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I Was Born, But...

Yasujirō Ozu's 1932 silent comedy I Was Born, But... is still entertaining today. (Japanese: 大人の見る絵本生れてはみたけれど) One of Ozu's earliest surviving films, it zeroes in on two brothers who, with their parents, have moved from Tokyo to a relatively backward neighborhood in the suburbs. Fearing a beating from a gang of bullies, the boys play hooky from school. The chief bully claims that eating sparrow eggs toughens you up, so there's a black market trade of sorts among the school kids for these tiny mottled ovals. When the brothers get their hands on one, their confidence gets a boost. Meanwhile, their father (played by Tatsuo Saitō) gets wind of their truancy and forces them into school. During their absence, however, the brothers have had plenty of time to mull over a few things, not least their father's social role and standing among colleagues and superiors. At a friend's house they gather with some other kids and parents to watch a series of short films (an incredible sequence here—short silent films within a silent film!) one of which is of their father playing a fool for the sake of giving his boss a chuckle. The boys are humiliated. How dare he kowtow and debase himself to the higher-ups! It's their dad, after all. Until now they've never doubted he's anyone less than the most important man in the world. After they throw a tantrum, he tries to explain, simply, that his boss is in a position different from his own. But this doesn't satisfy the boys, who decide to go on a hunger strike in protest.

Ozu is brilliant at family stories. And two techniques he uses to welcome us into them are the low-angle shots (or "tatami shots") he's famous for and his shooting of actors straight on, giving us a sense we're kind of spectrally (but immobile) a part of the action. I Was Born, But... was made more than twenty years before Ozu's most celebrated film, Tokyo Story, though the style is distinctly Ozu, with the same charm that permeates his later works. Available on YouTube with English subtitles, it's just the right silent picture to be absorbed into at the end of a hectic day or on a drizzly Sunday afternoon.


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