Title: There Was a Father (Chichi ariki)
Release Date: 1942
Length: 94 minutes
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Starring: Chishu Ryu, Shuji Sano, Shin Saburi
In perfect honesty, this mid-war film does not show Ozu at his very best. The heavy hand of national propaganda can be clearly felt overpowering his characteristic light touch at several points in the film. Regardless, Ozu is always a cut above the madding crowd and this turn by Ryu is particularly impressive since he manages to convey a man who ages 30ish years over the course of the film with very little in the way of makeup.
Ryu is the eponymous father who, at the first, is a junior high teacher. The movie begins with him and several other teachers taking the students from their boys’ school on a class trip to a lake in the mountains. Shortly after their arrival, one of the students goes out in the evening on a boat in defiance of the rules and ends up drowned. Devastated, Ryu resigns over the protestations of his colleagues who insist he was not at fault. Indeed, he seems to be unduly wracked with guilt; the boy’s own parents don’t think him in any way negligent.
Nevertheless, Ryu believes he should have done more and been able somehow to prevent what happened. He quits his job swearing to never take responsibility for anyone else’s children again.
He must still raise his own son; all the more since he is a widower. Having quit one job, he ends up forced to take work in far-off Tokyo in order to pay his son’s tuition and board at school. They had initially moved back to the father’s small, rural hometown together, but now that he must leave for work his son is devastated at his father’s departure.Despite this, his son resolves to be stoic in the way his father is and encourages in his son.
As time passes, circumstances and the father’s devotion to hard work and duty keep them apart. I’ll avoid spoiling the end, but I suspect that Ozu was working hard to subvert the clear propaganda inserted in his movie about duty, work, and sacrifice. In the end it is clear that by overreacting to a perceived lapse costing the life of one boy the father ends up sacrificing his own son in a slower, more drawn out manner. What effect will this have on his son?
Ozu uses his camera to make magnificent visual compositions. His keen eye and relaxed pace bring out the beauty of Japan in nearly every scene. And his universal themes and deft treatment of how families love and live transcend time, space, and culture. His movies are as fresh and accessible as the day they were released, even to an American halfway around the world nearly 80 years later.