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Japan had a vibrant national cinema and busy film industry during the silent era but sadly only a very small percentage of those films survive. Of the films that are available, Yasujiro Ozu's 1932 I Was Born, But... is among the most famous and beloved and remains the best known of Ozu's silent movies. This "picture book for grown-ups" (as the opening titles read) is a hilarious comedy of wills between the two wily young sons of salaryman Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito) as they move to a Tokyo suburb for the father's new job and prepare to enter a new school. But underneath the comedy is a bittersweet family comedy that offers social satire through its view of the adult social order through the eyes of children.
The young sons of Yoshi are genuine little rascals who skip school to avoid bullies, fake homework assignments to fool their parents and bribe a delivery boy to take care of the biggest bully on the block. When the brothers finally establish their dominance in the childhood pecking order, they are appalled to see their father submit to his new boss (Takeshi Sakamoto), whose own son is now a part of their little wolf pack. "You tell us to become somebody, but you're nobody. Why do you have to bow so much to Taro's father?" they demand in an epic tantrum, and they finally stage a hunger strike in indignation to this unfair social order. (The hunger strike was reworked as a silent protest for a TV set in Ozu's 1959 Ohayo, aka Good Morning, not quite a remake but certainly a family comedy indebted to this film.)
Ozu was a voracious film buff who threw his passion into filmmaking. After working his way up through studio ranks, from assistant cameraman to screenwriter and assistant director, he made his directorial debut in 1927 and was soon making every type of genre: lighthearted college comedies (I Graduated, But... (1929) and I Flunked, But..., 1930), crime dramas (Dragnet Girl, 1933), romantic melodramas (Woman of Tokyo, 1933), and even social dramas of the hard times of economic desperation (An Inn in Tokyo, 1935), as many as six features a year in this initial burst of filmmaking. I Was Born, But..., his 24th feature, borrows its title from earlier comedy success and is full of the playful physical gags and comic scenes of his earlier films, but it's also a more thoughtful and melancholy film and the humor is more organic to the drama. For instance, the private games between the boys--hand gestures, taunting poses, comic faces--are hilarious on the surface but also define the social dynamics of the juvenile world and the playful milieu of social competition of schoolboys.
In contrast to the respectful submission to the social order and the quiet resignation to social and familial expectations we see time and again in Ozu's adults, the children in Ozu's films are forces of pure id: impulsive, obstinate, willful, at times downright rude to parents and often destructive when they don't get their way. The brothers of this film are perhaps Ozu's greatest creations in childhood impertinence and impudence. Yet behind the deft comedy and spirited performances of the two boys is a somber engagement with the compromises adults make to the demands of the social order. The anxiety of the depression is never seen directly but its reverberations can be seen in the obsequious toadying of not just Yoshi but all of his fellow employees. Yoshi has no illusions of his place in the company hierarchy and dutifully kowtows to his boss and plays the clown in his home movies. His attempts to explain the realities of the adult world to the boys leads to soul searching of his own, and perhaps his ambivalence over such compromises explains the parents' astonishing tolerance of the boys' brazen impertinence and bad behavior.
"I started to make a film about children and ended up making a film about grownups," observed Ozu in a 1958 interview. I Was Born, But..., which the director developed from his own story, is a social satire of comic delights and melancholy resignation to the innocence lost as the boys face up to the world that awaits them. The film won first prize at the Kinema Jumpo awards--the first of six such prizes he would eventually win--and is regarded as Ozu's first genuine masterpiece.
Director: Yasujir Ozu
Screenplay: Geibei Ibushiya (adaptation); Akira Fushimi (scenario); James Maki (idea)
Cinematography: Hideo Shigehara
Art Direction: Yoshiro Kimura, Takejiro Tsunoda
Music: Donald Sosin
Film Editing: Hideo Shigehara
Cast: Tatsuo Saito (Chichi), Tokkan-Kozou (Keiji), Mitsuko Yoshikawa (Haha, Yoshi's Wife), Hideo Sugawara (Ryoichi), Takeshi Sakamoto (Juuyaku, Iwasaki, Executive), Teruyo Hayami (Fujin, Iwasaki's wife), Seiichi Kato (Kodomo, Taro), Shoichi Kofujita (Kozou, Delivery boy), Seiji Nishimura (Sensei, Teacher), Zentaro Iijima (Asobi nakama, Friend).
by Sean Axmaker