Yasuhiro Ozu’s early silent comedy about how children encounter the class system is surprisingly fresh and enduring, even if it does creak a little with age. Two young boys, whose father has transferred to a new job, start life at a new school and immediately run into trouble with bullies. They try to avoid confrontation either by skipping school, hiding behind their father, getting a local beer salesman to serve as their tough guy, or ultimately taking their own chances in a fight.
As with most children, self-esteem has a lot to do with family status, and a chance event shows them that the father they look up to is, also, a man who has to scrape and bow before people who are more important, like the father of one of their classmates. Their father suddenly seems to them a fool, and alters their sense of who they are; the father, likewise, finds himself hoping his boys grow up to become something more than “an apple-polisher like me.”
Ozu tended to focus on people middle aged and older, calmly observing the inevitable stages of life — work, marriage, getting ahead, death — and the inevitable sense of decline that comes as goals are put off and illusions are shattered with each passing year. Although this is one of the few to focus specifically on children — another is the late-career “Good Morning!” — it shows that his themes were already very much in place, particularly how our sense of who we are as adults is shaped by childhood. It bears the subtitle “A Picture Book for Adults”; as with any family scrapbook, it offers both a lot of fond memories and a melancholy bite.