DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
FLOATING WEEDS (UKIGUSA) (director/writer: Yasujiro Ozu; screenwriter: Kôgo Noda; cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa; editor: Toyo Suzuki; music: Kojun Saitô; cast: Ganjiro Nakamura (Komajuro Arashi), Machiko Kyô (Sumiko), Hiroshi Kawaguchi (Kiyoshi Homma), Ayako Wakao (Kayo), Haruko Sugimura (Oyoshi, Mother of Kiyoshi), Hikaru Hoshi (Kimura), Yosuke Irie (Sugiyama), Hideo Mitsui (Kichinosuke), Hitomi Nozoe (Aiko), Chishu Ryu (Theater Owner), Haruko Tanaka (Yatazo), Kumeko Urabe (Shige), Mantaro Ushio (Sentaro); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Masaichi Nagata; Altura Films/Janus Films; 1959/Japan, in Japanese with English subtitles)

 
"All Ozu's films are great."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Floating Weeds is a modernized remake of A Story of Floating Weeds, Yasujiro Ozu's great soap-opera silent film from 1934. It uses many of the Master's previous favorite melodramatic devices, for instance the idea of a missing parent dramatically reappearing and the unaware child finding out who's his real father. Yet in the hands of one of the best filmmakers ever, if not the best, the melodrama appears austere and filled with terrific dialogue and absorbing character development. It tunes into Ozu's usual themes about the human condition regarding family obligations, loyalty among friends, sacrifice for loved ones, loneliness and despair, injustice, and the meaning of love. Ozu has said, "though this is a contemporary work, in mood it really belongs to the Meiji period (1867-1912)." He could have filmed it that way, but that would mean making it as a costume picture. Ozu is almost alone among Japanese directors of never making a costume picture (except for his debut film). It is worth noting that Ozu's films have similar stories and similar ensemble cast members, and also similar scenes occur again and again. It's a pleasure to follow Ozu's opus and see how he interweaves his tales from his earlier works. He almost always significantly uses rain in his heavy emotional scenes and trains to signify the mystery of change and departing. The Buddhist, moralistic, bachelor director, whose films are ironically always about family life, died at the age of 60 in 1963. The title "floating weeds" is a term that stands for itinerant actors, and is used as a metaphor to contrast the staid lives of the locals with the unsettled but supposedly more glamorous existence of the actors. Of course, Ozu punctures holes in the glamor by showing how trying it could be to please an audience and live from day to day by one's wits. The horny younger male actors are chasing every skirt in town and when not successful that seem down in the dumps. The troupe is quartered in crowded living quarters in rooms above the theater only through the generosity of the theater owner, as this arrangement is hardly glamorous. 

Hideo Mitsui in the 1934 silent, plays the son but a quarter of a century later, plays a minor part as one of the lustful actors in the troupe. 

This 1959 lustrous technicolor film is the most physically appealing of all Ozu's films (most of his films are in a stark black-and-white, but ever since Tokyo Twilight in 1957 the director has worked only in color. That was not easy to get him to do, because he shuns novelties and prefers working only on varying his same themes and keeping his fixed filming techniques simple). The cinematographer was Kazuo Miyagawa ("Rashomon"), one of Japan's greatest. The locale for the remake was moved from the mountains to the seashore in the south of Japan, and one of the first shots is a sentimental one of a lighthouse (seen first in the 1932 First Steps Ashore) seen from the boat a small time traveling kabuki troupe is on. The acting troupe is revisiting a sleepy remote island town after a long time absence. The aging leader of the troupe and the leading man, Komajuro Arashi (Ganjiro Nakamura, he's the spitting image of Edward G. Robinson), is anxious to stop because he had a son, Kiyoshi, by the local proprietor of a sake bar, Oyoshi, and wants to see how his now teenager grew up. The only two members of the troupe who know about this are veteran actors who have been with the Master from the beginning. Though Komajuro has returned occasionally, his trips have been so infrequent that the boy thinks the actor is his uncle and that his real father died.

But Komajuro's current young and beautiful mistress Sumiko, the leading lady, becomes suspicious of his absence and pumps the two older actors for info on why he's spending so much time with a handsome mail carrier. She learns about his old flame and their son, and in a jealous fit visits him at her inn. When led outside in a driving rainstorm, he crossly tells her not to meddle. But Sumiko is so filled with envy at seeing how happy he is with his secret family and how he kept that a secret that she pays Kayo, a beautiful young actress in the troupe, to vamp Kiyoshi. In the meantime, the manager has run off because there's no audience for their show, leaving the troupe stranded. One show draws no audience because of a sudden rainstorm. With the show closed, as not even the kindly theater owner can save it, the troupe is forced to disband. 

Komajuro is so upset with Sumiko for ruining his son's life with this tramp girl, whom he has fallen in love with, that he dumps her. Though a negligent father and a failure as a second-rate actor, Komajuro had hopes that his son would study hard and go to college and become the success and responsible person he never became. In the end we are setup for a bittersweet conclusion, as things don't turn out for the aging actor as he wished. The son refuses to leave his new girlfriend and still calls him uncle, even when learning the truth. His good-hearted mother realizes once again that Komajuro can't remain as the real father at home and turn over a new leaf, that his life course has already been set. Mother accepts her lot in life and that life has not been fair. She also accepts the girlfriend, and tells his father that he's a good boy and she trusts him. At the railroad station Komajuro realizes that he and Sumiko are alike (they are both "floating weeds"). After she begs he agrees to take her to the next town of Kuwana, where he has connections to start a new troupe and she can use her manipulative skills to further influence the new patron.

All Ozu's films are great and quietly reflect a wisdom about human nature that only enriches the viewer. He continually celebrates the traditional virtues of Japan in the most open and formal of ways, yet his filming method is poetically sublime and oblique. He purposely limits his world in order to transcend these limitations. As in all great works of art--the ultimate meaning is left to one's own interpretation and therefore his work is always fresh and urgent. Many believe his Tokyo Story is his best film, but in reality he has made so many masterpieces that it's unfair to single out only one. His films stand out for both their Japanese flavor and their universal appeal, and though they might seem old-fashioned they never get outdated. I always return to them as old friends and am refreshed and surprised again by how penetrating and revealing they are about people I could swear I meet everyday in modern America. If anyone deserves recognition as a Master filmmaker, it's Ozu.

REVIEWED ON 7/16/2003     GRADE: A+

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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