Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Good Morning (Ohayô)

Yuharu Atsuta, Ozu’s cameraman, shows the usual position of the camera for the tatami shot


One of the sets used for Good Morning


GOOD MORNING (Ohayô)        B                
Japan  (93 mi)  1959  d:  Yasujirō Ozu

This is Ozu’s loosely made remake of I WAS BORN, BUT… (1932), a Silent film about rebellious kids that feel betrayed by their father when they see him bow in front of his boss, going on a hunger strike and demanding the boss offer him an apology, made 37 years later with sound, his second film in color, with a slight story variation.  Here it is no longer a labor dispute, but reflects a changing attitude towards the impact of television, which in 1959 is a radical instrument of change uniformly westernizing Japan.  A shot of a hula hoop near the end further dramatizes this point.  Two spoiled kids, brothers Minoru and Isamu (Kôji Shitara and Masahiko Shimazu), ages 8 and 4, are upset their neighbor has a television while his family has no intentions of buying one, wanting to watch wrestling and baseball, throwing temper tantrums when they don’t get their way, chided by their father (Chishû Ryû) for speaking loudly instead of listening, telling them “TV will produce 100 million idiots,” so the two brothers decide to go on a vow of silence until they get their way, continuing this habit at school as well, which causes quite a commotion in their small community.  Taking place in a small, closely congested, working class neighborhood where the blue-roofed houses compete for space with the nearby power lines hovering above, each indistinguishable wooden framed house is merely a few feet away, where neighbors often wander in and out of each others homes through sliding doors, always greeted with a polite welcome.  In fact, people in their own homes announce their arrival as well as their departures with a greeting to the family.  Ozu, more than any other Japanese filmmaker, pays attention to these customary details, observed through a series of repetition from fixed points of reference, where each home has an interior floor table where families eat and drink, a long hallway shot showing a room at the end of the hall, the narrow corridor between two exactly similar rows of houses, with a nearby hill just a short distance away with a walkway at the top, or a restaurant counter sequence where patrons talk and drink sake.  The social dynamics are revealed within this self-contained world, offering a glimpse of how ordinary people live their lives.  So when the two children alter this routine, failing to announce their morning greeting of “ohayô” (good morning), this minor detail disrupts the neighborhood harmony, producing a comedy of misunderstanding when people attribute invented motives that have nothing to do with reality.  

More so than other Ozu films, this is an ode to materialism and the effect of Americanization in contemporary Japanese life, something Kurosawa expressed quite differently in STRAY DOG (1949), IKIRU (1952), and HIGH AND LOW (1963), where his camera moves fluidly through crowded streets, bars, nightclubs, and amusement areas, showing a city teething with life.  Ozu on the other hand makes family dramas, where the streets are always off in the distance, as it’s the customs of the family that draw center attention, where the accumulation of material things has changed the behavior of the next generation, as they’ve selfishly learned to expect things, and parents are usually generous enough to buy what they want, as providing for their children’s happiness is their ultimate goal.  Nonetheless, despite this obvious shift from post-war poverty and sacrifice to 50’s materialism, the children have no concept whatsoever of hardship or personal sacrifice, which is what makes their war against grown-ups, the ones who have given them everything, all the more amusing.  While the film treats them as cute and adorable children, Ozu’s message is a broader one, suggesting the invasion of Western values has produced some troubling results, where parents are forced to buy their children’s love instead of earn it, and children learn to value materialism in the already conformist Japanese society, where everyone wants what their neighbor has, treating commercialism as a substitute for genuine love.  Enhancing this theme is Ozu’s use of Western orchestrated music from composer Toshirô Mayizumi, sounding very much like Mozart by the end, integrating Western influences throughout the film, where Ozu actually shrinks the stage of actual Japanese life, showing the diminished effects of their own culture, yet at the same time accentuating, through fixed point repetition, the very essence of what is customarily Japanese.          

Ozu’s signature style is expressed by longtime cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta, working with the director since the 20’s, placing the camera very low, almost to the floor, at the height of a coffee table, the tatami shot replicating the Japanese style of sitting on the floor, usually on a pillow.  Due to the simplicity of the lifestyle of the characters presented, no impressive sets or special effects are needed.  Nonetheless, as was Ozu’s habit throughout his lifetime, he preferred to shoot in a studio, even though by the late 50’s, there were New Wave Japanese directors like Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, or Kon Ichikawa who preferred shooting outdoors.  In fact, there is not a single camera movement in the whole movie, quite a contrast to Ozu’s contemporaries Kenji Mizoguchi or Akira Kurosawa who preferred long shots with breathtaking camera movements.  In this manner, Ozu retains the essence of Japanese art, as it resembles the concise form of Japanese Haiku poetry.  Ozu seems to delight in updated progress reports in the children’s ongoing war against grown-ups, where they have to resort to secret reconnaissance missions to steal food, as despite playing charades with their parents, they were unable to communicate their need for school lunch money.  While there are developing storylines, including feedback from unsuspecting teachers at school, or neighbors who spread rumors and gossip, like suggesting the parents have instilled a superiority complex into their children, there’s another intriguing romance developing between two lovers, Heichiro (Keiji Sada) and Setsuko (Yoshiko Kuga), who formally meet due to work assignments, but who brighten up at the sight of each other.  The children’s argument about adults using banal phrases and words certainly applies to this couple, as they continually avoid any sign of serious conversation, never expressing any feelings, as instead they communicate in smiles and small talk, always overly polite to one another, gracious to a fault, yet they remain overly restrained and physically apart, where there is an obvious spark that just refuses to be lit.  Anyone watching them recognizes their interest, which Ozu saves for the end of the film, framed at one of his beloved railway stations with gigantic power grids dominating the skyline.  Neither one dares go beyond the basic courtesies, talking about the weather, the beautiful day, but never each other, an old-fashioned courtship ritual that hasn’t changed perhaps for centuries.     

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