Miyake Kuniko as the mother of the two boys

I watched this film on a busy train and it is a testament to Ozu Yasujirō’s art and craftmanship that I was completely enthralled as the world passed by my window. I approached the film with no preconceptions except that I presumed it to be a shomingeki of some – a drama about the lower middle-class or “people just like you or me”. I hadn’t realised it was a comedy – an earthy social comedy as well as a comedy of manners, beautifully shot of course by Atsuta Yuuharu (Ozu’s regular cinematographer) and presented in a bright colour print on the Artificial Eye DVD.

The film is described by many critics as a remake of Ozu’s I Was Born But . . . (1932). Ozu’s early work is another of the gaps in my film viewing, but Ohayo! stands up on its own for me and even if it repackages an earlier idea, it does so in a very specific production context. In many ways the film refers to the period of my childhood  with its black and white TVs and hula hoops. The setting is a ‘new build’ community on the edge of Tokyo, presumably somewhere by a river or flood plain since there is a large embankment behind the tiny houses (by UK standards) along which the children dawdle to school and the grown-ups walk briskly towards the train (ah, Ozu and his love of railways!). (I was reminded of the new dwellings being imagined at the end of Mizoguchi’s The Lady of Musashino.) There are two basic ‘plot lines’ set against an almost soap opera-like set of relationships between the housewives. In the major narrative strand, the two boys (aged roughly 7 and 13) in the Hayashi family are excited by the arrival of television in the community and they join two other boys in watching the sumo wrestling at a neighbour’s house. Their parents don’t really approve of this, especially as the neighbour is a young cabaret singer of dubious respectability. Also, the boys seem to prefer TV to doing their homework – extra English tuition with an unemployed  translator. This is the link to the second narrative strand, the possibility of a romance between the translator (who lives with his older, unmarried sister) and the boys’ young auntie who lives with them.

These two narratives both relate to the social context of the time. In the late 1950s, Japan was approaching the period of economic ‘lift-off’ but the economy still showed some signs of uneven growth after the struggle to recover from the disaster of 1945 and the subsequent Occupation. Some men are still out of work and the international success of the Japanese manufacturing companies is still to come. The translator’s sister sells Austin cars (a British make that was assembled and then transformed into a Japanese car by Nissan in the 1950s) – a sign that we are still in the period when Japanese companies were studying European and American designs before offering their own improved versions. The TV set is a marker of both the economic prosperity that is to come with advanced technology and also of the cultural changes that might ensue. Ozu’s community is otherwise traditional. The key plot device is the declaration by the two boys that they are going to refuse to speak until their parents give in and buy a TV set. This challenge proves disruptive in the community – they don’t speak at home, at school or in the street, where not saying “ohayo!” (“good morning!”) could be seen as offensive by the neighbours. In raising the importance of inconsequential, ‘polite’ speech (the boys accuse the older generation of prattling on and not saying anything), Ozu is able to link the second narrative in which the young couple meet but are afraid to speak directly about what is clear to us as an audience.

The script by Ozu with Noda Kôgo is very clever and ties together both narratives and all the themes very neatly. The IMDB comments on the film are revealing as usual. Overall the film performs very well and the Ozu fans confess that it is one of the most enjoyable of his films. However, most find it necessary to say that as a comedy it must be ‘lightweight’ or ‘not serious’. I’m with the minority who think it can be both a comedy and a serious work that captures something about humanity in time and place in a way that only a truly cinematic genius can. The other problem, for some, is the comic ‘business’ around the boys’ farting contest (which too is linked to the other stories and characters). I confess that on a noisy train, I at first didn’t hear the rather musical farts, but on a second viewing all made sense and I think the characters only become more human by doing the things we all do. Now, where’s the dried fish and miso?

Here’s a trailer: