Floating Weeds / A Story of Floating Weeds

A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa monogatari)
Floating Weeds
A Story of Floating Weeds
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Tadao Ikeda (story by James Maki)
Stars: Takeshi Sakamoto (Kihachi), Chouko Iida (Otsune), Hideo Mitsui (Shinkichi), Rieko Yagumo (Otaka), Yoshiko Tsubouchi (Otoki), Tomio Aoki (Tomibo), Reiko Tani (Tomibo's father)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1934
Country: Japan
Floating Weeds
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kôgo Noda & Yasujiro Ozu
Stars: Ganjiro Nakamura (Komajuro), Haruko Sugimura (Oyoshi), Machiko Kyô (Sumiko), Ayako Wakao (Kayo), Hiroshi Kawaguchi (Kiyoshi Homma), Hikaru Hoshi (Kimura), Yosuke Irie (Sugiyama), Hideo Mitsui (Kichinosuke), Hitomi Nozoe (Aiko)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1959
Country: Japan
Floating Weeds DVD
A Story of Floating WeedsFor auteurist critics, A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa monogatari), Yasujiro Ozu’s 1934 film about a traveling troupe of actors, is considered the moment in which he came into his own, both aesthetically and thematically. He was already a prolific filmmaker at this point, having made nearly 30 films in the years from 1927 to 1934. However, most of those films were throwaway comedies, only a handful of which he had been involved in writing.

A Story of Floating Weeds, however, was different. It was a drama, rather than a comedy (and a fairly bitter and sad one, at that), and it for the first time evoked Ozu’s insistent theme about the dissolution of the modern Japanese family, a trope that would define virtually every film he would make for the next 30 years. Takeshi Sakamoto plays Kihachi, the leader of a traveling Kabuki theater that arrives at a small village where one of Kihachi’s former lovers, Otsune (Chouko Iida), lives. They have a son together, Shinkichi (Hideo Mitsui), who does not know that Kihachi is his father.

Although he has hardly been a model father figure, given his absence (some would say desertion) over the many years, Kihachi wants to spend as much time as possible with his son while he is in town, even though his son thinks he is just an uncle. The stark poignancy of the scenes with Kihachi and Shinkichi underscore Ozu’s abiding admiration of familial relations, while the disappointment and sadness felt by Otsune at having been left alone and the prospect of it continuing into the future underscores Ozu’s realization that the family was fracturing. In fact, in A Story of Floating Weeds, the family is already fractured, and the possibility of its being finally reconciled and made whole is thwarted in the end, and Kihachi once again finds himself on the road with his son and lover left behind. The final shot of Kihachi wistfully looking at a young boy sleeping across from him on the train is an apt visual reminder of that which he will never have.

Shot in black and white and without a synchronized soundtrack, even though sound technology had been around for more than half a decade, A Story of Floating Weeds is a simple, but moving film. Ozu’s characteristic style, which involves precise framing, minimal camera movement (later in his career, none at all), low angles, and a complete lack of any showy visual flourishes, is fully entrenched here, adding to the episodic story’s straightforward appeal to human emotions. Ozu, always more fascinated by character development than narrative machinations, creates a group of memorable people caught in the confines of their lives, pushing against them, but never quite managing to free themselves.

 Floating WeedsWhen Ozu remade A Story of Floating Weeds in 1959 as Floating Weeds (Ukigusa), it was one of only four films he ever shot in color, and as a result, it is, on its surface at least, a much lighter film. However, it is not just the color photography by legendary cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (who shot several of Kurosawa’s best-known films, as well as numerous entries in the venerable Zatoichi series) that makes Floating Weeds a lighter piece. There is also an apparent mellowing on Ozu’s part.

While the story is virtually the same as the original (although the setting has changed from a mountain town in northern Japan to an island town in southern Japan), Ozu inserts more lighthearted comedy and tones down some of the bleakness of the melodrama, resulting in an ending that still finds the family fractured, but emphasizes this more in terms of poignancy and hope, rather than bitterness and loss. The opening shot, which humorously and without apparent comment juxtaposes the similar shapes of a lighthouse and a sake bottle, immediately sets the film’s tone.

