May 02, 2011

Ukikusa (1959)

 In Japanese, "floating weeds" is a nickname used to metaphorically describe itinerant livelihoods, more specifically, to describe itinerant actors. Troupes traveling through the country with no place to call home, are like weeds floating on the water, moving without following any specific direction. Japanese filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu used this metaphor in 1934 to title one of the most important films in his career: "Ukikusa monogatari" ("A Story of Floating Weeds"), a family drama involving itinerant actors which defined many of his trademarks and essentially marked the maturing of his particular style. It also became one of his most successful films of his pre-war era. 25 years later, Ozu found himself with the chance of making a film of his choice for Daiei Studios, and so, his chosen project for Daiei was a remake of his own 1934 classic "Ukikusa monogatari". Naming it simply as "Ukikusa" ("Floating Weeds"), Yasujirô Ozu revisited his earlier classic after 25 years of social changes, style maturity and life experiences.

"Ukikusa" begins with the arrival of a troupe of itinerant actors to a seaside town during an extremely hot summer. The troupe's lead actor and owner Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) has a very special reason to visit this town: his former lover Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) lives there, as well as their son Kiyoshi (Ayako Wakao). It's been 12 years since Komajuro's last visit, and now Kiyoshi is a grown-up man working at the post office with the dream of saving enough to go to college. Kiyoshi doesn't know that Komajuro is his father, as the old actor has always posed as his uncle, ashamed of his status as an itinerant actor. Komajuro begins to spend time with Kiyoshi, even when the attendance to their kabuki act is pretty poor. Sumiko (Machiko Kyô), the lead actress and Komajuro's new mistress, begins to suspect that Komajuro is up to something, and when he discovers that he is visiting his former mistress, she becomes jealous and confronts Komajuro about it. Komajuro decides to break up with her, but the enraged Sumiko conceives a plan to take revenge on Kiyoshi.

Written by director Ozu himself along regular collaborator Kôgo Noda, "Ukikusa" focuses chiefly on the intimate family drama triggered by Sumiko's discovery of Komajuro's son. Lies, jealousy and love are the main themes, which could give the notion that "Ukikusa" is nothing more than a conventional and lachrymose melodrama. However, there is more in the story than what seems at first sight, as it is also a character study about the aging itinerant actor Komajuro. Strict and possessive, yet well intentioned and profoundly human, it is a character full of contradictions that unnecessarily has complicated his own life with each lie he has told to Kiyoshi. Komajuro has played Kiyoshi's uncle for many years, in what ironically seems to had been his best role through his mediocre career as an actor, and the effects of this acts further complicate his goal of leaving the road. And like Komajuro, the characters are what make "Ukikusa" different to typical melodramas, as in Ozu's cinema what matters is not what the characters do, but what they feel, think and believe.

In essence, what matters is what the characters live, what they experience intimately in their relationships with each other; and to take the audience to this intimacy, Ozu places his camera right in the middle of the action. In the original "Ukikusa monogatari", Ozu's distinctive style was blooming; in this remake, his style has reached full maturity. Everything is set up to immerse the audience into the character's intimate world. With the placing of his camera, its static positioning and the centering of the actors during dialog scenes; Ozu forces us to stare almost straight to the characters and discover them, as if they were old acquaintances, old friends. It's worth to point out Kazuo Miyagawa's masterful work of cinematography, which creates some of the most beautiful images with his brilliant use of colour and lighting. It's interesting to see the legendary Miyagawa, noted for his tracking shots, working with the classic static compositions of Ozu. The result captures perfectly the images of daily life and makes them transcend into beautiful works of art.

As expected in a drama of such intensity as this, the performances by the cast are instrumental part in the success of the film, and in "Ukikasu", the actors make for the most part a remarkable job in this aspect. Actor Ganjiro Nakamura, as the film's de facto protagonist, creates a powerful and very human portrait of the aging itinerant actor Komajuro. In a complex role that can be both sympathetic and hateful at the same time, Nakamura makes a wonderful job in capturing the many faces of Komajuro Arashi. An equally powerful performance is that of the beautiful Machiko Kyô, who plays Komajuro's current mistress Sumiko. Certainly, her role is considerably smaller (more details about Sumiko in the screenplay would had been appreciated), but her talents exploit every frame she is in, particularly in the scene of the confrontation in the pouring rain. Actress Haruko Sugimura, who plays Oyoshi is more restrained, perhaps a bit too restrained, but this passive subtlety adds a nice contrast to Kyô's explosive Sumiko.

Actor Hiroshi Kawaguchi, who plays Komajuro's son Kiyoshi, is unfortunately the cast's weakest link, appearing wooden and stiff, and well below the high standard set by the rest of the main cast. The other cast members are pretty effective, and specially funny are the three actors played by Haruo Tanaka, Yosuke Irie and Kôji Mitsui (whom incidentally, played the actor's son in the original "Ukikasu monogatari"). All in all, "Ukikasu" is a beautiful display of the maturity of Ozu's style tackling a more conventional (more traditional perhaps) family drama than his usual. With a calm rhythm, beautiful visual compositions, and a subtle, very intimate narrative style, Ozu crafts his drama slowly, focusing not on unfolding the story, but on letting his characters breath and grow in the screen. The powerful, colorful images captured by Miyagawa's camera enhance the beauty of common daily life and serve as the words of Ozu's visual poetry, and this is probably what could summarize "Ukikasu", and perhaps Ozu's cinema in general: the poetry of daily life.

Slow and calm, Yasujirô Ozu's cinema may be an acquired taste, with his very Japanese style and that, in Akira Kurosawa's words, "dignified severity" that permeates his films. However, "Ukikusa" is a very rewarding film, and transmits a sense of intimacy with the characters that, rather than voyeuristic, it's more contemplative. Perhaps Ozu felt that there was room for improvement (like Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 and 1956 versions of "The Man Who Knew Too Much"), perhaps he wanted to make a final statement of his style using the film that began to define it, or perhaps he simply liked this story of floating weeds so much he just had to do it again; whatever the reason was for this remake, the result is an interesting showcase of Yasujirô Ozu's lyricism, and a powerful display of his full technique.


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