Yasujiro Ozu’s films are simple, but the waters run deep: concerned with the tragic and unremarkable quality of everyday life, but observed passively and with serenity. This detachment and authenticity mean that how you respond to a film like There Was A Father depends entirely on your real-life perspective on the issues it depicts. Messaging is essentially a non-issue, even as Ozu works with subjects that play a greater role in our lives than the high stakes of most Hollywood films; family, work, dissatisfaction.
There Was A Father begins with one of the best opening passages in Ozu’s filmography. The titular widowed father teaches mathematics at a middle-school attended by his young son. He is a good teacher, well-liked and committed. He takes his class on an outing, visiting several shrines in Tokyo. The class stops off at an inn beside a lake, their umbrellas stacked along a hall outside. The father notices a boat on the water, though he trusts that none of his students occupy it; he’s warned them from doing so. The dingy capsizes offscreen. Everyone rushes out, and a single umbrella tumbles over. And then a funeral.
The Father, despite reassurances, blames himself for not being stern enough with the class. He leaves teaching and enrolls his son in a provincial boarding school. Unable to find work nearby, the father searches in the cities, and the two begin to see less and less of each other. The values at play are loaded, and consider the year of release: 1942. There Was A Father was passed by Japanese wartime censors as patriotic enough to warrant release. They felt that the film depicted the necessity and privilege of putting aside personal concerns in the face of a nobler duty. Prioritizing your worth to the future of the nation above that of your family. ‘Father’ knows best. And yet, following the U.S. occupation, There Was A Father was approved by the American board of censors as well (with cuts removing references to the war). How could the same film be considered beneficial to wartime morale, and acceptable under a watchful western occupation?
Ozu’s film is either a story about the necessary sacrifices we must make for the greater good, or a depiction of the little deaths people undertake in the name of false duty. Regardless of which perspective audiences felt the film favored, the director was too wise to see the demands of life as anything other than sorrowful. In a moment of his favored synchronous motion, the father and son stand beside each other in a small brook, pant-legs rolled up, fishing rods in hand, facing away from us. They cast their lines into the stone dappled stream, allowing their lures to drift away before tugging them upstream again. The poles wave back and forth, back and forth. Father tells son that he’s looking for work in faraway Tokyo, so they’ll be seeing even less of each other than they already are. Back and forth, back and forth, till the boy pauses. They grow out of sync.
Today, the father seems fairly inadequate, if well-meaning. Though he “wasn’t stern enough” with his students, he won’t make the same mistake twice. He steers his son into education, and so what was his duty becomes his child’s burden. All the same, now grown up, he seems to like teaching chemistry well enough, but wants to leave his position and move to Tokyo to join his old man, who has been absent for so much of his life. The Father is having none of it, pressuring his son to be steadfast; “It’s out of the question. We both have our jobs. No matter what your job is, it’s your calling in life. We must do it to the best of our abilities, there’s no room for personal feelings”.
In a later scene, the father is invited to a reunion, where his former pupils revere him and his positive influence. In 1942, this may have played as man seeing the fruits of his labor in the happy, functioning family-men his students had become (his dedication, although left truncated, was indeed of value). Now though, you might read the scene as a sign that his work was of value, and that his abandoning it for an ideal (not accepting his fallibility, being unable to move forward) seems to have robbed him of a lifetime of fulfillment, of seeing them grow and flourish, just as he’s squandered that same chance with his own son.
These days you’d be hard pressed to find someone who thinks the film is championing this man’s actions. It’s a ‘tough-love’ that’s been under scrutiny for a long time. At one point early on, the father explicitly tells his weeping child; “Men don’t cry”. The climactic pay-off to this line doesn’t give you much of a choice in the matter.
Ozu’s style is labelled with a lot of lofty adjectives; peaceful, serene, precise, delicate, sometimes playful, always kind. For today’s purposes, if we take away value judgement, another good descriptor would be measured. Measured, in his unwavering filmmaking language and in his treatment of his subject; the aforementioned passive observation (even as he places you between the eyeline of conversing characters, you remain at a remove, however emotionally involved). We know his characters intimately, but only we are privy to the melancholy of seeing the big picture. The films never favour any one perspective, regardless of what the censors might have believed. Most often he depicts the tragedy of good intentions; people wanting only the best for one another, dooming themselves to unhappiness. It’s a rare effect: when a child realizes that they will never be as close to their parent as they had wanted, or a young woman is married off to a stranger away from her family and youth out of obligation, you don’t simply empathize; you grieve for the life left behind or left unlived. Or at least, that’s one way to read them. Ozu may well have found all that a touch dramatic.