In his 1974 Ozu Yasuji book, Donald Richie began that Ozu “had but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution.” Ozu’s prewar films look more at the effects on the family of the hierarchical social structure.
The earliest one I’ve seen (the surviving fragments of), “I Graduated But…” (Umarete wa mita keredo, 1929) seems to be about a college graduate who moved to Tokyo and couldn’t find a job, though pretending as first his mother and then his fiancée come to live with him. The pretending of going to work would also be the launching pad of “Departures,” the first Japanese move to win the best foreign-language film Oscar many decades later
Audie Bock (Japanese Film Directors) asserts that the 1932 “I Was Born But…” is “Ozu’s first great film.” It centers on two young boys, Keiji (Aoki Tomio) and Ryoichi (Sugawara Hideo) who are reluctantly realizing that their father (Saitô Tatsuo) is a lackey, not at all a hero or a potentate.
The family has just moved into a Tokyo neighborhood where the father’s boss also lives. The boss’s son, Taro (Katô Seichi), is a leader (second-ranked) of a gang of miscreants who bully the new boys. Through some movie contrivances, the boys outfight the gang-members and keep Taro as their ranking subordinate in the reconstituted gang.
Their father explains the way things are: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” And he doesn’t have it. “You tell us to become somebody, but you’re nobody! “ they scream at him. Though initially they are bullied, the boys are not especially engaging (they don’t mug like their Hollywood contemporaries in Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts.).
Not anticipating Ozu’s later work, the mother has no character, is entirely subservient to her husband and her role as a housewife.
Way back then, Ozu allowed camera movement to follow the boys (DP Mohara Hideo also edited the movie).
The year before (1931) Naruse Mikio shot a similar story of disappointment in a father (Yamaguchi Isamu) who was the title character, “Flunky, Work Hard!” (Koshiben Gambara). In it the father was an unsuccessful insurance salesman. His own, uninsured, son, Susumu (Katô Seichi), who is preoccupied with obtaining a model airplane, is hit by a train as he sells insurance to a difficult but well-off mother of five.
Focused on the humiliation(s) of an adult male, “Flunk” does not prefigure the beaten-down women who became Naruse’s specialty. The cruel slapstick of the first part (with the salesman kneeling on the ground for his potential clients’ children to, plus evading the rent collector) turns to anguished expressionism in the hospital where his son is taken.
The running time of Naruse’s film was only 28 minutes; Ozu’s ran 90. Though “Flunky” was the ninth film Naruse directed, it is the oldest one still extant (three more later ones have been lost, too).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray