There Was a Father (1942)

21 01 2008

Ozu’s second and final film during the war as well as Chishu Ryu’s first major role. Shuhei Horikawa is a one time teacher who quits his job after one of his students drowns under his supervision. This noble gesture only leads to financial trouble, which results in Shuhei taking up a job in Tokyo to provide financial support to his son who is living at home alone. Shuhei is very dedicated though and he is not swayed by his son’s attempts to reunite the family.

In other words, this is the cinematic version of “Cats in the Cradle” but thankfully, not as sentimental. Both of Ozu’s wartime dramas are superficially government-approved propaganda. In retrospect, it’s obvious that he was mocking the conventions that the government was enforcing on all filmmakers. This is suppose to show the ideal parent: someone who surrenders to a corporate lifestyle, even to the point that he will leave his son behind. Ryu is so robotic and over the top (not a criticism, it’s how the character is) as the father that it’s hard to take seriously as a propaganda material.

If anyone sees this as butt-kissing the corporate life and the government than they must have missed the last sequence. Shuhei’s death isn’t heartbreaking because he’s dying. It’s heartbreaking because while we have seen him go through mindless tasks, we haven’t seen his son grow up and neither has he. This sounds a little corny, I suppose, but it works for me. It probably helps to know that Ozu wanted to make it as much like his own father’s death as possible.

Probably some of the best black and white cinematography I’ve seen in an Ozu film. Well, I actually like the visuals in all of his films but this one has a much more open feeling. The story spans a long time period and more of it takes place outside. At the same time, Ozu paints his characters with broader strokes, at least by his standards. Definitely the better of the two wartime dramas that he made.

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One response

21 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

I also think the end subverts the (ostensible) message of what went before. The son NEVER truly accepted the father’s placing of duty to country above family ties. And, at the end, he reassures his wife that he will work to reunite her with her father and young brother, in their new home — which would have been unconventional.

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