No doubt, colour movies in Japan in the 1950s were a big and expensive deal. Looking back on a movie like Floating Weeds today, one wonders a bit why this movie needed to be in colour. It is a “small” movie in terms of action and spectacle; a slow-moving, intimate drama about the human interactions between a travelling theatre troupe and the small town they arrive to perform in. Yet, on looking into it, one finds that the colours are essential to telling the story and animating the setting; especially the shots of orange flowers which communicate that this place, where one of the actors once loved a woman and sired a son that he was too ashamed to acknowledge, is where his heart and his dreams belong.
The story is very, very simple. It is plain that the director cares very much for it; wants very much to get all its emotional nuances exactly right. Because this is actually his second try; the first version of the story was made in the 1934 silent movie, A Story of Floating Weeds. The second time is certainly the charm – it is difficult to imagine that this particular story could come across significantly better than it does here. The whole of its art is in the conveying of the emotions involved, and this is nothing short of masterfully done.
As mentioned above, we follow a theatre troupe – the “floating weeds” of the title – which returns to a small town where the Master Actor, Komajuro, sired an illegitimate son with a local woman. He has been back before, each time visiting the woman, and pretending to be the boy’s uncle. The son, Kiyoshi, is now about eighteen, and planning to go to college so he can transcend his social heritage and “be somebody”. At this point in time – 1950s Japan – theatre actors are considered so low-class as to be almost trash, virtually on the level of prostitutes (which indeed are the ranks that the female actors are drawn from). They mingle well with the people of the small town, however, because they, too, are poor and uneducated, but in a culture as proud and traditional and characterised by class divisions as ‘50s Japan, they are all burdened with abiding shame about their lowly social status, with some wanting desperately to break out of it, but they bear it because intense feelings of pride, social order and humility bid them to.
Komajuro is a man with big ambitions and bigger dreams, who always believes that things will look up for him very soon, and is deeply disappointed when they don’t. It is hinted that he started out as someone a bit higher up on the social ladder, but it seems he ended up as an actor when his previous life self-destructed in alcoholism. He was pulled out of his depression by a woman actress, Sumiko, whom he still has a relationship with when the troupe reaches the small town. She begins to suspect that Komajuro is seeing another woman when he visits his old flame and his “nephew”, and driven by jealousy she upsets the delicate balance of Komajuro’s familial deception. In the ensuing argument, the hurtful words fly fast and furious, and Komajuro lets his pride and prejudice get the better of him, telling Sumiko that his son is of a “higher race” than her, and is destined to “be somebody”. Enraged, Sumiko sets out to prove him wrong. She asks the attractive young actress of the troupe, who knows nothing of all the complications, to seduce the son, so that the son will fall in love with her and have his life’s prospects ruined by an actress, mirroring the relationship between Sumiko and Komajuro.
These actions are driven by strong and rash emotions which violate the characters’ own moral fiber, and are quickly regretted. The complications are made all the stronger by feelings of an ancient pride which makes many aspects of these actions and situations almost unbearably tragic for the characters, so that they are unable to take the tiny steps needed to rectify the situation. The exact nature of the end result is not made explicit, but ultimately it seems rather clear: sacrifice is necessary for social advancement, even if the price is personal unhappiness. I did mention that this is a Japanese movie, yes?
One of the most striking characters, to me, is Kiyoshi’s mother, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), who is not only the epitome of maternal self-sacrifice and tolerance, but also bears her abandonment by Komajuro with a patient sadness that makes your heart melt for her. In general, all the major characters are distinct and convincing; much more so than in your average mainstream drama.
At 119 minutes, it is a long movie, but it has many nuances and will reward appreciators of powerful drama. Floating Weeds is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on December 3. Apart from a trailer, there are no extras on the disc, but the image quality is very impressive.
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Cast: Ganjiro Nakamura, Machiko Kyo, Hiroshi Kawaguchi, Ayako Wakao, Haruko Sugimura, and others.
Runtime: 119 min.