“I Was Born, But…” – Andrew Guarini

Yasujiro Ozu’s 1932 film I Was Born, But… is one of those rare silents where the absence of added musical score truly enhances the heartfelt simplicity of the picture’s tale of family strains and growing pains because the filled frames and the faces do all the talking needed. Like most of Ozu’s canon it focuses on the dynamics of a family doing their best to get by, this time through the lives of two young boys (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara) and their lower middle class working father (Tatsuo Saito). The lives of the two boys are complicated by consistent bullying that keeps them from attending school (subsequently forcing them to forge good grades), which also further causes the two to bond to a compromise with their tormentors and attempt to understand (or misunderstand) their father’s social position.


While the film sounds geared towards heavy, dramatic themes (in actuality, this really comes into play in the final act), I Was Born, But… is actually composed of primarily quaint moments of comedy and careful social satire. Even the film’s beginning, an automobile stuck with its tires spinning fruitlessly in the mud as the father tells his children to walk to school symbolizes the sad, yet somehow comfortable “woe is me” position this family (and we can assume many others) find themselves in. The father and mother (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) have learned to adapt to this lifestyle and patiently wait for a break, but even if that doesn’t come there is the sense that they’ve equipped themselves to ride out this lifestyle and raise the children with modesty and resourcefulness, stressing that to be “someone” they must get E’s in school.


Much of the film’s charm comes from the interaction through the son’s scuffles and conflicts with the bullies, a gang with power in numbers, one of them whose father is their father’s boss. While his father reigns as king over the office, they realize that their father is mere “employee.” Interestingly, through this humor of heads getting slapped left and right and the childish insulting, the boys develop their own social hierarchy without even being old enough to have economic responsibility or the pressures of performing well to maintain their job, which is emphasized as everything. In this way the film comments on the use of father’s status as a way to hold power within and a group (which in the superficial world still rings true) and the importance of not necessarily being a good human being, but being wealthy.


Ozu uses his camera in effective minimalist fashion, making use of the landscapes and the architecture of the humble home reflecting the humble family. For Ozu, the camera is noticeably more active than his most celebrated efforts of the sound era (Late Spring, Tokyo Story), but he still uses stillness to encapsulate a sublime amount of visual cues to our characters and their plight. The traditional “Ozu transition shot” of cutting to an empty landscape and then back to our characters or action is also seldom, if ever used within the sub 100-minute running time. Ozu finds a way to do nothing truly elaborate visually yet keep the pacing and timing of the comedy and drama ideal between the ways these simple shots are spliced together.


When the sons find out their father seems to be making a fool of himself in order to please the boss, their rebellion against him comprises the film’s most painful moments. From one angle, we can understand their frustration, their father stressing them to be something while their young minds now perceive him as nothing but we also understand the father’s angle, that advancement is not always about skill and that amusement at your own expense is as useful as outright flattery.


While all this transpires, the mother attempts to mediate between the sons and their father, leaving the frame as the camera sits with two boys framed tightly in the corner while the mother shuts a door to a room to be with their father, separating the two groups. The way Ozu mirrors the impossibility of the father trying to make his children understand his action is vastly more effective through this closed door than it would be through prolonged blank stares, emotionally cueing music score or overdone dialogue. Watching the boys sit in silence we sense their disappointment and not so far away within the cramped quarters, the father’s wishing they could understand that the trials of adulthood are equally as difficult as the problems his children are always attempting to explain yet he can’t comprehend those either. It’s about maturity and that large communication gap, the sad realization that I Was Born, But…; it didn’t get any easier from there, and there are ups as well as downs.


It’s quite revealing that such a small scaled story can craft such a far reaching commentary, but this only truly speaks of the abilities of Ozu as a visual storyteller. Also commendable is the film’s shifts between this family turmoil and the humorous situations the children always find themselves in, whilst maintaining this air of sincerity and optimism, the work always feeling unforced and true. While Ozu later made a spiritual remake of the film in 1959’s Good Morning, it loses the timeless appeal in focusing the story around the boom of television technology in Japan. In midst of truly smile inducing conclusion, Ozu has a picture that is constructed not of showy filmmaking flair, but heart, realism along with the “blink and you’ll miss it” speed of life that makes us want to become somebody, not just anybody.


Rating: ★★★½


-Andrew Guarini

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