Many people regard Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an aging playwright’s commentary on a life lived in and around the theatre.
Many people regard Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an aging playwright’s
commentary on a life lived in and around the theatre. While Floating Weeds may not have been Yasujiro Ozu’s last film, the fact that
it is a remake of a much earlier film about a company of jaded actors reaching
the end of their professional careers does suggest that this may have been
intended as a similar commentary upon a life devoted to the medium of film.
Floating Weeds opens on a poor
Japanese seaside town. Though certainly beautiful, the town has clearly seen
better days and the collage of pale blues and faded paintwork gracing the
screen speaks not only of decline but also of acceptance that greatness and
notoriety are now forever outside of the small town’s reach. Into this elegantly
muffled world come a series of eye-wateringly vibrant posters for a touring
theatre company. As the heavily made-up actors process their way through the
streets in an effort to drum up business for yet another show in a municipal
hall, we are struck not only by the humanity of the actors but also their
difference from the residents of the town; these are not visitors, these are
This is a film all about the
boundaries between worlds. The most obvious boundary is the one between the people
on the stage and the people in the audience but a more important one is that
between the world of the professional actor and the world of the respectable
citizen. This perceived boundary serves both to draw the actors together and
distance them from the world around them.
Ozu explores this distance by having
the aging troupe leader Komajuro (Ganjiro
Nakamura) entertain the possibility of settling down with a former mistress
(Haruko Sugimura) and recognising
their illegitimate son (Hiroshi
Kawaguchi). Upon noticing Komajuro’s dalliances with civilians, his current
mistress Sumiko (Machiko Kyo) flies
into a jealous rage and conspires to ruin her perceived rival’s family life.
Angry with the actress for interfering, angry with his son for falling prey to
her schemes and angry with himself for not really knowing what he wants, Komajuro
attempts to assert his position of leadership in both the family and the troupe
but the erosion of the boundary between citizen and actor has progressed so far
that his authority over both worlds is utterly compromised.
Much like Late Spring, Tokyo Story
and An Autumn Afternoon, Floating
Weeds is a beautifully slow and melancholic film that carefully explores the
confines of tiny emotional worlds only to step back and watch as these worlds
collide and annihilate each other in a cloud of compromise and regret. Usually
Ozu handles these tiny annihilations with perfect delicacy and absolute
clarity, eschewing the melodramatic confrontations of American cinema in favour
of intimately shot conversations in which the emotionally restrained characters
fight to conceal their disappointment behind awkward smiles, downwards glances
and mumbled apologies. However, regardless of how well Ozu’s characters hide
the emotions on their faces, the brilliance of Ozu’s storytelling ensures that
the audience knows exactly how sad they really feel.
Floating Weeds departs from Ozu’s
normal style by building the film around a series of melodramatic set pieces in
which the characters scream insults and throw themselves at each other in anger
and frustration. This radical departure from Ozu’s usual style is all the more
striking for the fact that the people doing the shouting are professional
actors and therefore highly skilled at hiding their true feelings behind
artifice and grease paint. Even more interesting is that, even though Ozu
breaks with convention by showing real human emotion, the true source of the
character’s behaviour is a lot less evident than it is in most of his films.
Given that Ozu was a lifelong bachelor,
who wound up sharing a grave with his own mother, it is tempting to see the
troupe leader as an emotional stand-in for the director himself. The film’s
finale sees the troupe leader retreat from the prospect of becoming a normal
person but, for all the anger and violence of this retreat, it is not in the
least bit clear whether the leader is relieved or saddened at the prospect of
going back on the road. Packed into a final, awkward smile and a welcome
cigarette his profound ambivalence towards the dishonest world of actors and a
world of normal people that was forever out of reach.
Released by Masters of Cinema along
with the usual booklet of goodies, Floating Weeds is absolutely magnificent on
Blu-ray. As in all of Ozu’s films, the shot composition is staggering and the
choice of colours and the way these colours help to tell the story of people
trapped between emotional worlds make this an absolute must for anyone wishing
to see one of the greats of world cinema look back over his life with an
uncomfortable combination of regret and relief.