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Who's Afraid of Ozu?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote asking you where you are at the halfway point of your movie watching in 2023. In seeking to continue (and hopefully conclude) my journey through Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list in 2023, I decided to watch the earliest unseen film on that list that I could access, which happened to be Floating Weeds (1959), directed by Yasujirō Ozu.


I confess to being an Ozu infant on my cinematic journey, having previously seen just two of his films, The Only Son (1936) and Tokyo Story (1953). I enjoyed the first and consider the second a masterpiece. Ozu is revered by many cinephiles, critics, and writers. Paul Schrader’s seminal book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1972) is a book that’s been on my “to read” list for so long, I’m embarrassed that I haven’t yet purchased it. To be honest, I’ve seen more films by either Bresson or Dreyer than I have Ozu.

So why am I hesitant to delve into more of Ozu’s work?

I suppose I listen too much to the usual complaints:

"The films are too similar in theme."

"The camera doesn’t move."

"They’re a little slow." (Roger Ebert’s response to such a statement: “Maybe you’re a little slow.”)

Watching Floating Weeds this week, I didn’t believe any of that. I was transfixed.

Here’s a film about an itinerant Japanese theatre troupe (referenced in the film’s title), arriving in a quiet fishing village for a series of performances during an oppressively hot summer. The leader of the troupe, Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) has chosen this particular village because his former wife Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) lives there with her son. Komajuro’s mistress Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), also part of the troupe, knows this and reluctantly goes along with it. After all, Komajuro’s the boss.

There’s much more to the story, but I will say little more about the film, other than sharing a short quote from Ebert’s entry for the film in his Great Movies list:

This material could be told in many ways. It could be a soap opera, a musical, a tragedy. Ozu tells it in a series of everyday events. He loves his characters too much to crank up the drama into artificial highs and lows… When you see his films, you feel in the arms of a serenely confident and caring master. In his stories about people who live far away, you recognize, in one way or another, everyone you know.

Isn’t this why we watch movies? To feel something? We’re not experiencing a fleeting emotion, but something substantial, something that lingers in your mind and soul. Floating Weeds is not a movie to be consumed then forgotten. It’s a film that speaks to you, regardless of your race, sex, nationality, or anything else. It you’re human, it will speak to you.

Floating Weeds is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, Kanopy, and Max. Although it is not yet available on a Criterion Blu-ray, the DVD also contains Ozu's original version of the film, A Story of Floating Weeds (1934).

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