By Jacob Mertens.
Yasujiro Ozu makes films that sneak up on you. They may feel simple and slow-paced at first, but the heart of his stories are too delicately expressed, and far too complete, for an audience not to be moved. To call Ozu’s Floating Weeds a masterwork may be a slight overstatement for some. After all, the designation does get abused at times, and the film cannot be expected to match the director’s finest achievement in Tokyo Story (1953). Still, the lofty description rings true for me. And I did not truly feel that way until I watched a scene in which two characters shouted at each other from opposite buildings, airing all their grievances, while separated by a torrential downpour. In that moment the director had me. The scene aches with beauty and feeds into both character’s emotional states well, but its true brilliance lies in the fact that the words they exchange, comprised of insults and petty threats, cannot contend with the poetry of their physical separation. Their common anger is shown as both inevitable and useless, but the film must see the growing rift between them play out.
Floating Weeds opens in a small fishing village in Japan, where a roaming group of actors have settled for the foreseeable future. The troupe is led by Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), who secretly harbors an old flame and a son tucked away in the village. Before his group performs an opening night of what can only be called second-rate theater, Komajuro visits the family he has never been part of, meeting a son who has grown into a man and who only knows him as an uncle. His former lover Oyoshi, played by Haruko Sugimura, navigates the ruse with grace and poise. She presides over a sake bar and serves Komajuro drinks while reminiscing about days past, never casting judgment or forcing a role in their son’s life that Komajuro would feel uncomfortable with. In these early scenes, Komajuro seems just as amicable, but a growing storm soon draws a base nature out of him.
Komajuro finds himself in this sleepy seaport with a new mistress in tow, the aging actress Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), who quickly notes his frequent disappearances to play house with Oyoshi and their son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi). In a fit of jealousy, Sumiko hounds old stage hands until she learns of Komajuro’s sordid past, then moves quickly to reveal the deception to the man’s son. Komajuro reacts to Sumiko’s poorly executed plot with brusque force, throwing the woman out of Oyoshi’s house before anyone can make sense of her hysteria. Sumiko walks across the street but she does not leave, and as the rain falls she and Komajuro shout at each other across the street. In a rage, Komajuro writes her off from his life with a string of foul language, belying a coarseness beneath the warmth he offered to his family moments before. However, while Sumiko feels betrayed, she clearly still holds affection for the man and so she becomes far more dangerous to him.
Sumiko returns to the playhouse with vengeance in mind, and convinces the younger actress Kayo (Ayako Wakao) to seduce Komajuro’s son, conveniently leaving out his true identity. These orchestrations might have led to a film rife with melodrama, but under Ozu’s care the rushed romantic entanglement turns to love. Meanwhile, the ceaseless rain has cast a pall over the theater, and the company’s audience becomes thinner and thinner. As Floating Weeds builds, Komajuro finds his business close to ruin, and when he learns of his son’s affair to an actress whose past is less than honorable, he snaps. He had left all his hope and ambition to his son, paying for his school as he scraped a living across the country. Now, Komajuro sees his own shortcomings coming home to roost in his son’s tarnished future.
Komajuro’s wrath is both insensate and arbitrary. He isolates a son who has just learned of his father, he pushes away Oyoshi’s unyielding kindness, and he watches his theater troupe dissolve under the weight of debt and poor returns. Ozu then frames this fall of grace with moments of striking beauty and symbolism. Periodically, as Komajuro stomps through the playhouse, cherry blossom leaves fall through the wooden grates of the ceiling like snow. They speak to a gentleness in Komajuro not felt in these scenes but witnessed earlier, and his transformation is more poignant for the reminder. Meanwhile, when Kiyoshi first visits Kayo, their lover’s rendezvous takes place in the same theater house. As Kayo calls the young man to her, he is seen only in silhouette, and the viewer can feel that whatever darkness of lust and impurity existed in the father must undoubtedly carry to the son. This would make an appropriate image to leave us with, but in the case of Floating Weeds the story has just begun.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.
Floating Weeds received a dual Blu-ray and DVD release in the United Kingdom as part of Eureka Entertainment’s “The Masters of Cinema” series. Special features include a restored high-definition master, newly translated English subtitles, the film’s original trailer, and a 36-page booklet with an essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, translated excerpts from Ozu’s 1959 diaries, and rare archival imagery.