Cinema in quarantine: Only child

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Roberto Noritomi*

Commentary on the classic film by Yasujiro Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu directed Only child in 1936. It is his first sound film. It tells a simple and not unusual story. In Japan in the 1920s, in a silk producing village, a widow spinner (Tsune), with great difficulty, sends her only son (Ryosuke) to study in Tokyo and become “a great man” there. More than a decade later, her mother travels to Tokyo and finds her son in a different situation than she expected. Ryosuke has not achieved any professional and material success, as he had promised his mother.

To follow the lead of the plot, however, is to take the wrong path. Don't get tangled up in a movie like Only child. In his case, and in others of the same caliber, the work is apprehended by the images, more than by the word, which is scarce here.

The film, in this sense, presents itself as an imagetic territory of multiple and indeterminate entries. Each of them opens paths of interpretation that may or may not converge with the others. However, it is unlikely that a significant shot will be reached. Therefore, in view of this horizon of possibilities, the option of undertaking the approach through a fragment in the middle, and not from the beginning, is valid and can bring some keys for reflection. It is a medullary sequence, loaded with visual power. In it are bundled the various lines of force of the film.

The sequence takes place when Tsune, who has already been in Tokyo for a few days, walks with Ryosuke through a field in the vicinity of his son's house, on the outskirts of Tokyo. Despite being somewhat surprised by Ryosuke's teaching job and precarious life, the mother had not talked to her son about this situation. The visit went smoothly.

A long shot opens the sequence and exposes a row of huge smoking chimneys rising from the back of the field. The bush, further to the left, barely withstands the wind. The camera is at ground level, which gives it an upward angle. Shortly after, on the right, Tsune and Ryosuke enter the field side by side, perpendicular to the plane. They walk with their backs to the camera, with the chimneys in front. They are silent and the steps are restrained. The musical track accompanies serenely.

The son explains that those are the Tokyo incinerators. They take a few more steps and, keeping their eyes on the chimneys, as if showing deference, slowly bend their knees to crouch. The voluminous and incessant smoke stands out in the background. Crouching diagonally to his mother, with the chimneys in the background, the son confesses his dissatisfaction at not having lived up to the hopes she had when sending him to Tokyo.

He is sorry for the fact that he left the region where they lived. He feels professionally defeated and his mother's face, crestfallen, does not hide her disappointment. They fall silent before the song of the larks and look up at the moving clouds in the sky. Then, a relatively long shot repeats the initial framing of the chimneys. The sequence closes with the long shot of mother and son walking towards the horizon. With their backs turned, they form two dark figures that merge into the darkening of the canvas.

A kind of turning point is configured in this sequence. Until then, it was known about Ryosuke's financial difficulties, but nothing was very clear, even less for his mother. Thus, from what was revealed in the conversation, and which will be reinforced in a later dialogue, it is soon inferred that there is a disagreement in the order of things. Despite his efforts and studies in Tokyo, Ryosuke couldn't get beyond a poorly paid teaching position and a rented house outside the center.

He acknowledges that he “made his biggest bet” and lost. This is what also seems to have happened to Professor Okubo, who taught him in the countryside and encouraged him to study in Tokyo. Okubo not only foundered on his goal of improvement, he left the profession and ended up as a tonkatsu (breaded pork rib) and father of four. The evidence is strong that trying hard in Tokyo is pointless. The sleepless and radiant city is for the few, curbs the yearning for success and expels the evil competitor.

However, Tsune's disappointment may not stem so much from his son's material state. The problem is the incompleteness of a trajectory for which she feels responsible, as a mother. In the traditional perspective, from which it comes, the family or ancestry weaves the thread of the lives of descendants, as in a cyclical movement that reproduces itself, ineluctably, from generation to generation. It is no coincidence that the spinning wheel and the spinners demarcate the beginning and end of the film.

Tsune herself was a spinner. Her hope was to guarantee her son's education, successful employment and marriage. And then die in peace. But this has been truncated. Ryosuke is poorly employed, got married and had a child without his mother's consent and now lives the resentment of his misfortune. The thread of the son's life escaped the mother's control. This is possibly the cause of her greatest pain for Tsune, as her world is dissolving in the face of a new sociability, which tears and discards individuals. She herself, in her remote region, has lost her role in spinning and will eventually be relegated to cleaning work. She can no longer trust.

