There Was a Father (Chichi ariki) [DVD]
Director : Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay : Tadao Ikeda, Yasujiro Ozu, Takao Yanai
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1942
Stars : Chishu Ryu (Shuhei Horikawa), Shuji Sano (Ryohei), Shin Saburi (Yasutaro Kurokawa), Takeshi Sakamoto (Makoto Hirata), Mitsuko Mito (Fumi), Masayoshi Otsuka (Seichi), Shinichi Himori (Minoru Uchida), Haruhiko Tsuda (Ryohei as a child)
World War II was not a particularly good time for director Yasujiro Ozu, as his ability to produce films, which he had done at the rate of anywhere from three to six films per year since the late 1920s, was severely compromised by his being drafted by the military twice, first to serve as an infantry corporal in occupied China (which he did for two years in the 1930s) and later to make propaganda films in Singapore. Thus, There Was a Father (Chichi ariki) is an immediately intriguing film if only because it is one of the few he managed to make during this period (the other is 1941’s Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family). However, it is all the more fascinating because Ozu managed to make it nationalistic enough on the surface to satisfy the government’s insistence on “national policy” films while obscuring that it is really a poignant, even tragic portrait of the nature of sacrifice.
There Was a Father follows the relationship of a widowed father named Shuhei Horikawa (Chishu Ryu) and his son Ryohei (Shuji Sano) over a 15-year period. When we first meet them, Ryohei is a hard-studying preadolescent (played by Haruhiko Tsuda) and his father is a popular middle school geometry teacher. However, when a student drowns during a field trip that Shuhei is supervising, he takes responsibility for the incident (even though he really did nothing wrong) and resigns his position, stating that he no longer feels that he can take responsibility for other people’s children. Instead, he goes to work at a factory in Tokyo to make enough money to afford continued schooling for Ryohei, which, for reasons that are never fully explicated, entails their separation, something neither of them wants, but both must necessarily endure.
As it turns out, this separation becomes the defining characteristic of their relationship, as they must continually live in different places in order to fulfill the cultural mandate that they do the “best” they can and support the nation. Throughout the film the dialogue is peppered with supposedly uplifting mantras about doing one’s best and the necessity of sacrificing elements of personal happiness for a vague greater good, but the way these ring so hollow (especially in retrospect, knowing how the war will turn out) suggests that Ozu was carefully and consciously playing both sides of the line: He simultaneously celebrates the noble sacrifices of parenthood while treating with measured skepticism the militaristic enforcement of such virtues. However, it is not that Ozu does anything explicit in subverting the film’s “national policy” rhetoric about duty and the importance of Japanese tradition; rather, he does what he does best, which is focus insistently on the characters and their relationships, which inherently pushes everything else to the margins.
Outside its war context, then, There Was a Father is a typical Ozu film, treading comfortably in the increasingly well-worn groove of contemplative, tragic family dramas that came to define the second half of his career. It is an interesting companion piece to The Only Son (1936), his first “talkie,” which tells essentially the same story, except it is a mother who sacrifices for her son’s education and the son ends up becoming something of a failure anyway, a narrative development that could never be tolerated under government censorship during the war (films had to support the national ethos, which assured the populace that hard word, dedication, and sacrifice would lead to Japan’s ultimate glory). Taken together, these two films about parental dedication exemplify a shift in Ozu’s cinema around this time, away from the comical mockery of parental figures in his silent comedies to a profound reverence toward them in his dramas (this may have been intensified by the fact that his own father, who was largely absent during his childhood, had died a few years before he made There Was a Father).
One doesn’t have to scratch too deeply into There Was a Father’s surface to find that it is a deeply skeptical film, which is reinforced by Ozu’s stylistic use of long takes, a static camera, and “pillow” shots between sequences, all of which contribute to a heavy sense of loss and disappointment. The same can be said for the performances, particularly Chishu Ryu (in his 16th of at least 31 collaborations with Ozu), who ages on screen so drastically with only minimal make-up (a little gray in the hair is all) that you would swear different actors are playing the character at different points in the story. Even when the film goes into uncharacteristically melodramatic territory, such as a climactic deathbed scene (exactly the sort of thing Ozu usually leaves off-screen), Ozu never quite gives into the obvious and keeps us at just enough distance that we are forced to question the disparity between what the characters profess and what their lives ultimately demonstrate.
|There Was a Father Criterion Collection DVD|
|There Was a Father is available exclusively via The Criterion Collection’s “Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu” box set, which also includes The Only Son (1936).|
|Audio||Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||July 14, 2010|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Unfortunately for us, the era of Japanese film that produced The Only Son and There Was a Father has not been treated kindly in terms of preservation, and as a result Criterion has had to make do with elements that are far below their usual standards. Both films were transferred in high definition from the best surviving sources: 16mm fine-grain master positives that were made from the original 35mm nitrate negatives, both of which have been long lost. These prints have suffered a great deal of damage and neglect over the years, and despite extensive digital repair, the images on these DVDs show significant wear and tear, scratches, splices, missing frames, and mold. Also, because there were transferred from 16mm prints, there is not nearly as much fine detail as you might expect, and both films have a slightly soft image throughout. And, while it is not mentioned in the liner notes on There Was a Father, the accompanying essay by Tony Rayns references at several points that the only existing copy of the film is actually a censored version that was edited by the occupying Allied powers to remove all explicit references to the war, which might explain why at several points in the film there are awkward cuts and transition within some scenes. The soundtracks have also suffered accordingly. Both were transferred at 24-bit from the optical track of their respective 16mm prints, and while digital restoration has cleaned them up slightly, they still have quite a few aural artifacts and a persistent ambient hiss, which, particularly on There Was a Father, at times sounds like a rainstorm.|
|The DVDs of The Only Son and There Was a Father both include new 20-minute video interviews with the prolific husband-and-wife film scholar team of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in which they explore each film’s visual and thematic elements, its place in Ozu’s oeuvre, and its social and political contexts (Bordwell lays it all out right at the beginning when he says that he thinks Ozu is the greatest filmmaker in the history of the medium). The DVD of The Only Son also includes a second video interview with Japanese film scholar Tadao Sato. Both DVDs include insert booklets with informative critical essays by critic and historian Tony Rayns, and the booklet for There Was a Father also includes an appreciation of actor Chishu Ryu by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie from his 1987 book Public People, Private People: Portraits of Some Japanese and comments by Ryu on working with Yasujiro Ozu from the 2003 Hong Kong International Film Festival’s celebration of Ozu’s centennial.|
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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