Rare is the occasion on which a director gets to remake one of his or her own films. Be it to put a different spin on the same premise (Alfred Hitchcock and The Man Who Knew Too Much) or out of Hollywood’s typical moneymaking zeal (George Sluizer and The Vanishing), it’s always interesting to see these filmmakers tackle their work a second time. But it was artistic ambitions that fueled Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s decision to create both 1934’s A Story of Floating Weeds and its 1959 counterpart, simply titled Floating Weeds. These pictures were made in different times under different circumstances, though it’s a testament to Ozu’s talent that he comes through with his message just as strongly during each moment at bat.
The 1934 film centers on Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto) and the troupe of traveling actors he leads. Their latest stop brings them to a village that holds special value for Kihachi. Twenty years prior, he fell in love with a local woman (Chouko Iida) and fathered a child before having to hit the road once again. Now that he’s back in town, though, Kihachi intends on making up for lost time and reconnecting with his now college-aged son (Hideo Mitsui). But this doesn’t sit well with actress Otaka (Rieko Yagumo), who sets about on a mission of sabotage by paying a fellow performer (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) to woo Kihachi’s son away from him. The 1959 picture pretty much follows the exact same story, though it’s the way that Ozu goes about telling it that gives the film its own distinctive quality.
Ozu has been one of the most renowned foreign filmmakers of all time, thanks to his simple yet effective stories on everyday human life. They’re not bleak yet not overly sentimentalized; his tales are true slices of life, finding the world around us nothing short of fascinating. It’s this pure and innocent approach that makes A Story of Floating Weeds such a treat to watch. Ozu’s storytelling is realistic but comes across with just the right amount of dramatic oomph. He doesn’t force viewers to become involved with the characters but lets their own respective back stories do the work. Ozu really puts the “human” in “human drama” here, respecting his characters and allowing them enough freedom to breathe and come alive. The result is a picture you can’t help but become absorbed in, thanks not just to the tender writing but also the delicate performances. A Story of Floating Weeds is a silent film, and considering the tendency of actors in this era to play up their emotions, this cast pulled their jobs off just right (especially Sakamoto’s turn as Kihachi). Combine that with some simple but effective cinematography, and this modest story of learning to let go emerges as a near pitch-perfect experience.
Floating Weeds, on the other hand, has a lot to live up to. Whereas its predecessor was in black-and-white and silent, this one is in lush technicolor and has the added challenge of incorporating spoken dialogue into the proceedings. For the most part, the impact of Ozu’s themes remains the same, though he encounters a couple of stumbling blocks along the way. This time around, it feels like he’s trying to force and stretch out the story a little too much. Story clocked in at a brisk but fitting 86 minutes, whereas Floating Weeds is pushing the two-hour mark. You get a lot of padding involving the other members of the troupe, whose hijinks serve as nothing but filler to the story. Plus, Ozu’s static cinematography, which has characters often staring directly into the camera to address one another, results in a few too many awkward and stilted moments. Still, one can’t deny that Floating Weeds is an extremely pretty film, as well as one that retains the original picture’s simple nature. The acting is quite good, and Ozu even fleshes out a couple of subplots, especially the relationship between the troupe leader’s son and the girl who comes to fall in love with him.
Of the two films, I’d have to give the edge to A Story of Floating Weeds. It did a great job of accomplishing what it set out to do and without as many resources as the later version. Still, it should be said that Ozu crafted two pictures that are indeed beautiful in their own respects. The Criterion Collection bundled the pair in a single package, and you’d be hard-pressed to find two more lovely films in the midst of your moviegoing travels.
Rating: (A Story of Floating Weeds)
Rating: (Floating Weeds)