Late Autumn. Or conversely, the children may be self-absorbed and aloof, as in Tokyo Story, or alienated and sullen like the illegitimate son in Floating Weeds. Time and again, young children are portrayed not as docile youngsters like Ryosuke in The Only Son and Ryohei in There Was a Father, but as ill-behaved brats. Parents too are often shown in an unflattering way, for example the erratic and irresponsible fathers of Floating Weeds and The End of Summer.
It is said of certain directors that their films are ones that an individual viewer will either like or dislike with great intensity. Because of the similarity of Ozu's postwar films to one another—what I called their consistency of subject and style—this seems particularly true of his pictures. Watching The Only Son and There Was a Father makes one realize that the addition of sound to his distinctively rhythmic visual style permitted Ozu to explore in ever more subtle variations his thematic preoccupation with the bond between parents and children and with the ways the changes in postwar Japanese culture affected how parents and children relate to each other. These two early sound films are essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand how Ozu arrived at the style of his great postwar films.
*Ozu created a unique visual style that he followed with little variation for his entire career. One of the defining features of his style and the visual device Ozu is best known for is his pillow shots. These are brief, lyrical montages of a few images that generally occur at transitional points. Sometimes they are used in a loosely narrative sense to indicate the passage of time or, rather like the establishing shots in Western films, a change of locale. At other times they are used in a more abstract way, to suggest a certain mood or tone that corresponds to the narrative, although not exactly in a literal sense. Certain images are often repeated from one set of pillow shots to another. These pillow shots are found in both The Only Son and There Was a Father, as they are in every Ozu movie I've seen. But There Was a Father has far more of these passages than I have seen in any other of Ozu's films, and I think the reason can be found in the intricacy of the film's plot, with its many narrative and tonal shifts. Below are two pillow shots, one from The Only Son (left) and one from There Was a Father (right).
I am a tireless proselytizer for the films of Ozu, and I think anyone with a serious interest in cinema, especially foreign cinema, should give him a try. If you've never seen a picture directed by Ozu, I suggest starting with Tokyo Story (1953), probably his most accessible film for those unacquainted with his work. You might also be interested in my post from a couple of years ago on Ozu's last three films. Click here to read it. To read Part 1 of this post, on Ozu's The Only Son (1936), click here.