The camera lingers, still and quiet, for many seconds, on a simple hanging lamp. A gong sounds.....
....and the view swings outward to women walking down a street. These are the opening scenes of Yasujiro Ozu's 1936 film The Only Son. They tell us that this will be a tale of ordinary people that has large and tragic dimensions:
"Life's tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child."
Ryunosuke Akutagawa, quoted as the epigraph for The Only Son.
I haven't watched an Ozu film in a while, so I was again struck by his remarkable sensibility, one that sees the common objects of the world in a way as to make them characters in the drama; they expand our understanding. Ozu demands that we pay close attention to the world he shows us. Several years ago I wrote a post about a beautiful later color film of his, Floating Weeds, which you can read here. The Only Son begins in a provincial town, whose main product is silk; the mother of the story works at spinning silk. These wheels are protagonists, as we see them change over the years into more industrialized machinery.
Ozu uses a very low camera angle, so the figures in the film achieve a monumentality within their everyday lives and stories. We are almost always aware of them as part of an environment, composed in such a way as to emphasize their feelings. The widow O-Tsune has just told her young son, Ryosuke, that she will sacrifice so that he can continue his schooling and become a "great man". His stance, facing away from us, leaning against the wall, shows a deep ambivalence and sadness in leaving his mother.
Years later O-Tsune goes to visit her son in Tokyo, who is living very modestly with a wife and newborn son. She sits in his house, framed by everyday objects and a glamorous image of Marlene Dietrich (?....she and her son go to see a German film within this film). The bowed sadness of O-Tsune is heightened by these surroundings.
....or shows us a mixed scene of industry alongside a house, with plants, and laundry hanging. His fixed camera shows us this shirt blowing in the wind, the pipes and tanks behind it, and soon two figures––those of O-Tsune and Ryosuke––move across the still image, an image of jarring contrasts.
Ozu loves laundry: he returns to this scene several times, and lets the camera linger. What is it about household items hanging outdoors that is so poignant? a metaphor for the tenuous and fleeting nature of life?
Back at home, O-Tsune is a small, elderly worker amid baskets that are like human sentinels, all dwarfed by mute buildings.....
.....and lastly we see, as a symbol of her life, a courtyard leading to a closed gate. Ozu touches deep feelings with reticence, making them all the more touching.