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A Story of Floating Weeds (1934)
Floating Weeds (1959)

Criterion 232
Street Date April 20, 2004 / 39.95

A Story of Floating Weeds
1934 / B&W silent / 1:33 flat full frame / 89 min. / Ukigusa monogatari
Starring Tomio Aoki, Chouko Iida, Hideo Mitsui, Takeshi Sakamoto, Reiko Tani
Cinematography Hideo Shigehara
Film Editor Hideo Shigehara
Written by Tadao Ikeda from a novel by Yasujiro Ozu
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Floating Weeds
1959 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 119 min. / Ukigusa
Starring Ganjiro Nakamura, Takeshi Sakamoto, Chouko Lida, Machiko Kyo, Ayako Wakao, Hiroshi Kawaguchi, Haruko Sugimura
Cinematography Kazuo Miyagawa
Art Direction Tomoo Shimogawara
Film Editor Toyo Suzuki
Original Music Kojun Saito
Written by Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu
Produced by Masaichi Nagata
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Criterion brings us a double-dose of the remarkable Yasujiro Ozu, a Japanese film artist respected as highly as Akira Kurosawa. Their previous disc of Tokyo Story was an eye-opener to a new style; this deluxe set gives us Ozu's two versions of Floating Weeds, a deceptively simple tale set among some traveling actors in a small town.

Synopsis (for both versions):

A wandering theatrical artisan (Kihachi, played by Takeshi Sakamoto / Komajuro, played by Ganjiro Nakamura) brings his troupe to a small town. His mistress the leading actress slowly discovers where her master goes every day: he has a wife of many years (Otsune, played by Chouko Lida / Oyoshi, played by Haruko Sugimura) and an almost grown son who thinks that his visitor is an uncle. To exact her revenge, the mistress encourages the troupe's playful ingenue to seduce the "perfect" son.

Yasujiro Ozu isn't well known in the American mainstream of casual film fans, and his unique style isn't easy to describe in words. Along with the Tokyo Story release, the Floating Weeds x 2 DVD gives a much better introduction to him than could anything in print alone. The set comes with a lengthy liner note essay, and each feature has an absorbing expert commentary.

A Story of Floating Weeds is a character study about itinerant performers, people who live on the fringe of Japanese society. They never put down roots, like weeds in the rivers. Ozu wrote the simple story himself. His distinctive style sets his movies apart.

This first version is a silent film from 1934 - the Japanese were still making them then - but the film has few signifiers that identify exactly when the story takes place. In both versions we see mainly older towns with little to identify a specific decade - a bicycle and a train are the only major technology in sight.

The traveling troupe hits town with a minimum impact and we soon find out that their tired old show isn't doing well. The star Kihachi spends all his afternoons with his secret son playing games and fishing, until his mistress stirs up trouble. The understudy sent to "spoil" the son succeeds in her seduction but falls in love. It's a very delicate soap-opera situation handled with extreme finesse. We aren't worried so much for Kihachi as we are for his long-suffering wife Otsune, who has lived a sorry life pretending that her husband is dead. Their boy is an idealized youth (almost ready for conscription, Kihachi beams - Japan has invaded China by this time) and Kihachi considers everything about the theater to be unworthy of him. Yes, Kihachi's mistress acts destructively, but all that happens is his own doing.

Ozu's style is almost transparent. His camera doesn't move, yet scenes are neither static nor forced. He cuts quite frequently, but his compositions are so logical and exact that we don't feel manipulated or claustrophobic. He uses only cuts throughout - clean, simple cuts, even in the titles. Scenes end with views of empty rooms or streets, short buffer shots that might move us ahead a few hours or maybe a few weeks. There are plenty of silent intertitles, but they're unlike those of an American silent film - they carry no exposition, just normal dialogue.

Relationships are created naturally. There's a young boy in the troupe and Ozu often seems to be comparing his situation with Kihachi's love for his son. There are melodramatic clashes - the mistress tries to confront Otsune, and the son has to defend his new love from Kihachi's wrath - but none of these resolve in dramatic terms. Things change, and there's hope for the future, but nothing is resolved.

The 1959 remake Floating Weeds appears on disc 2. It's almost a scene-for-scene copy and is still in the 1:37 flat aspect ratio, even though much of Japanese filmmaking had converted to 'Scope two years earlier. The big change is from B&W to color. Ozu adds touches of color to his remarkable compositional designs, enlivening otherwise naturalistic scenes. One striking color theme is a dash of red somewhere in almost every shot.

Twenty five years have passed but the story remains basically unchanged. The town is by the sea instead of in the mountains and the troupe suffers through heat waves as well as torrential rains. Although the role of the small boy-actor is diminished there's a lot more detail in the theater, and we see glimpses of the brightly-colored performances on stage. The two actresses kneeling before their makeup mirrors in their kimono costumes are a blaze of color. That illusion is offset when one of the "geishas" lights up a cigarette like a bored barmaid.

The drama seems more complex in version two. The actor, now called Komajuro, is just as vain but seems at least a little more reasonable. His common-law wife Oyoshi is played even more sympathetically by Haruko Sugimura (she was the rather nasty relative in Tokyo Story). We identify more than ever with her suffering, even though she shows less pain than did her previous counterpart. This time around the son is a strapping youth who wants to go to college. He seems ready to stand up to his father and make serious decisions for himself. The story is marginally less tragic and the melodrama is pitched a bit lower.

The picture has a wider variety of tone; there are humorous bits where the show's three actors try to pick up girls. One gets fresh with a barbershop girl and is given a rough shave by her mother - it's actually pretty funny.

Ozu's sparse storytelling and lack of bombast and hype only make the emotions and problems of the characters more interesting. The absence of slick production values aids instead than hinders our interest. It's a great style.

The only impediment to enjoying these dramas is their slow, unforced pace. Modern viewers are having more and more difficulty staying focused on movies that aren't a series of emphatic jolts. The calming tone felt here and the slower than normal pace will be a challenge to some.

Criterion's DVD of A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds doesn't have docus or supporting video material beyond trailers, but it does have two beautifully restored feature presentations. The B&W silent feature is sharp and free of most damage. A new music score by Donald Sosin fits very nicely. Film scholar Donald Richie provides new subtitles for both films, liner notes, and a careful commentary for the silent picture. He points out every detail with his exacting speech patterns, and helps link the actors and Ozu to other shows and movements within Japanese cinema. It's rather amusing when he switches from some learned observation to tell us that Kihachi is "scratching his butt." Academia has become more practical.

The 1959 Floating Weeds has breathtaking restored color and practically jumps off the screen. The soundtrack is clean and pure, highlighting Kojun Saito's interesting score. Even the last shot of a dark train receding against a dark sky looks perfect.

Roger Ebert provides the commentary for this feature, and for the most part he really knows his stuff, relating almost as much Ozu info as does Richie. Both of them talk a mite too much about Ozu's ubiquitous low camera angles, but Ebert brings up the second film's odd theme of bottles - they start showing up everywhere as part of the decor, like the Arthur plant in old Mad Magazine cartoons. They never intrude until they're pointed out, after which we feel like we're in Ebert's film class, jumping to see when the next bottle will appear. He doesn't venture a rationale for the invasion of the bottles, and it's not missed.

The artwork for the package top is the ad-flyer distributed by the little acting troupe in the 1959 remake.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Story of Floating Weeds (1934) & Floating Weeds (1959) rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by film historian Donald Richie, New score by composer Donald Sosin, Audio commentary by Roger Ebert, essay by Donald Richie
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 14, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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