A Story of Floating Weeds
Film can be about anything; space monsters, samurai, love triangles, and sometimes all three in one film, but some of the most interesting films are made when film makers turn their camera around and look at their own craft. The two films contained on this two DVD Criterion release do just that. A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds (or Ukigusa Monogatari, 1934, and Ukigusa, 1959) are two films by Yasujiro Ozu which follow the personal life of the leader of a traveling group of actors.
Although American film fans usually laud Akira Kurosawa as the master of Japanese film, during their lives Ozu was considered the more typical Japanese director. Indeed, his visual aesthetic and narrative style are much more in line with traditional Japanese art when compared to his more Western influenced rival, Kurosawa. While Kurosawa focused on samurai, businessmen, and the police, Ozu focused almost solely on the Japanese family, or at least the disillusion thereof.
A Story of Floating Weeds, the original film of this set, is a 1934 silent film, one of Ozu's earliest. In it, the headman of traveling group of actors, Kihachi, meanders back into the town where his old girlfriend has been raising their twenty-year-old son. However, Shinkichi doesn't know the old actor is his dad, and Kihachi wishes to keep it that way, so that the boy grows up into something better than an actor. A wrinkle crops up in his plan when his current girlfriend gets wind of the bastard son and ex-flame and she sets him up for misfortune. Floating weeds refer to duckweed, a plant that can quickly cover the top of still water and in running water it drifts aimlessly. In the same way, the traveling actors drift through their lonely lives without a real purpose and without making anything of themselves. Kihachi does not want his son to end up like that.
Although a 1934 silent film seems more like an extra (and I thought of it as such), Criterion treats it like a full film. It has its own DVD, and its own commentary track. After one watches the film, you'll understand why; it is its own film. This was my first full silent film experience and a number of things struck me about it. Foremost, the actors have to work extremely hard to convey the same emotion that one could do with voice. Thus some of cinema's greatest, most talented actors and actresses came from the silent era or were influenced by it, because a good actor had to act. Additionally, since this is a silent film, the dialogue is conveyed by text. Subtitles work extremely well in a set up like this.
A Story of Floating Weeds is a great film for a number of reasons. As mentioned above, the acting is excellent. Takeshi Sakamoto is especially good as Kihachi. Of his 54 odd movies, this is one of Ozu's earliest and his first serious film. As such, one begins to see his distinct style, often discussed in film classes. Unlike Kurosawa's dynamic motion, Ozu almost never moves the camera (there is maybe one dolly shot in this film) and he has usually the camera positioned so that it is eye level if you were sitting on a traditional Japanese tatami mat. Both of these aspects of cinematography contribute greatly for a very Japanese aesthetic. Another very apparent visual aspect to the film is that for the bulk of the film characters speaking to each other each look directly at the camera and the camera cuts from one person to the next. This is, of course, rather jarring, yet it drives home the point that even though people are speaking to each other, they might not be on the same page.
This 1934 flick is a silent film, but was watched by audience with a person playing the piano. There was no set score, so Criterion commissioned a piano score, which can be turned on or off. The other major extra of this disc is a very informative commentary track by Donald Richie, an expert on Japanese film. Though Richie has a rather sleep-inducing voice, he explains many aspects of the film that would be lost on someone who didn't know much about film or Japanese culture. The transfer looks great for such an old film, and though there are a few scratches and the lighting is, as it often is with such old films, a bit odd, the whole package looks great.
After becoming very successful, Ozu remade A Story of Floating Weeds. Floating Weeds came out in 1959, and other than being set in the late 50s in a seaside town, it remains true to the original film's plot. A few changes were made; this film certainly seems a bit funnier than the '34 movie (not that the first film didn't have a number of funny moments). Some emotional strings of the first film are further played out in Floating Weeds, but largely the plots remain similar. However, because of the color, the additional humor, and the actors, the 1959 film comes off as a much lighter film, not quite as grim as the 1934 film.
