The Only Son (Hitori musuko)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Tadao Ikeda & Masao Arata (story by Yasujiro Ozu)
Stars: Chôko Iida (Tsune Nonomiya), Shinichi Himori (Ryosuke Nonomiya), Masao Hayama (Ryosuke Nonomiya, as child), Yoshiko Tsubouchi (Sugiko), Mitsuko Yoshikawa (O-Taka), Chishû Ryû (Professor Ookubo), Tomoko Naniwa (Ookubo’s wife), Bakudankozo (Okubo’s son), Kiyoshi Seino (Matsumura), Eiko Takamatsu (Jokou), Seiichi Kato (Kinjo no ko), Kazuo Kojima (Kimiko)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1936
Country: Japan
The Only Son Criterion Collection DVD
The Only SonYasujiro Ozu started directing films in the late 1920s and had made more than 30 of them in virtually every popular genre (although mostly comedies influenced by Harold Lloyd and Ernst Lubitsch) before he made his first “talkie,” The Only Son (Hitori musuko), which was originally planned to be a silent film. Ever the stubborn artist, Ozu was the last of his contemporaries, which included Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu, and Mikio Naruse, to convert to synchronized sound, and The Only Son looks only minutely different from his silent productions; in fact, the film could have been just as effective and moving with intertitles instead of spoken dialogue. In terms of Ozu’s development as an artist, The Only Son is a crucial stepping stone toward the kind of carefully composed, intimate family dramas for which he would become known. He had already directed several such films, including I Was Born, But ... (1932) and A Story of Floating Weeds (1934)--both of which he would remake later in his career with synchronized sound and color--but The Only Son marks the full fruition of that style.

Like most of Ozu’s family dramas, The Only Son has a simple plot built on generational tensions whose narrative surface is but a thin mask for much deeper issues and themes. The main character is a hard-working widow named Tsune (Chôko Iida) who sacrifices her own financial security to put her son Ryosuke (Masao Hayama) through school, partially due to the child’s own desire to continue his schooling (mainly because his friends are) and partially because the boy’s teacher (Chishu Ryu), an ambitious young man full of dreams and promise, tells her that her son will have no future without a proper education. This portion of the film takes place in 1923, when Japan was rapidly developing as a modern nation, having broken free from its feudal past at the end of the 19th century. For the teacher (and, eventually, Ryosuke), Tokyo--the gleaming urban symbol of Japan’s entry into modernity--is the place to be, not Shinshu, the small, poor, rural community in which Tsune works at a textile mill.

The film then jumps forward to find Ryosuke (Shinichi Himori) a young man living in Tokyo and earning a living as a night-school teacher, a profession that, despite being intellectual rather than manual labor, commands very little respect and pays even less (by the mid-1930s, Japan was in a serious economic depression and was moving into a sense of violent nationalism, emperor worship, and empire-building, none of which is explicitly mentioned here, but certainly shaped the Japanese audience’s reception of it). He has a wife (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) and a newborn son, but he feels that he has not fulfilled his promise, especially given the sacrifices his mother made to get him the education that would supposedly ensure his future.

When his mother arrives for a surprise visit, he tries to put on a good show and pretend to be more successful than he is, but ultimately the façade breaks down and he must admit that all of her hard work may very well have not paid off, at least in terms of social and economic status (in this regard, the film is a dramatic extension of Ozu’s “college comedies,” which were built on the same idea that hard work and education don’t always pay off like we’re told). The film’s most poignant and strangely beautiful sequence finds mother and son sitting in a field and talking with the smokestacks of a garbage incinerator belching in the background: Their frank conversation is a crucial moment in the film’s emotional development, while its setting emphasizes the disparity between dreams of Tokyo as a prosperous, urban dreamscape and its realities.

The Only Son was shot in Ozu’s then nascent characteristic style of low camera angles, static shots (like his 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story, a film to which it seems to be building, The Only Son features exactly one tracking shot), and a poetic use of “pillow shots” between scenes, all of which creates a contemplative mood that emphasizes the intimacy of the storytelling and the importance of character interactions (Stanley Kauffman called it “a promise of perfections to come”). From a narrative perspective, very little actually happens in the film, although the characters go through significant emotional arcs, many of which are temporarily blurred by their perceived need to pretend to be one way while feeling another. Like many of Ozu’s films, The Only Son is heavy with regret and the weight of lost opportunities, yet it alleviates its darker realities with an insistent focus on fundamental human decency, which we see in various guises throughout the film--not just the mother’s personal sacrifice for her son, but the son’s later generosity with a neighbor whose son is kicked by a horse and ends up in the hospital. Thus, although the boy’s education did not result in his attaining grand social and economic status, what his mother sacrificed for that education offered a model of how to be that is greater than any monetary sum, even if she never fully realizes it.

The Only Son Criterion Collection DVD
Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu Criterion Collection boxsetThe Only Son is available exclusively via The Criterion Collection’s “Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu” box set, which also includes There Was a Father (1942).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioJapanese Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Video interview with film scholar Tadao Sato
  • Video interview with film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson
  • Essay by film historian Tony Rayns
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 14, 2010

    Unfortunately for us, the era of Japanese film that produced The Only Son and There Was a Father has not been treated kindly in terms of preservation, and as a result Criterion has had to make do with elements that are far below their usual standards. Both films were transferred in high definition from the best surviving sources: 16mm fine-grain master positives that were made from the original 35mm nitrate negatives, both of which have been long lost. These prints have suffered a great deal of damage and neglect over the years, and despite extensive digital repair, the images on these DVDs show significant wear and tear, scratches, splices, missing frames, and mold. Also, because there were transferred from 16mm prints, there is not nearly as much fine detail as you might expect, and both films have a slightly soft image throughout. And, while it is not mentioned in the liner notes on There Was a Father, the accompanying essay by Tony Rayns references at several points that the only existing copy of the film is actually a censored version that was edited by the occupying Allied powers to remove all explicit references to the war, which might explain why at several points in the film there are awkward cuts and transition within some scenes. The soundtracks have also suffered accordingly. Both were transferred at 24-bit from the optical track of their respective 16mm prints, and while digital restoration has cleaned them up slightly, they still have quite a few aural artifacts and a persistent ambient hiss, which, particularly on There Was a Father, at times sounds like a rainstorm.
    The DVDs of The Only Son and There Was a Father both include new 20-minute video interviews with the prolific husband-and-wife film scholar team of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in which they explore each film’s visual and thematic elements, its place in Ozu’s oeuvre, and its social and political contexts (Bordwell lays it all out right at the beginning when he says that he thinks Ozu is the greatest filmmaker in the history of the medium). The DVD of The Only Son also includes a second video interview with Japanese film scholar Tadao Sato. Both DVDs include insert booklets with informative critical essays by critic and historian Tony Rayns, and the booklet for There Was a Father also includes an appreciation of actor Chishu Ryu by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie from his 1987 book Public People, Private People: Portraits of Some Japanese and comments by Ryu on working with Yasujiro Ozu from the 2003 Hong Kong International Film Festival’s celebration of Ozu’s centennial.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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