Stage Direction: Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959) on Blu-ray
Save the dramatic fireworks for the stage – the real (in)action is as gentle as a lapping wave in Ozu’s cine-poem about actors struggling with reality.
(Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)
Every film critic has their blind spots – and, with Floating Weeds, Masters of Cinema has cured one of mine. I’m ashamed to see that, until this point, I had never seen a film directed by Yasujiro Ozu. This, despite my best intentions in catching up with one of world cinema’s undisputed greats. I still have a handful of off-air VHS tapes recorded off Film Four a decade ago, and the Blu-ray of Tokyo Story has been sitting on my shelf for two years. And yet, somehow, I’ve never got around to it.
So it is that my introduction comes with one of his last films (and a remake at that, of Ozu’s own 1934 film A Story Of Floating Weeds). It’s the story of a troupe of actors travelling from town to town, playing their old-fashioned kabuki plays to dwindling audiences. Common sense dictates that the team’s master Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) would choose the biggest cities to attract the biggest audiences, but he has his own reasons for choosing a sleepy coastal backwater. And those secrets come to bite him when his mistress Sumiko (played by the great Machiko Kyō) gets the wrong end of the stick.
What follows is a tragedy, of sorts – but the gentlest kind, a film that strips away the characters’ certainties with the same calm but inexorable grace as the waves lap at the shore. In contrast to the overblown, ritualised performances on stage, real life is a plaintive, low-key affair – tender and tough, happy and sad. It’s all the actors can do to attempt to create their own big scenes, amusing themselves with drink or sex while all the while realising that they’ve been stranded in life, both literally and metaphorically.
The crucial thing to say is that Ozu’s camera doesn’t move – at all – but the pace isn’t so much slow as serene, allowing measured contemplation of the vivid, painterly images. Yes, the biggest set-piece occurs off-screen, leaving more scenes of the troupe sitting, resting, talking… but dynamic, sophisticated cutting maintains emotional excitement, especially when the characters argue – in bold, almost direct-to-camera confrontations, the viewer caught awkwardly in the crossfire.
But there’s no taking sides: much as Komajuro is a fool who patronises women and pathetically courts the approval of a son he can’t admit his identity to, there’s something palpable and sympathetic about his regret at remaining a ‘floating weed’ (as opposed to the beautiful flowers which Ozu repeatedly shows as a symbol of stability). Likewise, Sumiko is a sad, lonely woman whose clumsy attempt at revenge leaves her even more miserable, and Kyō’s gradually deflating performance is a far cry from the visceral ghouls she plays in Rashomon or Ugetsu Monogatari.
It sounds heavy, but those waves wash up a variety of moods. It’s often strikingly funny, achieving the saucy seaside humour of a Carry On film in the escapades of a trio of horny actors. There’s a romance which, although built on unorthodox foundations, achieves a real sweetness – and even a bit of heat in a memorable seduction. And the ending highlights the essential humanism of the piece with a stoic shrug of the shoulders and an admission that a second chance is better than no chance at all. I can’t believe I’ve left it this long. More Ozu, please.