”Floating Weeds” or ”Ukigusa”, as it is called in Japanese, is the last movie for me from 1959 and indeed from the fifties. This is a milestone for me and “Floating Weeds” seem to be the perfect movie for the occasion.
“Floating Weeds” was part of a series of movies Yasujiro Ozu directed as remakes of his older production. I do not know his personal motivation for these remakes, but it is reasonable to think that with the advances in filmmaking and his own improved skill he could improve these older movies. The result, in the case of “Floating Weeds”, is a visual marvel and an exercise in the directorial restraint of a master. In that sense it also represents the maturation the film industry was going through in this period and I cannot think of a more beautiful way to end the fifties.
The story is that of a troupe of kabuki actors’ visit to a small seaside town in Japan. The troupe is led by Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) and it is soon clear that although this is not a particularly glamorous troupe it is used to bigger places than this town. The shows cannot attract more than a few people and in the boiling summer heat a lethargic feel soon falls over the literally stranded troupe.
The reason for the visit and layover is that Komajuro has a secret child with an old flame here. The boy (Hiroshi Kawaguchi as Kiyoshi) has no idea Komajuro is his father but thinks he is his uncle, coming by to visit from time to time. This is a crucial time for Kiyoshi, he is about to leave for college and that means leaving his mother, Oyoshi (Haruki Sugimura) alone. Something Komajuro, who still have warm feelings for her, is against. But how to instill paternal authority when you are just an uncle?
In the troupe Sumiko (Machiko Kyo) considers herself Komajuro’s mistress. She is disturbed by Komijuro’s secretive activities and when she finds out he is visiting his old flame she is devoured by jealousy and talk the younger actress Kayo (Ayako Wakao) into seducing Kiyoshi as revenge. As this play out we have a meltdown in the making, culminating when Kiyoshi and Kayo fall in love and elope.
The story here is not a big one, but it is also not central to the movie. Instead it is a movie about human dynamics, especially between generations, and it is in the interactions of the characters that we find the heart of this movie. Komajuro is a very nuanced character. He can be grandfatherly gentle and generous, calm and humble to his friends, but also a choleric despot when crossed. He does not take nicely to Sumiko’s shenanigans and his attempts at paternal authority does not become him. Obviously he is afraid that Kiyoshi will repeat the affair he and Oyoshi had with pains and regrets that entails, but he is also completely deaf to the wishes and dreams of Kiyoshi and this tone deafness puts him at risk at being parked in the periphery, essentially becoming irrelevant.
There are parts of “Floating Weeds” that play out as a comedy. These are for me the weakest parts and exemplify how difficult it is to communicate humor across cultures. A Japanese audience is likely to have a lot of fun here, but on me it is largely wasted. The appearance of a happy, French tune as the Kabuki troupe’s theme also threw me. What on Earth was that?
I also struggle with some of the cultural differences in the family and generation dynamics, but I do get the gist of it and as the drama develops I do get involved in the characters and for me the second half is therefore much stronger than the first half.
The acting and the cinematography however are the real stars for me. Wow, that is just amazing! Ozu build up scenes with a slow and deliberate pace and uses his famous static camera to full effect. Pictures are often beautifully framed and more often than not you could print a still and hang it as a poster. The result is sweet melancholy that penetrates the entire movie, one of calm, apathetic decline, like the first falling leaves in September. We see it in the faces and manners of the characters and their longings are their driving force, whether it is for acceptance, love, fame or peace. They all have something they want, but cannot get and that translate very well across cultures.
“Floating Weeds” is almost more a state of mind than a drama and one I am happy to have experienced. I want to watch some more of Ozu’s stuff even if it is not on the List. If “Tokyo Story” and “Floating Weeds” are representative of his work the List could have included more than just these two.