Bright Lights Film Journal

The Taste of Greasepaint: On Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel and Ozu’s Floating Weeds

Ozu's Floating Weeds

The Bergman film is much darker, and examines – with sadistic, Strindbergian zeal – the cruelties that men and women inflict on one other when love is distorted by power. The Ozu film is deceptively comic, and looks at how utterly lost men and women become when their families disintegrate. But the odd resemblance between the films remains intriguing.

Comparing apples and oranges isn’t an edifying exercise, but sometimes it can lead to illuminations that the consideration of every apple and orange in isolation might’ve overlooked. In the 1950s, Ingmar Bergman and Yasujiro Ozu, artists separated by more than just geography, each made a film that resembles the other so closely that it’s surprising no one has noticed the resemblance. Bergman’s film, Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas Afton, or The Clown’s Evening, 1953) came first, inspired, according to Bergman himself, by the E. A. Dupont film Variety (1929). The Ozu film, Floating Weeds (Ukigusa, 1958), was a remake of one of his own silent films, The Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa Monogatari, 1932). So it’s unlikely that Ozu was even unconsciously imitating or mirroring Bergman’s film. And the two films are wholly representative of the work of their makers. The Bergman film is much darker, and examines – with sadistic, Strindbergian zeal – the cruelties that men and women inflict on one other when love is distorted by power. The Ozu film is deceptively comic, and looks at how utterly lost men and women become when their families disintegrate. But the odd resemblance between the films remains intriguing.

Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel

Made two years before Smiles of a Summer Night made Bergman famous, Sawdust and Tinsel is about Albert, owner of a traveling circus, and Anne, his much younger mistress. When the circus comes to a town in which Albert’s estranged wife Agda lives alone with their two young sons, Albert tries to convince Agda to take him back so that he can escape from his degrading and unfulfilling life. To his intense shock, Albert discovers that his wife is happy without him and that Anne, in the meantime, has been unfaithful to him with an actor from the local theater from whom the circus had hoped to borrow some costumes. When the actor comes to watch the circus that evening, a confrontation ensues in which Albert’s humiliation is complete. When the circus strikes its tents and departs the town the next day, Albert and Anne remain together.

In Ozu’s film, shot in color by Kazuo Miyagawa, a kabuki troupe arrives in a fishing village. Komajuro, the troupe’s manager, is anxious to visit his wife and his grown son, who live in the town and whom he hasn’t seen in several years. Heavily in debt and unable to pay his actors, Komajuro wants to retire from his itinerant life. He has a mistress in the kabuki troupe, Sumiko, who is aware of her precarious position and who takes her revenge by plotting with a younger woman to seduce Komajuro’s son. Disaster is averted when Komajuro decides that he has no right to expect his son to forgive him for his long years of absence and dissolves the kabuki troupe, taking back his mistress in time to leave the town with her by train.

The most significant difference between these two stories is that the man and woman are considerably older in Ozu’s film, and certainly part of their agreement to stay together derives from their fading looks and chances of finding anyone else as suitable. There is also the difference in the filmmakers’ ages to consider. Ozu was 55 and nearing the close of his long career. Bergman was 35 and virtually unknown. In Bergman’s film the sexual politics are immeasurably more prominent, and intense emotions are explored with a fearless power that makes the film startling to watch even now. Harriet Andersson, formerly Bergman’s mistress and all of 19 at the time, is a considerable sexual presence in the film. In the “seduction” scene, which earned the film the distribution title The Naked Night in the U.S., Andersson wears a girdle that forces her sizeable breasts nearly up to her chin. (And there is the highly erotic – for Americans anyway – exposure of Miss Andersson’s armpit hair.) The role of Sumiko in Ozu’s film is played by the stately but somewhat withered beauty Machiko Kyo – no tigress but still substantially feline.

Floating Weeds

Ozu’s film is classified as a “comedy,” because it has a happy ending. It doesn’t end with a funeral, as so many of Ozu’s films did, like Tokyo Story or An Autumn Afternoon (whose literal title is The Taste of Mackerrel). Ozu and his indefinable “Japaneseness” could give a film a title like The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice and expect his audience to know what he was getting at. Much has been made of Ozu’s use of an extreme low-angle camera position, as if it were anything more than a quite natural adjustment to characters who invariably sit on the floor, with or without tatami matting. Wim Wenders, in his haunting tribute to Ozu and his long-lost world, Tokyo-Ga, learned from Yushun Atsuta, Ozu’s cinematographer, that the angle is actually LOWER. Any other angle would have altered our perception of the characters and our sympathy for them.

Though Bergman himself marked the start of his maturity as an artist with Summer Interlude (Sommarlek) in 1951, Sawdust and Tinsel is his true debut. And what a beginning! After showing us the wagons of the circus trundling along in morning light, Bergman hurls the film into a flashback that is one of the most astounding masterstrokes of filmmaking. The circus’ clown, Frost, has to fetch his wife Magda from the ocean in which she is bathing, naked, with a regiment of soldiers. In stark black-and-white images, accompanied by a musical score by Karl-Birger Blomdahl, Frost struggles to carry his wife ashore, whilst covering her nakedness, only to find the jeering onlookers have hidden their clothes. Out of the water, Frost carries Magda, like Christ carrying his cross, up a stony hill under a blistering sun, only to collapse just short of the circus tent.

Sawdust and Tinsel

Of the two films, coming back to comparing the apple and the orange, I admire the Bergman film the more. Its picture of love as a sometimes terrifying ordeal comes closer, I’m afraid, to my own. From his stately, elegiac films, one can conclude two things, I think, about Ozu: he was Japanese, and he was never married. By the time of his death, Bergman had been married six times, and had had several torrid affairs with his actresses – including Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. From the evidence of his work, one might conclude an unrequited passion (too strong a word, perhaps) of Ozu for Sachiko Hara, the perpetually loving daughter from so many of his late films – Late Spring, Tokyo Story, et al. The fact that Hara never married either suggests that the feelings may have been mutual. But I loved the bit of business near the end of Floating Weeds in which Komajuro, angry at Sumiko’s interference with his son, and stubbornly reluctant to reconcile with her, is lighting a cigarette at the train station. With the cigarette between his lips, he fumbles in his kimono for a match. Sumiko comes over to him, lights one and holds it out to him, but he ignores her gesture for a few more moments, still searching his own pockets. Finally, after she lights a second match, he submits to her supplication. It is a moment of truth in a film filled with such moments.