Review: Ozu Yasujir’s A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds on Criterion Blu-ray

Two indispensable Ozu films receive a noteworthy upgrade from Criterion.

A Story of Floating Weeds / Floating WeedsThroughout his career, Ozu Yasujir regularly returned to core themes running through his work from different angles, and toward the end of his life he even made remakes of some of his earlier silent pictures. Of these, 1959’s Floating Weeds is perhaps the most closely faithful to the plot of its predecessor, 1934’s A Story of Floating Weeds.

Both A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds follow a traveling troupe of actors as they arrive in a seaside town to perform their kabuki plays. While there, the leader of the group checks up on an old mistress, and much to the jealously of his current one, who in turn hatches a scheme to have a colleague seduce and dump the man’s adult son. Further complicating matters is the fact that the son, the child of the ex-lover being visited, doesn’t even know that the troupe’s leader is his father.

But as closely as the plot of Floating Weeds hews to that of its progenitor, the tonal differences between the films are striking. Some of this can be attributed to changing mores, particularly in how forthright A Story of Floating Weeds is about the sexual improprieties of the troupe compared to the far more circumspect, censorious approach that Floating Weeds takes to the subject matter. Throughout the remake, not only the troupe’s leader but the other actors break off for the sake of amorous pursuits with locals. In a reversal of expectations, the remake, made during a time when Ozu’s work was renowned for its minimalist aesthetic and emotional displays and stone-faced drama, is considerably more comical than the silent version, which was produced when the director tended to make gangster movies and slapstick farces.

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A Story of Floating Weeds, comparatively, is one of the first of Ozu’s silent pictures to explicitly point the way toward his later, more mature work, foregrounding the somber relationship between a father and the son who he only half-acknowledges rather than taking a larger view of the group’s individual and collective adventures. Early examples of Ozu’s mastery of unorthodox dramatic intensity can be found throughout, as in a scene of the two men going fishing as the father, Kihachi (Sakamoto Takeshi), tries to connect with his son, Shinkichi (Mitsui Kōji). Ozu films the men from a shot placed just above the water in which they stand, their immobile feet and separation from one another in the frame communicating the emotional gulf between them.

And yet, if Floating Weeds initially takes a more ribald approach to its narrative, it gradually asserts a melancholy in how its depiction of theater differs from its predecessor. A Story of Floating Weeds depicts the work that goes into mounting the troupe’s kabuki performances, from the set construction to application of theatrical makeup. Even as Ozu captures the tedious labor that goes into entertainment, there’s also a palpable appreciation for that toil.

The remake, on the other hand, focuses more on the broader sense of dejection that the group feels at seeing the dwindling crowds that greet their traditional art. The characters in the silent version may have fallen into idle gossip during moments of boredom but still cared about their work, while their counterparts in the sound film are so worn down by unappreciative audiences that they turn to petty theft or quit the troupe altogether to get away from a sinking ship.

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Both films end on melancholic notes, with the father leaving both the group and his son, but it’s Floating Weeds that emanates a greater sense of defeat. The film’s early shots burst with color, but Miyagawa Kazuo’s cinematography gradually loses its chromatic intensity as backdrops become drabber and the bright objects that once dotted frames disappear from view. It’s the equivalent of watching someone bleed out, the redness in their face slowly draining into an ashen white. In the process, Ozu’s funniest late-period film becomes one of his most haunting.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s Blu-ray sports new transfers of both films, with the one for Floating Weeds sourced from Kadokawa’s 4K restoration. Expectedly, the 1959 film looks vastly improved from Criterion’s 20-year-old DVD; details are sharper throughout, and the colors radiate more strongly even as the overall look trends darker and looks more film-like. One suspects the original DVD was slightly boosted to account for the softer color definition of the SD transfer. The mono soundtrack doesn’t sound especially fuller for being offered in a lossless format, but the minimalist soundscape of dialogue, mild Foley work, and Sait Kojun’s gentle score all sound well-balanced and a bit cleaner than they did on the old DVD.

A Story of Floating Weeds has clearly not received a restoration; numerous instances of debris and scratches abound, and definition is often hazy. Nonetheless, this is a clear upgrade over the previous transfer, with more stable contrast and sharper textures in spite of the softness of the backgrounds. On the audio front, Donald Sosin’s piano score is crystal clear, each subtle timbre of the notes coming through in the spacious 5.1 mix.

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Extras

From its earlier releases of the films, Criterion ports over the commentary for A Story of Floating Weeds by film historian Donald Richie and the one for Floating Weeds by Roger Ebert. Each critic brings a wealth of information, analysis, and infectious enthusiasm to their tracks. Richie brings his decades-long study of Japanese cinema and Ozu to bear on mapping out the technical aspects and subtextual intimations of each shot, while Ebert offers a more big-picture analysis, wrestling with Ozu’s themes and other work while also engaging in the kind of aesthetic close reading that he rarely got to indulge on the page. The disc also comes with a booklet essay by Richie that delineates the two films’ unique approaches to the same material and what their different perspectives communicate about where Ozu was at two points in life.

Overall

Two indispensable Ozu Yasujir films receive a noteworthy upgrade from Criterion.

Score: 
 Cast: Sakamoto Takeshi, Iida Chko, Mitsui Kji, Yagumo Rieko, Tsubouchi Yoshiko, Kozo Tokkan, Tani Reiko, Nidaime Nakamura Ganjir, Machiko Ky, Wakao Ayako, Kawaguchi Hiroshi, Sugimura Haruko, Nozoe Hitomi, Ry Chish, Tanaka Haruo, Irie Ysuke, Hoshi Hikaru, Ushio Mantar, Urabe Kumeko  Director: Ozu Yasujir  Screenwriter: Ikeda Tadao, Ozu Yasujir, Noda Kgo  Distributor: The Criterion Collection  Running Time: 86, 119 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1934, 1959  Buy: Video

Jake Cole

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in MTV News and Little White Lies. He is a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.

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