The Only Son (1936)

For some reason Ozu doesn’t seem like one of those directors who was a vortex of behind-the-scenes trouble; the calmness of his films (at least the ones I’ve seen) seems to suggest a similar calmness of production. I’m amused, therefore, by Tony Rayns’ account in the DVD booklet of this film’s making: after years of refusing to make sound films, Ozu finally caved in but refused to use the sound system used by Shochiku, who tried to stave off the ensuing industrial dispute by making Ozu shoot the film at an old studio in the process of being dismantled while the film was being made. It’s also a bit odd to hear so little music in the film, as if it had in fact been made in 1929 rather than 1936… but it was very much a product of that year in Japan, when the political situation took a turn for the worse and the economic situation was about as bad; all of this is very much unspoken background stuff in the film, though, which is no sociopolitical tract but a typical Ozu family study of bittersweet flavour. The titular son, Ryosuke, is the beneficiary of his mother’s sacrifices, slaving away in a silk mill in a pissant country town, to give him a better education and accordingly better start in life, but when the two meet again many years later, she’s surprised to find he has a wife and child she knew nothing about, but even more surprised to find he is only a low-paid night school teacher living in a low-rent part of town. Not what either of them expected, and his acceptance of the situation is what disappoints her the most. Ozu’s vaunted style is well evident, and if he was unhappy at having to make talkies at last there’s no sign in the film itself, which closes with a “happy” ending of some ambiguity, acknowledging that “greatness” isn’t necessarily a matter of social standing and achievement while quietly asking if that’s enough in an increasingly tough real world.

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