I WAS BORN, BUT... was Yasujiro Ozu's first critical and commercial success, a silent film that starts as a hilarious, warmhearted comedy and ends as a sobering, heartbreaking drama about two young boys who discover that their father is not the great man they imagined him to be.
A middle-class office worker named Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito) moves to a Tokyo suburb with his wife (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) and two adoring sons, ten-year-old Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) and eight-year-old Keiji (Tokkan Kozo). The boys run afoul of the local bully, who beats up Keiji, and have trouble making
friends at their new school. They begin to play hooky and forge high grades on their schoolwork, but their teacher notifies their father they've been absent and he makes sure they go to school after that. The boys finally become accepted by their classmates after a delivery boy they've befriended
beats up the town bully.
Yoshi takes his family to his boss's home one night, where they screen some home movies which depict Yoshi at his office acting like a clown and behaving obsequiously toward his boss. Ryoichi and Keiji are horrified at the spectacle of their father groveling and making a fool of himself, and they
have a big fight with him after returning home. Yoshi tells them he has to act that way in order to make money so that they can eat, and he spanks Ryoichi after the boy has a tantrum. The boys decide they'll go on a hunger strike so their father doesn't have to make any money, but eventually they
give in and eat some rice balls. Yoshi walks the boys to school, and they run into Yoshi's boss in his car. After an awkward moment, Ryoichi smiles and cheerfully says goodbye to his father. Yoshi gets in his boss's car, and the boys go off to school by themselves.
I WAS BORN, BUT... is one of the earliest of Ozu's many masterpieces dealing with the Japanese genre known as shomin-geki--domestic dramas of the common people. The plot outlines of the films never sound like much, but Ozu's acute observation, perception, and compassion transform them into
profound tales of the human spirit. I WAS BORN, BUT... begins as a delightful comedy about the carefree life of innocent youth, wonderfully played by the two young boys, but is gradually transformed as the boys' idealized image of their father slowly disintegrates and their innocence is shattered
by the harsh realities of the outside world. During the home movies sequence, the tone shifts completely to one of dark pathos, and the film becomes a poignant commentary on the way one's hopes and dreams are buried in favor of getting along in life and merely existing.
Ozu, who later developed an extremely rigid and austere cinematic style, here indulges in some amusing camerawork, particularly when a long tracking shot of schoolchildren marching in gym class is intercut with a similar tracking shot of bored office workers sitting at their desks. Otherwise,
however, the film's style is typically spare, and deceptively simple, so as not to interfere with the emotions of the characters in any way. Unlike most films dealing with family life, Ozu never sentimentalizes or glosses over truly painful or humiliating situations, such as in the scene where the
boys run home in shame after the home movies, and Ryoichi screams at his father, calling him a "nothing" and a "nobody." The title itself perfectly sums up the film's theme, that we're all born happy, but... then life happens. There are no heroes or villains in Ozu's films, just victims, and he
knows that there is nothing sadder than resigning oneself to a life of compromise and disappointment.. In 1959, Ozu filmed a loose remake of the story, called OHAYO (GOOD MORNING), although this time, to illustrate how times and society had changed, the two sons go on a strike against saying "good
morning" to anyone until their father agrees to buy them a TV set.
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