There Was a Father (1942)

Eleven films into my acquaintance with Yasujiro Ozu, I think I’ve finally met a film by him that I just didn’t particularly like. Obviously I’ve liked some more than others, but this is the first Ozu film I’ve seen that left me particularly cold. This film is a logical companion piece to The Only Son in this DVD set, cos Ozu wrote the script just after he finished that earlier film and he probably would’ve filmed it a lot earlier had he not been drafted in 1937; plus there’s thematic similarities in the way he has teachers as main characters, the issue of failure to live up to expectations and the whole question of making sacrifices. By the time he actually made the film, however, that theme of sacrifice had a new dimension added to it; by that time the war was in full swing and the Japanese government was taking an active interest in the film industry’s output, making sure it was ideologically sound. There Was a Father was apparently admired at the time as an example of balancing art and propaganda, the latter mainly manifesting in the talk of duty and leaving personal feelings out of things, though there’s remarkably little direct reference to the war in the film (although apparently the surviving print is one that was tampered with post-war by the American censors so that stuff may have been eradicated). But I think this review nails the film’s problem: there’s just not a lot going on in it. The father feels as if he’s failed in his own duty as a teacher so he refuses to let the son give up his teaching job, and the son kind of puts up with it; there should be more drama in the way the father kind of enforces this separation between him and his son in the name of duty, and maybe outside of wartime when he didn’t have to meet government requirements Ozu would’ve found it. But not here, and alas the net result just isn’t that interesting.

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