It soon becomes clear that this meeting in Tokyo, more precisely in that wilderness in front of the incinerators, reveals itself as the moment of confrontation of two failures; that of the son, who has resigned himself to the fate the city has in store for him, and that of the mother, who cannot care for her son's fate. The ties were broken. There is, therefore, a terrible split. And that, at heart, is a farewell trip (a fact that will resonate in future Ozu films); mother and son don't know it yet, but they are separating.

The cited sequence is important, because it builds the scenario of separation, and of death (certainly Tsune will not find his son again). In the way they approach and sit down in front of the incinerators, mother and son position themselves as if they were revering a sacred pyre, or rather, a crematorium (very common in Japan) and performing the last ceremonies there. It is a time that is consumed and exhausted in those hidden flames, inescapably.

The moment is not exactly one of tragedy, but of resignation in the face of a process that is much bigger and elusive. Ryosuke epitomizes this by resorting to the everyday expression: “shoganai” (“there is nothing to do”, in an imprecise translation). No force is there to support them. In the face of that family drama, the world remains oblivious. The wind bends the bushes, disperses the smoke, carries the clouds into absolute impassibility.

Each event, natural or otherwise, acquires particular relevance and tangibility in the “isolated” shots that punctuate the film. This is what can be seen in the images of clothes fluttering on the clotheslines; of the dripping faucet on the way to Professor Okubo's house; of kimono suspended by the hanger; of dawn in the empty corner of the room while listening, in off, the wife's cry, etc. They are not external insertions supporting metaphorical comments. It is the things themselves in the diegetic scope that stand out and gain concreteness, demonstrating their existence independent of human consciousness.

In this way, more than descriptive or symbolic elements, these plans are fixed with such adhesion that they seem to seek to extract the maximum of materiality and reverberation from the world, in every detail of its historical-social constitution. And time passes through things. The camera cuts and prints duration to the most different phenomena, no matter how small.

There is no strict narrative hierarchy and everything ends up receiving special attention, especially the simplest and most routine things. Hence the option for everyday scenes, with contained gestures and speeches, to the detriment of ingenious journeys and cathartic endings. From the taste of a ramen at home to explaining a geometric theorem in the classroom, going through a sleepy movie session, everything deserves presence and extension, no matter how long it lasts. Life overflows the narrative and that dramatic encounter between mother and son is lost in the continuous blowing of the wind.

Faced with this irresistible and unsubmissive flow of reality, Ozu's camera recognizes its limitations and does not propose to apprehend and control the facts within a path of closed meaning. Its positioning is of a very precise, mathematical distance in relation to the emotions and conduct of the characters. The decoupage is reduced and the planes lengthened. It is a contemplative camera, which avoids identifying with the characters. Therefore, its relationship with a specific point of view, internal to the scene, is ambiguous and disconcerting.

When the mother arrives in Tokyo, the camera is installed on the footboard of the taxi and travels around showing part of the bumper and the tops of the buildings; in a singular scene, during night class, when framing the window and the sign outside, the camera seems to occupy Ryosuke's point of view, but this proves to be a mistake when the light in the room goes out, teacher and students depart, and the sign remains flashing on the board. In other situations, the camera films from a distance, behind objects or partitions, as if witnessing something that does not concern it. Discretion and serenity predominate in Ozu's lens.

Only child, strictly speaking, is a minimal work. Ozu didn't need much to accomplish one of his greatest feats. From family relationships to the tensions of Japan's social and economic modernization, passing through the condition of women, the aesthetic and thematic elements that define the director's production are all here. But, above all, what stands out is his patient look, which requires viewers willing to face the dismay inherent in the tiny details of everyday experience. As with great filmmakers, his films demand to be seen with the eyes.

*Roberto Noritomi he holds a PhD in sociology of culture from USP.


Only child (hitori musuko)

Japan, 1936, 87 minutes

Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu

Cast: Chishu Riu; Mitsuko Yoshikawa; Masao Hoyama.


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