Schoolboys on strike, farting contests, and a mysteriously acquired washer make up the world of this Japanese classic
Of the three great directors of classical Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) remains the least known and appreciated in the West. Mizoguchi has several textbook classics (Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, The Life of Oharu), while Kurosawa, whose career lasted the longest, tapped themes of loyalty and honor in a body of work that was both widely seen and highly influential outside his native country. Much of the oeuvre of both Mizoguchi and Kurosawa is based on historical subjects with a broad canvas, and both men are noted for their bravura visual style. Conversely, Ozu, considered the most “Japanese” of the three, dealt almost entirely with contemporary settings and themes. And his visual style is a triumph of minimalism, his camera typically positioned about three feet above the ground and rarely (in some films never) moving.
Ozu’s reputation rests largely on a series of austere, quietly wrenching shomin-geki, domestic dramas (Tokyo Story, Late Spring) about the lives of average working-class people. Typically, these center on parent-child conflicts, which often work themselves out to the benefit of neither. Good Morning (1959) abandons some of the more tragic aspects of the genre for a witty and good-hearted look at a different kind of intergenerational problem.
The film is set in a tidy Tokyo neighborhood of close-quartered homes where everyone runs in and out of each other’s houses and pries into each other’s business. Minoru (Koji Shidara) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) are schoolboy brothers, 13 and 7 respectively, obsessed with sumo wrestling, which they watch religiously on a neighbor’s TV. Eventually they want a set of their own and when their parents refuse, they take a vow of silence not only at home but in school. Ozu interweaves, and eventually connects in very witty ways, a parallel plot about the possible theft of the local women’s club dues by the treasurer, Mrs. Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura), who, suspiciously, has just purchased an expensive new washing machine.
Good Morning neatly dovetails these two plots when the boys refuse to say good morning to the neighbors. This happens after the alleged theft of dues is cleared up (Mrs. Haraguchi’s mother forgot to give the money to her). The boys’ apparent snubbing is interpreted as an extension of their mother’s secret anger over the incident (which is far from true), and Mrs. Haraguchi’s spreading of this gossip triggers some of the film’s cleverest dialogue. One distraught neighbor says, “Our cat stole her dried fish. Should I return it?” Ozu is at his best in observing the progress of rumor into seeming certainty, and showing the viewer the endless comic complications that ensue from simple misunderstandings in a society that values good manners over truth.
One reason why the film did not find wide distribution in the West may be its pervasive flatulence motif. Isamu and Minoru’s other interest, besides sumo wrestling, is farting. They play a typical childhood game, which Ozu records with detached amusement, where one boy presses on another’s forehead to produce a fart. The director has been criticized for dragging out his jokes, and this one certainly qualifies for the criticism. But Ozu manages to give it a larger significance by contrasting this silly, “childish” activity with the banal conversation and foolish concerns of the adults. The film’s title “Good Morning” is a reference to the over-politeness and humdrum exchanges that the adults engage in consistently in Japanese culture, and which aggravate the boys no end. Ozu seems as delighted with the boys’ flatulence as they are, and more so than he is with the adults’ backbiting and boring “polite” conversations – for example a protracted chat about the weather between the boys’ aunt and a teacher secretly in love with her. The endless talk about what a nice day it is acts ultimately to cover and deny true human feelings, much more so than the farts, which are treated as both authentic and amusing.
The Japan portrayed here is being subtly, perhaps irrevocably, encroached upon by Western culture. Salesmen creep in and out of doorways with an array of American convenience products; a poster for The Defiant Ones (significant title) graces the wall of the only hip couple in the housing development, the ones who have the TV set where all the kids congregate to watch sumo wrestling. And in a bar sequence, one of the characters says “Someone said TV would produce 100 million idiots!” but the context in which it’s said portends that the process of consumerism American style – television, washing machines – is inevitable.
Stylistically, this is one of Ozu’s simpler films, but it’s as resonant in its own quiet way as his better-known work. Shot in a muted Technicolor (which looks great in the DVD’s mostly flawless transfer from a 35mm print), Good Morning has the look of an old Kodak photograph, with soft pastels predominating. The score is appropriately whimsical with one surprising, perhaps unique innovation: the boys’ farts are rendered not realistically but musically! And Ozu’s camera is typically neutral, his vision steady and unvarying as he records the comings and goings of neighbors, the boys’ hissy fits and farting contests, the subtle bickering of the women. Ozu has been criticized in some quarters as too conservative, endorsing the values of excessive courtesy and repression that afflict his characters. But Good Morning, at least, makes it clear which side he stands on. In endorsing the boys and their seemingly childish behavior, he shows that while human values can change, human nature remains happily consistent, with all its flaws.