(Good Morning, Japan - 1959)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Koji Shitara, Masahiko Shimazu, Chishu Ryu, Keiji Sada, Yoshiko Kuga, Kuniko Miyake, Haruko Sugimura, Toyoko Takahashi
Genre: Comedy
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Nada & Yasujiro Ozu
Cinematography: Yuuhara Atsuta
Composer: Toshiro Mayuzumi
Runtime: 97 minutes

Yasujiro Ozu built his films around everyday life in Japan, refusing to excise the banal aspects in favor of what supposedly makes something exciting and entertaining. I'm not sure what is more banal than building a film around the importance of greeting people, yet despite that and Ozu being a representative of simple filmmaking the narrative style is far fresher and more complex than one would expect.

No doubt what I see as complexity is not truly complex. What Ozu brings out is far more toward nuance, and only seems to be something different because we aren't used to seeing something so uncontrived. By stripping film down to its basics - removing the camera movements, musical cues, stylized editing, mid sentence cutaways to reaction shots, essentially all the production aspects of film - he presents something that is far more realistic and truthful. Ozu essentially delivers all his intuitive observations on humanity, but in a manner that allows you to figure them out. His style fits in perfectly with the Japanese language. It is not about announcing anything, and though his films are dialogue driven he doesn't fall into the trap of having his characters just speak the plot, in fact he'll rarely tell you anything directly. While in a sense Ohayo is as basic as could be, the intricate interweaving of a handful of primary stories and several secondary ones, all of which he delivers without limiting the reasons behind the characters troubles to the usual one thing, is such that I had to step back upon completion and really think about all he said and did.

Ohayo takes place in a tightly quartered suburban microcosm that is changing due to the influx of western technology. The early portion focuses on a problem the women have over missing dues. The group head, Mrs. Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura), is suspected by the busybody Mrs. Tomizawa (Teruko Nagaoka) because she just became the first in the neighborhood to buy an electric washer. Haraguchi is obviously insulted by the idea she'd rip her neighbors off. However, as Japanese language isn't confrontational and no one will breach etiquette by accusing her to her face, she winds up taking the matter up with the treasurer, Mrs. Hayashi, and in a surprisingly aggressive manner. Ironically, Hayashi would be the last one to believe she'd do such a thing and has actually tried to reassure Tomizawa that it's just a misunderstanding.

People focus on the children's story, which is mainly the second half of the film. And this is a film that is very much divided, though really the close little community itself is always the focus regardless of whom might be onscreen. The first half is predominantly about the relationship between the neighbors, with the dividing point being the Hayashi boys snubbing Mrs. Harada on the way to school one morning. At this point the neighbors pretty much disappear because contact has been severed between them and the Hayashi family.

What's surprising about Ohayo is Ozu sees much more of the film through the children's eyes. Ozu's family films had typically featured an aging father, played by his alter ego Chishu Ryu, often trying to marry off his dutiful daughter before it was too late. Here Ryu is Mr. Hayashi, but he seems to be off working most of the time, which along with technology are the two big destruction of the family themes in Ozu's body of work. He makes the key decision at the end, but the perspective offered by his character is minimal compared to typical Ozu.

Minoru & Isamu Hayashi's (Koji Shitara & Masahiko Shimazu) story is minimal early on, but grows in importance as the film progresses. They seem to be decent kids, but become delinquent when their mother disallows their daily trips to the bohemian neighbors house (these parents are probably at least 25 years younger than the Hayashis despite having children the same age) because she finds out they are not doing their English lessons there as they claim, only going to watch the sumo hour. They try various forms of protest to get anyone in their family to buy them a TV (their family can afford it but balk at it for being an idiocy creator and now we'd also need to add glorifier), ultimately settling for the silent treatment (which is probably why Ohayo is called a remake of Ozu's silent I Was Born But…).

Misunderstanding is at the heart of the story. As the Hayashi children adopt the silent treatment after an argument with their father about adults talking too much nonsense, it's hard to say if anyone knows exactly why they aren't talking. This provides some funny scenes, particularly when Isamu is putting up the okay hand signal at school (Minoru makes him signal for permission to speak) but he can't talk because he can't tell his teacher what needs to be done so he can be allowed to talk so she thinks he wants permission to use the bathroom. Certainly the neighbors don't know what's up; they are left to assume it's part of the fallout over the missing dues incident.

Illustrating so well how ignoring one small seemingly meaningless gesture can lead to big problems is perhaps Ozu's biggest accomplishment with Ohayo. What Ozu is really getting at is not that saying good morning as you are walking by is a big deal, but that such rituals should be the catalyst to meaningful conversation between people. I think that's what he doesn't like about TV, though as usual he doesn't say it. The conversation medium was changing from something that starts off generic but can become personal to a one way sales pitch. We see the one thing Grandmother Haraguchi (Eiko Miyoshi) is still on top of her game at is fending off people that are trying to sell her things, but since there's no interaction with TV one can't make it back down and crawl away. Anyway, since the Hayashi children aren't talking to their parents, the mom doesn't know why her pumice stones keep shrinking, and almost poisons them thinking it must be the mice.

Much of this also plays into Ozu's generation gap theme. Ozu's themes are "tricky" because he can convey them so quickly they can seem more like asides. He's never going to tell you all he has to say in the first few minutes and then spend the next three hours doing mindnumbing elongation of what you already know like Paul Thomas Anderson. Instead, he'll use half that time to show you 100 other things. I believe the only dialogue that refers to this theme is when Minoru & Isamu's Aunt, who is somewhere between 10-20 years old than them (Minoru is 13 and Isamu 7), suggests they listen to the sumo on the radio and they respond that they need to see it. I'm not saying anyone doesn't know that there's a generation gap, but Ozu shows it's going to be at the heart of any relations between adults and children. By giving us much more of Minoru & Isamu's mindset than Mr. Hayashi's, we learn that we have to approach current situations with a fresh mindset. There's not necessarily a right or wrong here, but to understand people and make them understand you there have to be some connections. That connection doesn't exist in Ohayo because of the lack of dialogue, as well as the father's general absence and the inability of young and old to see the other's point of view. It does exist with their teacher, who doesn't order them not to eat pumice, but they decide not to after he explains the danger of eating stones.

There is a somewhat annoying theme where the kids want to be able to fart on command. Pumice stone and sweet potatoes give them their "edge" so they can fart anytime someone pushes their forehead. The gas noises are incredibly corny, the wind coming from an instrument. Ozu is not really doing the toilet humor that makes up most current "comedies", but showing that conversation is one of the things that makes us human. Without it, the things we are embarrassed about are more magnified because there's little evidence of intelligence to distract from our "flaws". That said, the boys using games like this to have some real interaction shows how much more self-conscious and guarded we become as we grow older, forced to fall back on pleasantries that can just as easily be an end as a beginning. This is especially obvious because one must compare how little progress is made by the young adult couple, their Aunt Setsuko (Yoshiko Kuga) and their English teacher, who would be marriage candidates is they ever managed to talk about anything beyond work and the weather. In the end, Ozu does redeem himself for the excessive farting by having the so-called improvement only deliver the craps.

I opened saying that Ozu's stories were about everyday life in Japan. That is true, but ultimately humans anywhere share the same shortcomings, tendencies, and natures that he deals with, so his films are easy to relate to, learn from, and enjoy. The technology has changed and thankfully so has the silly notion that Ozu is "too Japanese", but if you have a hard time finding situations and people that remind you of ones in Ozu's films it's most likely because you haven't seen any of his works.



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