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Now on DVD: "I Was Born But..." (Ozu, Japan, 1932)

I Was Born But...
On first glance Ozu's I Was Born But… (1932) is a film about children. For most of the film, we see through the experience – if not the eyes – of two brothers who move to a new town with their family. The hints of adults in the film seem designed to explain or describe the world of the children. The film's beginning takes place largely in the world of adults, showing us the relationship between their father and his boss - a connection that led to their move to a new town. Later in the film, shots parallel the world of the classroom to the world of work by grounding us in the physical structures and routines of these two worlds. Outside of these moments, our time is spent largely with the children. Much of the film's conflict is made up of children navigating the complex social terrain of childhood, which only rarely intersects with the adult world (and then only coincidentally).
In one scene, the brothers skip school, afraid that they will receive a promised beating from an antagonistic group of children. In a field by themselves, the brothers do in fact do their schoolwork; one replicates a calligraphy test and asks a passing young man to mark his 'test' with a mark of 'Excellent.' This utopian, slightly asocial ideal contrasts with the discipline of the school environment, which in addition to their fear seems designed to stifle both creative impulse and initiative. It's here that we see the comparison between work and school, which contrasts with the self-taught learning experience of the boys in an empty field. The children's ideal day has ramifications when their father comes home after learning of their absence from a teacher, a moment that expresses the normalizing tendency of adults for their children.
A closer look reveals a film deeply concerned with the world of adults. The film's prologue comments on the interplay between work and social relations, showing the encroachment of work life into social life and hinting that this is not a welcome development for the participants in this new postindustrial system. The shots of work that compare with the children at school seem commentaries on social institutions and the success of 'work' values (conformity, discipline, geometrically enforced space) at insinuating themselves early through the educational system. Scenes toward the film's end underline the frustration of adults with social status hierarchies and the behavior necessary under them.
This film about adults is most clearly demonstrated through the children's understanding of adult relationships. The prime moment of realization for the brothers is when they and their friends watch a series of films of their parents, taken on a company field trip and projected in the living room of the boss (whose son is a peer of our leads). Looking on from another room, the brothers see their father's true social position, and their illusions of their father as a 'powerful' man are shattered. They protest this reality and their implied future place in it by refusing to eat and attend school, confronting their father and rejecting his authority. This leads to our first fully human glimpse of the father, talking with his wife about his own social place and his hope for their children's future.
Both the 'film about children' and the 'film about adults' play a role in creating another film, one that goes beyond a simple comparison of the hierarchies of the adult world and the hierarchies of the children's world. This film explores the ways the world works, the principles that underlie social interaction and the social fabric. For the children, physical strength is the determiner of status and forces others to pledge allegiance to a group based on that leader's strength. For adults, the determiner is financial, and the games necessarily played to gain favor are less brute if more emotionally damaging. The film Ozu places before us is one of realization – on the part of children and also on the part of adults – that these hierarchies are givens but they are the systems in which we must work. Part of what makes Ozu such a warm, intelligent, human filmmaker is his understanding that systems are beyond the control of the individual, and that what's important is to live our lives on earth as it is, as best we can. It's a recognition you can also see in Griffith, Renoir, Ford, Naruse, Huillet and Straub, and many others. This recognition of and commitment to life on earth seems missing from so many films, but it is an essential part of Ozu's worldview. It recalls, in other films, Ozu's use of "pillow shots," important because of our position: when looking at the clouds, we are always looking up.
Because they embody Ozu's acceptance of certain realities as inescapable, the children in I Was Born But… struck me as more mature than I. After being confronted with the realities of hierarchy and responsibility through their father's subordinate position, they understand the importance of playing by the rules. When their father spots his boss' car, he stops to light a cigarette, fiddling with the match and looking down so as to rebel against his constant subordinateness and gain stature in the eyes of his sons. But the boys, who have already rebelled against their father and then reconciled, offer him a way out that's also a way back in, telling him that he should go say hello to his boss. I was moved not just because it's a gesture of pure love and support from sons to father, but also because of the poetic, ambivalent resignation implied by their offer. It's a resignation I've barely grown up enough to accept, one that I feel creeping in but that I still struggle against. I hope – for the part of my politics as well as my integrity – that I never stop battling against this acceptance of things as they are, but I also recognize a certain virtue and adult sadness in the loss of hope for a better way of organizing society. Watching this scene, I feel a sadness for these disillusioned children but also a sadness for my illusioned self and those amongst my hopes that seem doomed to failure. No one knows whether those two boys will succeed in life, but they have their whole lives ahead of them, and for them we can still have hope.
***
I Was Born But... is available on R1 DVD in the Eclipse boxset, Silent Ozu - Three Family Comedies.
Tomio Aoki was the most believeable child actor I have watched to date. Ozu certainly knew how to direct children. I would watch any film with Aoki and regret that some of his films are available only in fragments. Films do not elicit emotion from me but films with this remarkable child never fail to make me laugh, smile, or even cry. I Was Born But… and Floating Weeds are stellar showcases for talent. Passing Fancy will reduce you to sobs.

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