The legendary director’s first talkie is as much an ‘Ozu’ film as his last.
Dir. Yasujiro Ozu
1936 | Japan | Drama | 82 mins | 1.33:1 | Japanese
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Chôko Iida, Shin’ichi Himori, Masao Hayama, Yoshiko Tsubouchi, & Chishû Ryû
Plot: A widow sends her only son away to receive a better education. Years later, she visits him, finding him a poor school teacher with a wife and son.
Subject Matter: Moderate/Life-Affirming
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion DVD – first published 18 Mar 2012)
Like Charles Chaplin, who only embraced the ‘talkie’ years after they had become the norm, legendary Japanese director and world cinema’s foremost humanist filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu was also late to the game. Made four years before Chaplin’s first ‘talkie’, The Great Dictator (1940), Ozu’s The Only Son is not so much an early masterpiece, but a firm indicator of better things to come yet for the director.
Still, there are moments of exquisite beauty in the film that only Ozu could have created. Although its restored version is not of the best quality in terms of visuals and sound, The Only Son remains to be a rare treasure for fans of Ozu.
The Only Son centers on the relationship between mother and child, as played by Choko Iida and Masao Hayama respectively. The mother toils endlessly in a factory to save enough money to send her eager kid to a high school in Tokyo. “Be a great man,” she tells her kid.
The bulk of the film then takes place more than a decade later as the mother travels to Tokyo to visit his grown-up son (now played by Shin’ichi Himori), who works as a poor night school teacher living in a shabby home with his wife and baby. Masking her disappointment at her son’s poverty, she spends a couple of days with him and his family.
Ozu takes a bare-bones tale and makes a profound statement on life. Is it better to be rich or to be kind? Is it better to lead a simple life or an extravagant one? The film is a mix of hopefulness and sadness, though it generally has a melancholic feel to it.
Like any Ozu film, the performances are superb. The actors do not seem like they are acting, but merely playing themselves as they would if they have been off camera. In one unforgettable scene, the mother talks about her hardship. Her son listens on, seemingly emotionless though deep down he feels immense guilt. Her wife, in a corner behind a wall overhears the conversation and starts to sob uncontrollably.
Such subtlety, such honest emotions. Such is the delicateness of Ozu’s humanist vision, even in his first sound film, that his brand of cinema (if it’s even called cinema) continues to inspire filmmakers and audiences today.
The Only Son has a universal message: to be satisfied with what you have, to care for others, and never to give up in life. Even then, Ozu makes a final comment on Man’s fate to struggle in the vicious cycle of being poor (both in wealth, and in terms of one’s ability to accept one’s state of being) by ending the film with a final shot of a closed gate.