At one point in Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s The Only Son, a young man takes his mother to the movies to see a “talkie”; the son is practically vibrating with excitement, but his mom’s response to the feature is to doze off in boredom. It is a sly in-joke on the part of Ozu, who resisted the transition to sound filmmaking as long as he could — The Only Son, his first sound feature, was released in the relatively late year of 1936 after Ozu had already established himself as a director of more than 30 silent films. In spite of Ozu’s reluctance to make the transition, he mastered the art of the talkie almost immediately. The Only Son was no apprentice work; it is a fully formed masterpiece that established the template for nearly all of Ozu’s subsequent work.
The film tells the story of Otsune, a widow who sacrifices to give her son, Ryosuke, a good education. By the time Ryosuke grows up, Japan’s economy has transformed to the extent a degree no longer means upward mobility, and both Otsune and Ryosuke must deal with the crushing spiritual effects of diminished expectations. The themes of sacrifice and struggle are further developed in a film Ozu would direct six years later, There Was a Father, this time through the story of a single dad whose attempts to care for his son impose geographical and emotional distance between them. Both of these early gems have been extremely difficult to see in America for many years, but, thankfully, the Criterion Collection has made them available as part of a boxed set that is a worthy addition to the company’s continually growing catalog of Ozu special editions.
Viewed together, The Only Son and There Was a Father are fascinating both on their own terms and as landmarks in Ozu’s development as a storyteller. Both films contain rich explorations of the issues that would obsess the director throughout the rest of his career: the complexity of interactions between parents and children, the passage of time and the sense of loss and resignation that accompanies it and an appreciation of life’s small pleasures despite its larger disappointments. Yet The Only Son and There Was a Father also feature elements that would drop away from Ozu’s movies as he aged and became more successful — both pictures, for example, are uniquely concerned with economic and societal issues and the impact money (or, more precisely, its absence) has on families. Although Ozu would steadily strip down and purify his vision in subsequent features to focus almost exclusively on interpersonal conflicts, at this point in his career he weds his personal concerns to a broader sociopolitical context.
Ozu’s depiction of a Japan in financial crisis in The Only Son is emphasized by stark images, courtesy of cinematographer Shojiro Sugimoto, an Ozu collaborator brought over from the silent era (He photographed the director’s classic Passing Fancy); shooting the characters amidst factories, tenements and trash-strewn landscapes, Sugimoto presents a bleaker world than the one that would become familiar in the more visually inviting Ozu movies of the 1950s and 1960s. There Was a Father is photographed by Yuharu Atsuta, who would go on to shoot many of Ozu’s greatest films, including Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon.
Like The Only Son, There Was a Father follows characters whose lives are dictated by economic and professional determinants, but the wartime setting adds a greater political dimension. Atsuta responds to the script’s idealized message of patriotic sacrifice with lyrical sequences that retain the bittersweet quality of The Only Son but infuse it with greater visual poetry; a pair of matching scenes in which father and son go fishing together simply but elegantly convey the profound connection — and slight discordance — between the two men.
Unfortunately, a full appreciation of Ozu, Sugimoto and Atsuta’s visual elegance in these films is not really possible because the original 35mm elements no longer exist. Working from 16mm positives, the good folks at Criterion have made a valiant effort to restore the films as fully as possible, but the rough condition of the materials is evident in the forms of scratches and splices, abnormal hisses and thumps on the soundtrack and chemical and mold stains throughout both movies. These are by far the best presentations of The Only Son and There Was a Father that you are likely to find, and given the films’ prior unavailability, they are more than satisfactory, but the image and sound are more uneven than what one usually finds on Criterion releases.
Thankfully, there are compensations in the form of superb extra features. Both discs feature 25-minute interviews with Ozu experts David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, who provide a crash course in the evolution of the director’s style and themes. The Only Son contains an additional 19-minute interview with scholar Tadao Sato, who contextualizes the film against the backdrop of Japanese history, and both movies come with booklets containing critical essays by esteemed critic Tony Rayns.
Like most of Ozu’s work, The Only Son and There Was a Father reward close study and repeated viewings, and the exemplary supplements included in this Criterion box are a terrific aid in such detailed analysis.