in Criterion Month

Floating Weeds (1959)

It seems it has become a tradition for me to review a Yasujiro Ozu movie each Criterion Month, as I previously reviewed Tokyo Story and Late Spring, which I both gave five stars. So you might be assuming by the rating that Floating Weeds can’t help but feel like a letdown. There may be some truth in that, but unless you’re a total fanboy, it’s impossible to believe that you’re going to see every film in any director’s filmography as a masterwork. Even though I wouldn’t put Floating Weeds quite on that level, it’s still a very strong film, and proof that Ozu was still doing great work towards the very end of his career.

Floating Weeds mostly revolves around this traveling kabuki theater troupe, as they’re in the midst of this run of performances in a small seaside town. It quickly becomes apparent that some of the actors have a bit of a history with this town, and in particular, the troop’s leader Komajuro (played by Ganjirō Nakamura). Before one of the troop’s performances, Komajuro goes to meet a young post office worker named Kiyoshi, who refers to Komajuro as his uncle. However, it soon becomes apparent through talk amongst the actors that Kiyoshi is Komajuro’s illegitimate son.

This complicates things when Komjuro’s current fling, and an actress in the troop, Sumiko, becomes aware of Komjuro’s son, whom he’s never talked about. Sumiko is so mad that she bribes one of the younger actresses to seduce Kiyoshi, just as a way of inflicting some emotional damage on Komjuro.  Then with the play fizzling out and subsequent performances being canceled, all that Komjuro really has left to do in this town is confront the son he abandoned, and take responsibility for his shortcomings as a father.

One reason I gravitated toward watching Floating Weeds as my next Ozu film was that as much as I liked Tokyo Story and Late Spring, the films are very similar. Floating Weeds, on the other hand, has it’s own unique eccentricities, though as a relatively green Ozu fan, I can’t speak to how much it connects to the rest of his work. Though, for one, it’s unique in that it is a remake of a silent film Ozu made in 1934. Also, it’s one of the few films Ozu shot in color. Much of Ozu’s signature visual touches are still there, while the scope of the film is just as small and intimate. Though I suppose the use of color seems appropriate when juxtaposing the flamboyant garb the actors wear as performers, while offstage, their inner lives are much more drab and full of sorrow.

I would also say that Floating Weeds is dramatic in a more straightforward way, whereas Ozu’s other films have a more meditative feeling, which I’m a little more partial to. Floating Weeds, however, has plenty of scenes of characters yelling their emotions at each other, instead of quietly contemplating them while sitting on a tatami mat. Ok, the film does have a number of those types of scenes as well. But overall, the tone is a bit more brazen in its use of emotion, which is best illustrated in a scene where Komjuro and Somiko finally come to a head and end up yelling at each other from across a street, while the rain pours down in between them.

One of Ozu’s more prominent themes that’s mostly absent from Floating Weeds is the clash of traditional Japan vs. the modern Japan of the mid-20th century. Here, we get characters who are mostly tied to traditional Japan, considering they’re mostly older actors specializing in kabuki, a form of entertainment that isn’t the least bit Westernized. Which gives Ozu the chance to explore some ideas about what it means to be a performer or an artist, especially if no one is watching or even really cares about the show you’re putting on. Though, I suppose in a way that is an exploration of this theme, as the actors have to reckon with the fact that perhaps their time has passed.

A similar theme I think of when I think of Ozu is how old people and young people interact with each other. I always assumed that when Ozu was at his 1950s peak he belonged more to the former category, but actually he was more somewhere in the middle, considering he would’ve been in his mid-50s when this movie came out. This would explain why he’s able to capture both sides of the age spectrum without condescending to either, and he always seems to be able to do it with a new angle. I can’t say I could do the same if I was writing a movie about boomers. But then again, I’m not one of the masters, am I?