Still, Floating Weeds is, like many of Ozu’s films, sad at its heart because its central dilemma is the lack of connection between parent and child. The theater troupe leader, renamed Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), is clearly enamored of his illegitimate teenage son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), brimming with pride at the young man’s intellect and drive. Kiyoshi’s mother, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), is a modern woman who understands and accepts the parameters of her situation. She doesn’t fool herself into wistfully hoping for Komajuro to settle down with her and complete the family, although it’s something she clearly wants. As his theater troupe is on its last legs, barely drawing an audience for the play’s opening night, Komajuro has the possibility of putting his itinerate lifestyle in his past, and the film’s ultimate, bittersweet tragedy is that he will never know family life outside the makeshift one formed with his fellow actors. This is the heart of Ozu’s film, but the final shots, although echoing the original film almost exactly, don’t convey quite the same sense of loss.

Of course, Floating Weeds is a joy to watch largely because of the small, quiet details and the delicate ways in which Ozu allows his character to convey themselves, all without any eye-catching stylistic flourishes or over-the-top dramatics. When he does employ mise-en-scène to comment on the action, it is done gracefully and with a real knowing sense of cinematic effectiveness, such as the heated argument in which Komajuro and his jealous, meddling mistress (Machiko Kyô) are separated by a downpour of rain. There are moments of raw emotion, to be sure, some of which erupt in violence that clearly demarcates the social power divide between men and women in Japan, yet such moments never draw undue or awkward attention to themselves because they arise so organically from the characters. The film feels less written than it does lived.

Ozu was “the most Japanese of all filmmakers,” and his attention to the details of Japanese life caused many to deem his films to be uncommercial outside his native country, which is why many Westerners were largely oblivious to his existence until a decade after his death in 1963. Now that his films are widely available, we can appreciate what a solid body of work he created in his nearly four-decade career, each film a tribute to the beauties and foibles of humanity. Both A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds, while outside of Ozu’s typical middle-class setting, are perfect encapsulations of this lyrical filmmaker’s brilliant career.

A Story of Floating Weeds / Floating WeedsCriterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioJapanese Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround (A Story of Floating Weeds)Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural (Floating Weeds)
SupplementsAudio commentary on A Story of Floating Weeds by film scholar Donald Richie
Audio commentary on Floating Weeds by film critic Roger Ebert
Original theatrical trailer for Floating Weeds
Essay by Donald Richie
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateApril 20, 2004

The two films are each given their own disc in this two-disc set. A Story of Floating Weeds features a new high-definition transfer from a 35mm fine-grain master positive that was then digitally restored. The black-and-white image certainly shows its age from time to time, but otherwise looks impressively good. The black-and-white photography is sharp and well-detailed without losing its filmlike appearance. Floating Weeds was also transferred in high definition, but it was taken from a 35mm low-contrast print struck from the original negative and then digitally restored. The beautiful colors look marvelous (this is often described as Ozu’s most visually attractive film), with excellent saturation. The image is bright and luminous with just the right amount of grain texture, adding nicely the film’s lighter tone. All in all, both transfers are excellent.

As A Story of Floating Weeds is a silent film, Criterion has seen fit to give it a new piano score composed by renowned silent film composer Donald Sosin, who recorded the entire score at his home studio. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.0 surround, Sosin’s score sounds wonderful and works extremely well with the film. Floating Weeds’s restored monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical print, sounds very nice for its age, with only a minimal bit of ambient hiss.

Each film has an optional screen-specific audio commentary. The commentary for A Story of Floating Weeds was recorded by film scholar Donald Richie, author of Ozu, the reference text about Yasujiro Ozu. Richie is concise and informative in his analysis of the film in the context of Japanese film and history and Ozu’s body of work as a whole. No one is better suited to discuss Ozu’s films than Richie, and he doesn’t disappoint. The audio commentary on Floating Weeds is by film critic Roger Ebert, who upfront admits that he isn’t the foremost authority on Ozu (he mentions Richie and film scholar David Bordwell as the true bearers of knowledge). Ebert has long been a fan of Floating Weeds, and he devotes much of his track to discussing the specifics of what we see on screen, which makes for an intriguing and worthwhile analysis. The only other supplement included is a trailer for Floating Weeds.

Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Toho International Co., Ltd.

Overall Rating: (4)

James Kendrick

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