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Silent Ozu: Violence, nationalism and militarism

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    Vili Maunula

    The automated message that announced September’s film club titles came as something of a surprise to me. It’s September already? Whoa.

    There was actually something that I wanted to discuss about Ozu’s silent films, but haven’t been able to really put into words, and have therefore been postponing posting anything. But since we are supposed to be moving on already, I’ll just write here what I can.

    There is a a common theme that seems to run through all three of the silent Ozu films that we were discussing: that of questioning the authority figure. While this is most pronounced in the two young boys’ domestic rebellion in I Was Born, But…, we have children rising up against their father also in Tokyo Chorus, and in Passing Fancy the father’s authority is again undermined by his arguably wiser son. While these films make very few references to the rising nationalism and militarism of the time, I wonder whether they, in repeatedly showing us rebellion against the authority figures, might nevertheless have something to say about the topic.

    The most straightforward reading of the problem of authority in these films is to see it as a direct criticism of the Emperor, Japan’s ultimate father and authority figure. Unless I’m mistaken, in the early 1930s the Emperor was seen as promoting a nationalist ideals and aiding groups and individuals with right wing leanings. While it would be nicely straightforward to leave it at that, I Was Born, But… seems to complicate the issue somewhat.

    While none of the films really directly mention nationalism and the wars, there are at least two direct references to the military in I Was Born, But…. The first one is a text we see on the background in school, a basic patriotic reference to the three human bombs. The other reference is the boys’ wish to grow up to become a general and a lieutenant general. I guess that the characters’ reasoning here is that since generals are the highest possible rank in the army (I think?), no one would be to boss them around in the hierarchy, and they wouldn’t therefore have to live like their father.

    But if the film is to be seen as a subtle criticism of the rising military power that Japan was at the time, why make the children, our main characters, express an explicit wish to actually join that military machine?

    I Was Born, But… is actually quite violent at its heart. Were we to exchange the children to somewhat older characters, we could easily turn the story into a gangster or yakuza film with its turf wars, power struggles and gang rituals. The main characters even engage in forgery, deception and the use of illegal substances, while maintaining an uneasy relationship with the liquor industry. It’s all in there.

    It is of course not the children’s fault, as they are only trying to find their place in the neighbourhood. But I wonder if the film means to specifically contrast how the two children take control of the neighbourhood kids’ gang by force and cunning, while their father is stuck in his own position without any real wish or need to change that. Is there a generational difference there, and is the film wondering what it really is that will be required to succeed in modern Japanese society, the one that was being built in the early 1930s for the purposes of the war machine? Might it also be saying something about the ambitions of the Japanese Empire, which was occupying Korea and waging wars elsewhere?



    interesting observation Vili – from what I know of Ozu he always kept his personal politics very opaque. We can assume from his semi- detached behavior during the war he was anti- militarist, but not to the point of actively opposing the system (which would of course have been very dangerous for him). But he also, as Mellen has argued, had a subtle bias in favour of the patriarchal figure in his films.

    I would say that in ‘I was born but….’ he is actively contrasting the anarchy of boys society, with it’s bias towards the strong and cunning, with the potential for advance within the military ( although from what I know of the Japanese military it was only nominally a meritocracy), with the third option of the ‘steady state’ life of the salariman. As usual, Ozu gave no answers, but indicates that accepting quiet authority is maybe best in the end, even if it doesn’t lead to happiness (a constant theme of his a later films I would say).


    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for the thoughts, Ugetsu. I guess my hesitation with how to read I Was Born, But… comes from the fact that as far as I can see the father figure may simultaneously stand for the Emperor / authority in Japan and be critical of him, while also standing for what you call the “steady state life of the salariman” and sort of promote it.

    I think that it was Sorensen who argues that Ozu intentionally more or less halted film production for the duration of the war because he did not want to be part of the propaganda machine, and that in the two or three films that he made during the war, he cleverly avoided the propaganda pitfalls, even managing to voice what could be seen as dissident ideas. Sorensen then goes on to note how Ozu also fooled the occupation censors.

    Or at least I think it was Sorensen. I’m travelling, so I don’t have access to the book at the moment.

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