“Sooner or later, everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu. He is the quietest and gentlest of directors, the most humanistic, the most serene.” — Roger Ebert
It took long enough, but I sampled my first Yasujiro Ozu film, Good Morning (Ohayo), and will soon indulge myself with as many of his works as I can locate. At one time, his films were thought to be “too Japanese” and weren’t available in the West, but if Good Morning is any indication of his craft and appeal, Ozu deserves a much wider audience. It’s a film that works at multiple levels, and only artistic geniuses like Shakespeare have been able to pull off such a universal work that works with both down to earth people and with the upper levels of critical audiences equally.
Seen at the surface, Good Morning comes across as a comedy, filled with mistaken assumptions and long running flatulence jokes and memorable characters. Set in 1950’s suburban Tokyo in a tightly knit housing complex that brings forth remembrances of Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes,” the plot weaves four household stories together without misstep. The women are embroiled in a “who-dunit” intrigue about missing club dues, suspecting the woman who has just purchased a washing machine, an unemployed English teacher can only speak banalities to the woman he loves, an older retired man on meager means habitually gets humorously drunk and can’t find his own home (they all look alike), and two young boys stage a tantrum and practice a stubborn “vow of silence” when their parents refuse to buy a television set.
Painting his cinematic palate with bright colors to create a light-hearted and joyful film, Ozu offers well paced vignettes of each of the ensemble cast that are as pointedly direct as are his consistent straight on shots. Each character receives ample medium and close-up shots that give the impression of their sincerity—the emotions are outspoken and nothing hidden.
The central story revolving around the television set that brothers Minoru (Koji Shigaragi, age 13) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu, age 7) so adamantly desire expose character and thinking in transitional Japan of the 1950s, an era when “made in Japan” was a running joke about cheaply made products. All the neighborhood boys gather daily at a young couple’s apartment to watch Sumo wrestling, and the parents have discovered that their sons have been lying about doing their homework and ban them from visiting the neighbors with the TV. Minoru and Isamu’s middle class parents can afford a TV, but the father doesn’t want a TV because it will “produce 100 million idiots.”
Minoru demands that they join the “modern age” and get a TV so they won’t have to watch at the neighbors and childishly cries and throws a massive tantrum, which his younger copy cat brother parallels. Their motives are simple to understand, as is the mother’s natural reaction against the power play and the father’s chauvinistic chiding that they are acting like women and for them to “shut up.”
Adding another dimension are the wide ranging effects the two boys have on the entire little community when they begin their silent strike. Just the act of not greeting the neighbors sets off another series of rumors about the household, concerns at school (they refuse to talk there as well), and inspires their English tutor to reflect on how banal greetings and idle talk act like “lubricant” to keep society flowing properly. Thinking of his love for the boys’ older sister, he muses,
”But important things are difficult to say, whereas meaningless things are easy to say.
His mother totally agrees, and muses how it would be nice for him to marry the girl he loves if he’d just get past the “good mornings” and weather talk. A subsequent scene with the teacher and the sister waiting for the train thus has elements of suspense, causing us to wonder if he can get past talking about the weather and clouds.
Good Morning certainly works as a tightly constructed comedy, but it contains deeper levels of enjoyment. The importance of our automatic communication has never been illuminated as well, yet the film also serves as a social statement about Japan’s entry into the modern world. Traditional ways are reflected with the older characters while the children are eager to adopt modern conveniences, leaving the parents to struggle with the choice of remaining with the old ways or seeing if they can adopt the modern conveniences without losing their way. In hindsight we already know the road that Japan will take, but it’s interesting to see how Ozu uses the “retired” man to ease the transition.
Most of all, it’s simply fun to watch Ozu’s charming and joyful comedy, comparable in spirit to Fellini’s Amarcord with its love of character, humor, and relentless fart jokes. Based on his 1932 silent comedy I Was Born, But… and not considered Ozu’s greatest film, Good Morning serves well as an introduction to the Japanese master’s ouvre and is thankfully available on DVD.