Ozu’s two versions of “Floating Weeds” — the first a silent 1934 black-and-white one and the 1959 remake in color with sound —are somewhat unusual in having a son rather than a daughter breaking loose, and in having a father whom the son does not know is his father. The father is an itinerant actor (the title, “Ukikusa” is a Japanese metaphor for such people) who did not want his son to live the life of insecurity and low status of itinerant actors. He (the father has different names in the two versions, which are also let in different locales) has regularly visited and is called “uncle” by his son, a term of respect for elders in Japan that does not imply any blood or familial relationship.
The older man’s current mistress is jealous of his devotion to the 20-year-old student and to his mother, who runs a tea and sake bar above which they live. The older actress bribes the young actress in the troupe to seduce the boy. She does so, but falls in love with him. After the “nephew” (son) strikes his “uncle” (father), the mother tells her son he has struck his father and the son refuses to accept that a father would have abandoned his child and the mother of his child. The father is chagrined by the accusations and by the son to whom his hopes adhered has “descended” into the theater world to mate.
Nevertheless, the show must go on, and a troupe much reduced in number, costumes, and props leaves the town the way it came, by train. As Donald Richie’s commentary track on the first version stresses, the story is circular.
Ozu films have regularly been said to lack plot. I’d say they have minimal plots and that the plots may not be linear, generally ending with a new equilibrium after futile resistance to the child mating (and generally leaving, though here it is the father who leaves and continued to be a floating weed, while the actress from his troupe is incorporated into the household of his son and his son’s mother).
Classic Japanese films in general seem slow to 21st-century Americans, and the close looks at shifting dynamics of Japanese patriarchs having to adjust to children growing up have little conceivable appeal to “popcorn movie” fans. Exacerbating the impatience with the muted (melo)drama, Ozu famously eschewed camera movement and – even in 1934 – shot everything from a low angle (eye level of someone seated on the floo). The compositions were carefully planned and, unlike his present-day Taiwanese admirers Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang, Ozu cut frequently. The camera may have been stationary, but Ozu movies are not visually static.
Despite having a lot of dialogue in intertitles, the 1934 version is half an hour shorter. I think I prefer it, though the 1959 version has stars I recognize: Nakamura Ganjiro (The Pornographers, Early Autumn) and Kyô Machikô (Rashômon, Ugetsu) as the rancorous manager and once (and future?) actress mistress.
BTW, Kawaguchi Hiroshi, who played the son, Shinkichi, in the 1934 version turns up in the troupe in the version a quarter of a century later. He is the only person in both versions. I think that, 25 years older, Ozu was more sympathetic to the father the second time around, though it could be that Nakamura’s warmth came through more than Sakamoto Takeshi’s (who also starred in the earliest Ozu film I’ve seen, “I Was Born, But…;” ) did in the original.
Alhough adhering to Ozu’s low-angle practice and compositional principles, the beautiful color of the 1959 version must owe much to the great cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (1908-1999) who shot “Enjô”, “Kagi”, and “The Outcast” for Ichikawa, “Ugetsu”, “Sanshô, the Bailiff”, and “Street of Shame” for Mizoguchi, “Rashômon” and “Yojimbo” for Kurosawa. The Criterion edition has a surprisingly good print of the 1934 version and an even better print of the second.
Donald Richie, who wrote the first book in English about Ozu’s film and was long the champion and explicator of Japanese films to English-language readers, provided a commentary track for the 1934 version, Roger Ebert, who was very enthusiastic about the movie, though less expert on Ozu/Japanese films, provided a commentary track for the 1959 version.
A trailer for the 1959 version and a printed essay by Richie are also included in the Criterion edition.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray