It’s Yasujiro Ozu in light mode, except that his insights into the human social mechanism make this cheerful neighborhood comedy as meaningful as his dramas. Two boys go on a ‘talk strike’ because they want a television set, a choice that has an effect on everyone around them. And what can you say about a movie with running jokes about flatulence . . . and is still a world-class classic?
The Criterion Collection 84
1959 / Color / 1:37 flat Academy / 94 min. / ohayo / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date May 16, 2017 / 39.95
Starring: Keiji Sada, Yoshiko Kuga, Chishu Ryu, Kuniko Miyake, Haruko Sugimura, Koji Shitara, Masahiko Shimazu, Isamu Hayashi, Kyoko Izumi, Toyo Takahashi, Sadako Sawamura, Eijiro Tono.
Cinematography: Yushun Atsuta
Film Editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Original Music: Toshiro Mayuzumi
Written by Yasujiro Ozu, Kogo Noda
Produced by Shizuo Yamanouchi
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Ozu’s Good Morning is a straight-out delight, being both inconsequential and insightful. It’s both funny and serious on a basic human level, presenting a ‘neighborhood’ that would probably be understood anywhere in the world. I mostly associate Yasujiro Ozu with sober movies about grave familial responsibilities, but if his Tokyo Story doesn’t affect your emotions, nothing will. Criterion has already given us examples of the director in his semi-comedy mode. Good Morning, aka Ohayo is going to be a surprise — it has a vein of vulgar humor that isn’t compatible with ‘refined’ American tastes, yet couldn’t be more amusing.
Either fifty years of trying to grasp the ins and outs of Japanese movies is starting to sink in, or I’ve seen enough to occasionally make a connection without having to read the liner notes. When a housewife complaining about her mother says that maybe it’s time for the old lady to go to Mt. Narayama, I now know it’s an allusion to a famous story about senile relatives being sent away to die. Another clip on the disc has a scene where a kid is asked to imitate a funny man whose name begins with a ‘k,’ and I realize that they’re talking about that famous actor who did female impersonations. For the Japanese Good Morning may be a slice of nostalgia, but for Americans it’s a major discovery.
The story centers on the Hayashi family, who live in a neighborhood of little houses as tightly regimented as tents in a bivouac. It’s impossible to have a private concern in such a place, where everything can be overheard and the slightest variance from the norm results in gossip. The Hayashi boys Minoru and little brother Isamu (Koji Shitara & Masahiko Shimazu) complain that they want a TV of their own, even though their mother Kuniko (Tamiko Hayashi) cannot afford a washing machine. When their father Keitaro (Chishu Ryu) tells the boys to pipe down, they go on a ‘silence strike.’ This has a ripple effect throughout the neighborhood. Their teacher comes to inquire, for one thing. The boy’s silence heightens the insecurity of the Hayashi’s neighboring housewives, who are already upset by a misunderstanding that has triggered some hasty accusations and counter-accusations about honesty. The boys watch TV in the house of a slightly unconventional couple that’s been ostracized from this little ‘salaryman’ neighborhood — the husband’s always in a jazz dancing mood, while the somewhat glamorous wife doesn’t pass muster with the other housewives because she once worked in cabaret. But it looks like the silence strike may bring together a pair of young lovers, the boys’ worthy aunt Setsuko (Yoshiko Kuga) and their English tutor, Heiichiro (Keji Sada).
Because the boys complain about the ’empty chatter of everyday adult greetings, there’s some discussion about the purpose of small talk, which is to ‘lubricate’ social interactions. There seems to be a need for this, as the men are clumsy with their feelings and the housewives think too much of appearances and status. Some courtesies can verge on the hostile. On the other hand, the boys are passing through a stage where they show off by farting on cue — a variation on the old finger-pulling gag. On the way to school, the flatulence ritual more or less substitutes for a verbal greeting. I remember the comic liberation felt in the audience for Blazing Saddles back in the day, where the notion of cowboys passing gas in harmony was considered hilariously vulgar. Ozu takes on the fart humor as something basically human. It’s even stylized — the sound effects used could be made by musical instruments. A lot of us Americans have been so conditioned against body function humor that we dreaded it when we were young and felt liberated when it became no big deal. By now gross vulgar humor is so much a part of comedy that it’s downright depressing. Good Morning is just gentle enough that we smile: it’s good to know that other cultures exhibit some of the same silly idiosyncrasies we do. Ozu doesn’t use the fart jokes just for effect — there’s a running-gag incontinence joke through the whole picture, the punch line of which is a very Ozu-like cutaway to laundered underwear drying on a clothesline. Maybe that’s a belly laugh in Tokyo, but our reaction is more like, ‘they’re really serious about this joke, aren’t they?’
But hey, it’s not faint praise to insist that there’s much more to the movie than fart jokes. The working-class faces of Ozu’s stock company sketch a social structure devoid of topical references — nobody’s talking about world affairs or student strikes. The hepcat couple has French and American movie posters on their walls, but the concerns we see are much closer to home. Unemployed salesmen rub shoulders in the bars, where even the retirement-age Keitaro stops off for a quick one. Life is the way people relate to each other. Father just wants his boys to stop being troublemakers, but we can tell that he’s more amused than annoyed by their antics. Aunt Setsuko is a sweetheart who brings cake home as a treat. One unemployed neighbor (Eijiro Tono) gets drunk and goes home to the wrong house; when he visits the Hayashis’ to announce that he has a new job, he also imposes on them by trying to make a sale. The pecking order among the housewives would probably lead to petty suspicions even if some money hadn’t gone missing from the women’s club membership fees. When one house gets a washing machine, jealousy fuels the veiled accusations. It all boils down to a marvelous grandma and her subconscious rebellion against her own daughter. It’s all immensely credible.
The boys are a minor sensation. They’re nice kids perfectly capable of behaving like over-indulged little brats; the charm lies in the innocence of their rebellion, and that the adults don’t overreact. The boys dress alike and the younger follows the older in all things, like wearing similar Charlie Brown sweaters with a stripe across the middle. Each attempts to put forward a masculine image, trying to earn some respect, which makes their rebellion all the more foolish. Young Isamu is a born scene-stealer, with a face that already looks like a cute cartoon. Only a few English phrases sneak into the dialogue. Isamu’s tutor has apparently cued him to say ‘I love you’ when he exits, which endears us to him above and beyond the basic Cute Factor.
The movie is endearing, but not overly sentimental. By the time this modest-length story plays out, we’ve developed affection for almost all the characters, even the troublemaking neighbors. Top-billed Keiji Sada and Yoshiko Kuga are an adorable ‘future couple,’ leaving the show with a positive feeling. The Hayashi parents Chishu Ryu and Kuniko Miyake already seem perfectly matched. I checked, and they indeed play the couple who run the Japanese inn, thirty years later in Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. Most of the other actors are Ozu regulars, I’m told, but I recognize Eijiro Tono’s craggy face from good roles in a variety of Japanese movies. We see him all the time, as the short-sighted admiral in charge of the assault armada in Tora! Tora! Tora!
Note that, not being an expert on Japanese film, this review is just a (very positive) personal reaction, the kind I try to give whenever I see something that opens my horizons a little. I’ve been exposed to late ’50s Japanese films made at this time by Yasuzo Masumura and others, with radical scenarios that in no uncertain terms condemn the ‘takeover’ of the Japanese culture by western values. . . these Japanese firebrands were filming scorching indictments of debasing advertising and cutthroat business practices far more vicious than Hollywood’s light-satirical take on similar themes. All Ozu need do is show the kids fomenting family revolution over a consumer product, and we get the point: when the packing crate for the worshipped TV arrives, little Minoru and Isamu react with instant joy. Ozu’s reaction is restrained: of course they feel that way, and yes, values are changing. Next subject, please.
I’m with Paul Schrader when he laments that younger Americans don’t think movies are important any more. How else are we to learn to understand other cultures? I think Ozu’s vision of neighborhood society is quite advanced in comparison to our corresponding U.S. sample in 1959, as seen in TV sitcoms like My Three Sons or Father Knows Best. The outright earnestness of these Japanese suggests that society has a chance to function well, with a more believable view of human nature. And it certainly isn’t afraid to let kids be gross in their humor. Don’t you wish that the most extreme ‘issue’ with our kids were something as benign as fart humor?
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Good Morning is a gorgeous encoding of this brightly colored picture. Ozu’s perfectly-chosen compositions never seem static, even if the camera is always locked down; interiors are broken up by myriad squares of doors, cabinets and other décor that make the neat little homes seem all the more like cozy burrows. Ozu opens with the working-class cluster of houses dwarfed by high voltage transmission lines, cluing us in to the fact that we’re going to see a story of ordinary folk. Yet no one looks ragged or overly lacking in self-respect. Shots sink to floor level only when people are actually sitting, although Ozu often puts his camera at the level of the youngsters. People speak directly into the camera when saying their lines, yet the cutting seems invisible, even while we’re reading subtitles. As with the other Ozus I’ve seen, Good Morning is a vacation from the dreary standard filmmaking conventions.
To me the presentation appears flawless, and the rich color scheme has the look of other Eastmancolor Japanese pictures of the time. Ozu must have resisted the aspect ratio change that swept through Japan in 1957-’58, when they skipped widescreen cropping and almost everything became 2.35 ‘scope. As if proving his point, Ozu includes a few images strongly composed for verticals. Nothing traditional holds back Toshiro Mayuzumi’s engaging music score, which offers a number of playful themes. They help to keep us from worrying that the story will suddenly turn tragic. Is it safe to assume that this show was a popular hit in Japan?
Criterion producer Elizabeth Pauker assembles a fine selection of extras. Ozu authority David Bordwell’s interview piece explains how this light comedy with kids is an extension of subject matter Ozu tackled in his silent days. As if on cue we get an entire feature transfer of the 1932 I Was Born, But . . ., which some people take as a first version of ohayo — two boys again cause grief because they want their parents to buy them something. As times are hard the father is shown withstanding workplace humiliations to keep his job and provide for his family. I Was Born, But . . . first appeared on their 2008 Eclipse 10: Silent Ozu – Three Family Comedies disc set; is this the first time that Criterion has re-purposed a film in this way? An additional goodie is an extended piece of Ozu’s 1929 comedy A Straightforward Boy, which has even broader mugging and slapstick. The funny fragment is all that survives at present. We can tell that it’s taken from a 9.5mm format print because the perforation damage marks are in the middle of the frame: 9.5 films had one set of perfs in the middle of the film!
An amusing ‘extra’ extra is a featurette from critic David Cairns, who as expected has a field day montaging a symphony of stylized farts (I’m actually writing this). But it’s all in the service of warm and insightful observations about the nature of the film’s humor.
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s insert essay launches a firm defense of Good Morning as a front-rank Ozu picture, transcendental style or no. I certainly found that it elicited more than just smiles. To coin a phrase, what we take away is much more than the sum of its far … parts.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Good Morning Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Full feature I Was Born, But . . . from 1932; feature fragment A Straightforward Boy from 1929; interview with David Bordwell, video essay by David Cairns; insert text essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 7, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson