Review: Floating Weeds (1959)

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Floating Weeds is a remake of 1934’s A Story of Floating Weeds.  Both films are by the late, great Yasujiro Ozu but the earlier work is a black and white silent picture while the one I’m looking at today is in brilliant color with a full soundtrack.  It’s easy to imagine why Ozu, who famously obsessed over details, would enjoy reworking his previous films from time to time.

The story is the stuff of soap operas.  A ragtag, travelling kabuki theatre troupe lands in a quiet coastal village and slowly falls apart due to financial, personal, and artistic bankruptcy.  We get to see a few bits of their performances and they are most definitely bad, but not comically so.  Ozu doesn’t want to make fun of them.  Instead, he uses their melodramatic plight to comment on the problems most of us live with day in and day out.  The story is engaging as a story, but the characters never elicited much emotionally from me.  I imagine that’s due to Ozu’s own lack of emphasis on the emotional content of the film.  He neither accents nor hides that content, allowing it to exist (or not) for each viewer.  Unlike most directors in the post-Joseph Campbell Hollywood, Ozu is content to let the audience members make up their own minds about how they feel about the characters and story he’s presenting.  In Floating Weeds, he doesn’t move the camera at all.

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I appreciate Ozu’s ability to create gorgeous compositions, eschewing even continuity in favor of well-designed images, but I actually like emotional content and there’s very little to be had here.  I enjoyed meeting these characters and seeing them struggle with their problems but I also felt like something was missing.  Part of that is due to Ozu’s detachment (the same reason why I dislike Kubrick) and part of it is due to my own modern expectations.  As I’ve said before, I rarely enjoy films made in the 1950’s, be they from Japan or Hollywood.   I dislike the artificial distance that is often imposed between the characters and the audience.

Despite Ozu’s obvious talent for creating interesting images, one of his choices in this film drove me absolutely crazy.  He frequently cut to medium one-shots of an actor and had them speak directly to the camera.  He then cut to the other speaker and did the same to them.  Back and forth and back and forth until I felt sorry for the poor actors who had to try in vain to make these ridiculous shots work.  I hated this device because it removed me from the flow of the story every single time Ozu used it.

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The music choices also contributed to my less than enthusiastic response to the picture.  Composer Takanobu Saito copies from 50s American and French film scores and contributes nothing Japanese to a story that is very Japanese.  Again, it could be my modern ear that is at fault, since these music cues would be familiar to most people who would have watched this during its initial release, but I hated the score.  It repeatedly pulled me away from the story and even made me cringe a time or two.

I feel moved to mention the violence the leader, or master, of the troupe inflicts upon women and even his own son in the movie.  It’s a little shocking from today’s perspective.  It seemed to me that it could have been included to illustrate the master’s personal descent, but it could just as well have been a reflection of the values of Japan circa 1959.  Either way, it comes across as inordinately cruel.

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There is one very compelling reason to watch Floating Weeds, and I have to admit that it’s one of the things that drew me to this film.  It features one of the most beautiful actresses to ever grace the Japanese cinema screen, Ayako Wakao.  I think of her as the Japanese Audrey Hepburn.  She’s been in 113 films, nine of which were shot the same year as Floating Weeds, and is still working despite the fact that she’ll be turning 80 later this year.

I would argue that while The Floating Weeds is the work of an important director and a great film to study for its shot composition, it falls short of being a masterpiece.  I recommend it for Japanese film fans because it’s one of the few color films that Ozu made.  The story is interesting enough and the images compelling, just don’t expect to get swept away.

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