Though the 1959 film is less bleak, it is typically Ozu in that the narrative meanders. Ozu disliked "plot"; he called it artificial and said that characters should come first. All of his films are characterized by a lack of stirring action. Human beings and their complex lives don't end. People have small advancements, small setbacks, conversations, and they move slowly. It is in this way that Kurosawa and Ozu differ most greatly. Thus a story I can describe in one paragraph takes 119 minutes to move forward. This is because many scenes in the film don't advance the plot forward. They are simply there to enhance the picture of everyday life. Indeed, there is not one scene in Floating Weeds that simply advances the plot. This contrasts greatly with Kurosawa, especially in the three hour long Seven Samurai, where there was not one scene that didn't add to the plot. The film doesn't feel slow though. Roger Ebert describes it as reassuring, and since it is not gimmicky, rewatchable.
Unlike 1934 film, famous film critic Roger Ebert does the commentary for Floating Weeds. I wasn't sure what to expect, since Ebert himself says that he does not know much about Japanese culture. Though Ebert does concentrate more on the film aspects of Floating Weeds and Ozu's place in film history, he does offer a lot of commentary on cultural aspects of the film, nuggets of information he credits to Richie. The transfer is great, and the color in Floating Weeds looks just as good as a contemporary color film, Ingaki's Musashi trilogy.
Though those extras are great, I did have a few problems with the 1959 Floating Weeds. Richie's translation for the subtitles uses a lot of English colloquialisms and things for Western audiences. For example, one of the actors of the troupe is passing out flyers for their show when a woman asks his for his name. The subtitle reply is that he is "Toshiro. Mifune." But that is not what the actor actually says. I think Richie should have used what the actor actually said and explained it in the commentary. Additionally, the white subtitles are hard to read as most of the characters wear white. Combined with Ozu's traditional tatami mat camera placement, this means that the subtitles cross through the characters clothes, making them hard to read. Although Ebert mentions Richie in his commentary, Ebert makes at least one glaring factual mistake, which Richie explains. In both films, the troupe of actors is based in a local theatre. During scenes in the theatre, bits of white confetti drop from the ceiling to the floor. Richie explains in the '34 commentary that the actors would have a machine or something to release that confetti to simulate cherry blossoms or snow falling during the play. Ozu wanted that to fall in his movie, but that would have been the narrative explanation. On the other hand, Ebert says there is no explanation for the confetti. It would have been nice if the two commentaries were better integrated. Also, Richie did a much better job explaining the themes in the '34 film than Ebert does for the remake. Plus Ebert pronounces sake as "saki".
The acting in Floating Weeds is different from the 1934 film. Overall, the 1934 cast is more emotive than the '54 cast. Especially in case of the mother, the 1934 version's Choko Iida does a much better job than 59's Haruko Sugimura, who played the snotty wife in Ozu's most famous film, Tokyo Monogatari. The 1959 production was star studded, however, as the "Keihachi" character (renamed Komajuro) was played by a famous Kabuki actor, Ganjiro Nakamura and the actress girlfriend was played in the 1959 version by Machiko Kyo, the lead actress in Kurosawa's Rashomon. In an interesting note, the boy in the 1934 plays a thieving actor in the 1959 version.
Ozu's film composition is one of his best-known filmmaking techniques. Every shot in an Ozu film is composed so beautifully that it could be hung on the wall as art. Ozu made sure each short had beautiful framing and that the composition of objects and colors in the film were beautiful. He was so obsessed with making sure that each shot was beautiful that he would move objects on tables and break continuity throughout the film. Indeed, every shot in Floating Weeds is a beautiful piece of art.
The double DVD set of A Story of Floating Weeds and Floatings Weeds isn't for everyone, nor is any of Ozu's cannon. These films are old, and they don't move forward; they just move, and even that is at a slower, life-like pace. Ozu doesn't try to capture extraordinary events. Instead, he illustrates the drama of everyday life. Samurai and ninja film fans will fall asleep during this long movie, but fans of Japanese story telling and Japanese film will enjoy one of Ozu's best films. For film buffs, this is a much watch set of films, as current Japanese directors, like "Beat" Takeshi Kitano combine Ozu and Kurosawa's styles in their own story telling. Criterion's release, compared to a normal DVD is excellent. For Criterion's own gold standard, the two-disc set falls a little short, but overall this is a great package.