Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu is probably best known for his haunting Tokyo Story (1953), but it is Floating Weeds (1959) that best demonstrates his mastery of minimalist construction. Each shot is so perfectly calibrated, so exquisitely framed, as to present nothing so much as a series of dreamily gorgeous images. Indeed, filmed in rich colour by Kazuo Miyagawa, another undisputed master of the craft, Floating Weeds is one of those endlessly didactic feats of technique and method that make film students and aficionados alike stir with excitement. Most everyone else, however, will tend to find it overwrought, slow-moving, and melodramatic in the extreme.
This is the classic problem with Ozu – and is the undercurrent running through the frequent criticism that his films are “too Japanese” for western audiences. (This film, for example, wasn’t released in the US until 1970, held back for precisely this concern.) It’s also probably the reason why his films have failed to gain much of a foothold outside of the art house community. As a film fanatic with one foot firmly planted in each camp, I must confess to having watched Floating Weeds while experiencing two distinct and contradictory, yet concurrent, reactions: I was both mesmerized and bored.
The story of a travelling theatre troupe as it comes to a small seaside village for what will become its final series of poorly-attended shows, Floating Weeds is about endings, the irresolvable past, the folly of revisiting old experiences and, in keeping with Ozu’s favourite theme, the fragmentation of the family. The troupe is an anachronism, their performances over-wrought and painfully unrealistic; the audiences are more interested in tossing things at the stage than paying attention to the material.
Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to all, the troupe’s master has brought them to this particular backwater because his one-time mistress and illegitimate son live here. Their rekindling is, probably, his primary motivation, since the troupe is clearly not going to make enough money here to survive. As his other lover, a fellow actor in the troupe, discovers the secret, and as the master’s son falls in love with one of the younger actors in the troupe (of whom he does not approve), all becomes complicated. When it comes time for the troupe to fold its tent, choices will have to be made, and lovers will have to part.
Relying on this bare-bones plot, a quietly simmering atmosphere of emotional tension, sketchily-drawn characters, and a (perhaps “too-Japanese”) lack of meaningful dialogue, Floating Weeds emphasizes the intimate moment, the significant gesture, and the pregnant silence. While one might find this to be tiresome – and, at 117-minutes, not exactly briskly presented – one cannot deny the power of the film to create grand moments out of commonplace scenes.
Much of this power, undoubtedly, comes from the intensity of the visual experience that accompanies these moments. Ozu’s framing is, apart from one solitary moving camera early on in the film, as static as a holiday snap. Scenes rely on the symmetry of paper walls, the accents of artfully-placed splashes of red (a flower, a sign, an umbrella, a lantern, a towel), the height of the actors relative to the space in which they stand, easily as much as they rely on the dialogue that carries them.
The camera is frequently at knee level; the distance between actors is implied by the placing of objects in between them as they engage each other. The most memorable scene in the film, and arguably the most beautiful scene in Ozu’s oeuvre, finds two jilted lovers arguing from either side of a thin alleyway, each of them under opposing awnings, as a glistening wall of pouring rain separates them from one another.
Floating Weeds is actually a remake of Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), and shares much with its predecessor. (The title refers to the Japanese term for travelling actors/artists/musicians, as well as to a Zen metaphor for submission to the flow: “Floating weeds, drifting down the leisurely river of our lives”, for example.) The original 2004 Criterion Collection release packaged both of these films together – a quite appropriate and fascinating way to experience them. However, in keeping with its practice, this “Essential Art House” edition dispenses with both the earlier version and the extras, leaving one to search the internet for context and information on the 1959 version, and to head out to the local video shop for a peek at the gorgeous first draft. In other words, if you can foot the big bill, find the original Criterion release.