Month: July, 2014

The Visitor

Ecstasy ecstatically pleases me
In these frequent bouts of flight.
Happiness haphazardly visits me
When I walk stark into the bright.
Pleasure potentially excites me
At the cusp of sensual delight.
Yet disappointment continues to visit
No matter how hard I try.

The Lydia Davis Project: Two Sisters

(based on Lydia Davis’ short story ‘Two Sisters’)
 

Born one after the other in
Imperfect sequence.
These girls exist as
Reminders of a man’s
Failure.

A man is not a man
Until his wife
Bears him  a son.
That is the way
Of the father.

These daughters filled
With daddy’s disappointment
Carry resentment for
Each other: The girl who
Could have been a brother.

All our poor girls – now women –
Will toil away, leaving
More daughters behind,
Their husbands disappointed
With no successful successors.

 

Yasujiro Ozu’s The Only Son

ozu's motto the only son and his mother

Best known as Ozu’s first talkie (sound film), The Only Son (1936) is a highly accomplished domestic drama that would set the bar for all his subsequent features. It tells the story of a hardworking single mother who sacrifices what little life she has left to give her only son a chance at a future. She sends him to study in Tokyo, the city of opportunities, as she is led to believe that’s the right thing to do, after a talk with her son’s schoolteacher. Then time passes. Thirteen years, to be exact. The mother goes to Tokyo to visit her son and discovers he has a wife and a baby. He is also, to her disappointment, working as a night school teacher. Not quite what she had imagined for her son’s future. Not quite what she thought she had given up so much for.

If the plot sounds familiar it’s probably because it is. The central theme of shared disappointment between parent and child is a recurring motif in Ozu’s ouevre. It seems to be a precursor to something like Tokyo Story. The theme is even highlighted at the beginning of the film with a quote by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutogawa: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” This may as well be Ozu’s mantra.

What makes The Only Son standout is its narrative and structural elements you don’t normally find in Ozu’s films (at least not the ones I am familiar with). The first 15-minutes of the film are devoted to the life of the mother, dealing with her job as an employee at a silk-weaving factory, exploring her financial restraints, and showing her initial reluctance to give her son a proper education. And then, as previously mentioned, time passes. Such elliptical storytelling isn’t unique to Ozu’s films, as he often would omit essential plot details and jump ahead in time, but it was rare to see him jump so far ahead that actor’s have to be cast to play their older counterparts.

The remaining 65-minutes of the film are fascinating in their introduction of storylines that seem to mirror the central one: the reappearance of the son’s school teacher, who also moved to Tokyo in search of greener pastures, now working in a seemingly dead restaurant; and a neighbour’s son who is injured trying to impress his friends into letting him play with their baseball glove, because his mother can’t afford to buy him one.

The most gut-wrenching scene of the film occurs when the titular son wakes up to find his mother unable to go to bed. He understands why. She is concerned for his wellbeing and disappointed by his position in life. He too is disappointed by life’s meagre offerings, but doesn’t know what else to do. She insists he must overcome all the necessary obstacles – to try harder. To be a great man, like he promised as a child. He says he cannot. She says he must. After all, she has given up everything for him and is now stuck living in the very factory she works; her house was sold to fund her son’s future. And, suddenly and unexpectedly, we hear crying. The only son’s wife has been listening to the conversation – awaken by their distress. She, like the audience, understands how filled with disappointment their lives are.

This scene is impeccably constructed. Ozu presents a domino effect of disappointment. Each character in the house is presented in a series of consecutive shots, each one visibly upset, except the final character, the sleeping baby. Ozu then bookends this moment of great tragedy in his usual way, with a pillow shot (narratively-unrelated shot of scenery). Perhaps he does this to let us digest the profound sadness we have only just witnessed. This pillow shot – of and empty room in the house – lasts for approximately a whole minute. We are forced take this moment in, to contemplate it, whether we want to or not.

domino-1 domino-2 domino-3 domino-4

domino-pillowshot

In Ozu’s world, people are faced with disappointments throughout their day-to-day lives, the weight of responsibility and expectation. He wants to show us the world in all its relatable imperfection. The least we can do is accept and acknowledge the existence of these truths rather than blithely ignoring them. After all, he must have gone through great pains to show us these things. No art this honest is made without some sort of suffering.

Ozu Being Meta

A Meta Moment

A German Film in a Japanese Cinema

Watched a brilliant early film by Yasujiro Ozu last night. The unbelievably sad The Only Son (1936). A bit rough around the edges in terms of tone. It’s not quite as restrained as his later works and has comedic flourishes reminiscent of his silent era. But I think it’s an early masterpiece alongside his earlier I Was Born, But… (1932).

I plan to go into further detail in the future regarding my thoughts on the film, but I couldn’t resist shining a spotlight on a very self-aware – dare i say, meta – moment that occurs almost halfway through the story. The titular character takes his mother to see the movies. At the beginning of the scene he explains that they are watching a talkie (or sound film). This is significant because this is, in fact, Ozu’s first talkie.

This is the only example I have witnessed of an Ozu film calling attention to itself.

The Lydia Davis Project: City Employment

(based on Lydia Davis’ short story ‘City Employment’)

Imagine the city you live in
Filled with all
Those characters
You see everyday:
The eccentric seniors
The fleeting strangers
The homeless stragglers.
But they are not
Who they are.

They are employees
Of a corporation:
The City Council.
Not quite actors,
But not the people
They appear to be.

Like yourself,
They have a job
To do. To fill
A role or two.
To play their
Part and pave
Their way.

The Lydia Davis Project: A Few Things Wrong with Me

(based on Lydia Davis’ short story ‘A Few Things Wrong with Me’)

A few things wrong with me,
We can’t help but consider
When the axe falls and
Our heart breaks.

Trading bards like swapping
Stories never seems to
Even out the swarmed
Stings that surround us.

We drip, drip, drip
Away into that corner.
Nothing left but a
Bags of tears.