The Only Son (1936)

Directed by Yasujiro Ozu

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A young man, Ryosuke, receives a surprise visit from his mother, Tsune,  in Ozu’s The Only Son.  Their visit lasts a quiet couple of days in Tokyo, and through strained pleasantries she learns for the first time that he is married and has a son.  A night school teacher, he is quietly ashamed of what he has become and attempts to hide the truth from his mother, feeling guilty because of all she sacrificed to put him through school.

Ozu’s films are about family, to put it simply.  Granted I’ve only seen this and Tokyo Story, but in both films there is a palpable divide between elderly parent and adult child.  They speak without anger or overt emotion but you can sense the conflict nevertheless.  It is as if they lean more heavily on proper introductions and customs, bowing and smiling and interacting with a loved one they way you might with someone you only know in passing, like their dialogue is a river but now it’s dried up and dammed.

The degree to which they lean on such pleasantries hints at the discord underneath the surface.  In fact the first time we see Tsune and Ryosuke in the modern day, they smile the way you do at the dentist when they lodge that thing in your mouth for an X-ray.  It’s so forced and even kind of eerie, similar to a scene between an elderly couple in David Lynch’s purposefully disorienting Mulholland Drive

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It’s the first hint of what’s to come.  By this point it’s been established that it is a great sacrifice on Tsune’s part to send her son to school, particularly after the death of her husband.  But she does so anyway, pushed in part by the assurance of a teacher that there is no future in their small village, only in a city as big as Tokyo.

When we then jump forward over a decade, Ryosuke is now more or less in the same shoes as his one time teacher.  The teacher, however, is a bit older, grayer and wiser, but he has accepted the limitations of life in a crowded city like Tokyo.  His life has not gone the ways he imagined, but maybe that’s just his role of the dice.  It foreshadows the possibility that Ryosuke’s roll of the dice will be much the same.

Watching Ryosuke take his mother around town to try and convince her he’s doing just fine is indeed a bit heartbreaking, even if melodramatic.  He takes her to a “talkie,” though she falls asleep in the theater.  In another scene he must borrow ten yen from between two coworkers, one with interest, just to take Tsune out for dinner.  Even when he introduces her to his wife and son, there is something just so tragic about it considering this all seems pleasant enough but is somehow not enough, whether because one or both of them thinks so.

Eventually she will confront him.  It’s not that he needs a certain job title or to make a certain amount of money, but she wants him to be happy, to not give up.  If indeed he yearns for more then maybe he should keep trying.

Ryosuke feels pretty much nothing but shame, however later in the film he will act heroically enough to save a boy who was kicked by a horse.  It’s a bit of a sudden left turn, but it fills his mother with pride, that he was able to act so quickly and decisively.  When she later boards the train out of Tokyo, all seems well.  Ryosuke even resolves to go back to school so that he may become a high school teacher.

And yet this both ignores I think a certain darkness to all of this, one that is, I suppose, revisited in the final moments of the film.  We’re with Tsune as she has returned to her village, where she works almost poetically but certainly tirelessly in a factory producing silk.  She goes outside, sits by herself, and then her smile fades, perhaps for the first time in the entire film.

So all is not quite well, which kind of makes sense because though everyone is nice enough to each other, they all seem to be missing something.  Maybe it’s the limits of poverty, maybe it’s an unhappy marriage or something else entirely.

The most tragic character in all of this seems to me to be Ryosuke’s wife.  She appears pretty happy, but she must sit by while her husband complains about how underwhelming his life is.  And whether or not he sincerely believes that or only thinks of it this way because of the degree to which his mother suffered to give him this opportunity is unclear.  Maybe he just feels the pressure of living up to what he believes are his mother’s expectations.  Maybe they’re really his own expectations.

But I suppose what is clear is that the generations here are closely tied.  These characters don’t live in a vacuum, the captains of the ships of their own lives.  They are instead defined in part by their circumstances, both past and present.  Some of that is purely economic, and some has to do with tradition and expectations.

The film then calls attention to that relationship between generations, aware at all times of the past and future, maybe even more so than the present.  This is underscored by the glimpses we have of Ryosuke’s young son, always asleep in the background or foreground, like a silent greek chorus, there to comment on the events of the story.

Just showing the sleeping baby reminds us that the next generation is coming, that the challenges faced by Tsune and Ryosuke will someday be faced by future generations too. Ryosuke may inherit Tsune’s sense of obligation, in fact he already has by the film’s end, and his son could soon inherit Ryosuke’s feelings of guilt.

The challenges they face, then, are transitory, at least as they perceive them.  In some ways, however, maybe those challenges are more permanent than the characters themselves.  It’s not as much the challenges that pass through them as they that pass through these challenges, just as we all migrate through life, its milestones and various rites of passages.  It’s why coming of age stories ring true for so many people, because they are stages so many of us have passed through, in various forms.

Ozu’s manner of shooting is very silent and unobtrusive.  We are just about always as eye level, if not slightly below, his shots are static, and there are moments that linger through the silences, even frames uncluttered with people.  He calls attention to the present moment through the portrait-like images of laundry in the breeze, the spinning wheels of the silk factory, the smokestacks burning Tokyo’s trash and of course with the young baby too, as still as a statue so that he sometimes blends into the scenery entirely.

I took these as ways of suggesting that this is all we ever have, these moments.  Everything passes, of course, and the melodramatic conflicts here are entirely human-made.  They are in some ways imaginary, loaded with perceived, constructed value and weight.  Left a bit ignored in their wake is the literal, tangible world.

Up Next: Serenity (2019), Floating Weeds (1959), Gosford Park (2001)

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