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On Passing Gas and the Time in Yasujiro Ozu’s 'Good Morning'

Masahiko Shimazu and Kôji Shitara (IMDB)

Ozu’s Good Morning demonstrates that platitudes such as “hello” and “good morning” are not merely pleasantries, they are acts of reconnaissance.


Good Morning

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Cast: Kuniko Miyake, Haruko Sugimura, Shitara Koji
Distributor: Criterion Collection
Year: 1962
US Release Date: 2017-05-16

Social connection is vital to and yet grates against our personhood.
“Hello." “Good Morning." “How are you?" We say these things every day and hardly even realize we are doing so. These greetings are among the perfunctory rituals we execute as a form of social obligation. These are not content-rich speech acts. Indeed, they communicate or inquire after very little actual information. Even when we ask someone (especially someone we don't know intimately) “How are you?", we don't expect a truthful answer in great detail (“Well… I woke up late with a bit of a hangover and my cat scratched my arm while I was feeding her and I keep thinking about the fact that I have been alone for three years and why my neighbor only seems to like me when he's drunk and…."). People who provide detail in response to a merely polite question are judged to be inappropriately over-sharing, because the question “How are you?", like the statements “Hello" and “Good Morning", is meant to provide acknowledgment of the presence of the other person without stopping the flow of motion or progress through one's day.

And yet, it would probably be wrong to consider such minor social obligations to be completely otiose and superfluous -- and thus better eliminated. These sayings, endlessly repeated and yet somehow not rendered completely meaningless, do serve a function: they operate as social palliatives. A “palliative", strictly speaking, is a remedy that alleviates pain without actually addressing the underlying cause of that pain; that is, it's a remedy that's not a cure. It derives from the medieval Latin term palliare, which means “to cloak". A palliative covers a problem but does not remove it. This is not to negate the importance of the palliative -- some ills can't be cured; alleviation is the best we can do.

Now it might seem something of a stretch to insist that my utterance of “Hello" is meant, on some level, to alleviate pain without curing it, but that is precisely what I'm claiming. Social connection is vital to and yet grates against our personhood. Aristotle, in his Politics, claims that the human being is by nature a social animal. The person who by nature lives outside of society is, according to Aristotle, not a person at all, but rather an animal or a god. Central to our sociality is language. Nature provides nothing in vain, Aristotle avers, and the function of language is to communicate more than mere emotion or simple hierarchies (which is what he claims non-human animal communication involves). Human language is involved in making right judgment, to evaluate the just and the unjust, and to overcome the inherent separation involved in our individual desires, which, if unchecked, would become antisocial in nature.

This is part of a rather tricky distinction in Aristotle. Aristotle insists that Plato was wrong in attempting to create a homogenous state following the model of the family in the Republic. Aristotle particularly took issue with Plato's communitarian ideal of keeping all of the women and children in common -- so that no one could say of any of them that “this is my wife or my child alone" but rather everyone took care of everyone. Aristotle recognized this vision of universal concern as doomed to failure. Instead of caring deeply for my children, my lack of concern would be distributed to all -- the utopia of a homogenous love would quickly be displaced by a universality of indifference. Aristotle's larger point here is that a state, a community, is emphatically not simply an extended family and that this is not simply a realistic understanding of the world but rather that it's all to the good that a community differs from a family.

A family, according to Aristotle, threatens to stultify by being too homogenous. If the ultimate goal of the human being is to be as deeply enriched in knowledge and experience as possible (thus justifying our status as the rational animal), the best possible situation for us is not homogeneity but rather heterogeneity. We require difference in order to achieve our potential for the acquisition of knowledge and experience. Dealing with others as true others (and not just further extensions of ourselves) vouchsafes the greatest possible breadth of experiential input. This does not, of course, mean that dealing with others as others is in any way a simple affair. In fact, the depth and breadth of the experience of heterogeneity requires that it be difficult and often discomfiting. Hence, the role of language as a palliative.

Language serves to bridge the inevitable and undeniable gap between individuals upon which the heterogeneity of society is predicated. Seemingly otiose greetings are palliatives that alleviate (but cannot erase) the pain inherent in our separation from each other, the impossibility of ever fully knowing the other. Yet, if we sacrifice intimacy for richness of experience, that quest for social knowledge can easily tip over into prurient inquisitiveness. In short, our attempts to know other people quickly devolve into nosiness.

Yoshiko Kuga, Kôji Shitara, Masahiko Shimazu

This, it seems to me, is the point driven home in a hilarious manner that provokes deeper consideration in Yasujiro Ozu's film Good Morning (1962). The film examines the gossipy quotidian life in a small suburb of Tokyo and centers on the Hayashi family. The two young Hayashi boys, Minoru (Shitara Koji) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu), pal around with the other neighborhood boys, playing a game that involves one boy pushing on the forehead of another and the latter discharging a fart. In essence, their flatulence differs very little from the verbal discharges of “hello" from all of the adults in the film. It's a seemingly meaningless explosion of air that actually accomplishes far more than it would seem.

The farts, like the “hellos", are a signal of belonging, an attempt, on the one hand, to efface the separation among individuals (this is something we all do) while, on the other hand, reinforcing distinction (one boy, in particular, is “no good" at the game -- he continually defecates in his underwear instead of farting to the great disdain and confusion of his mother, who is unaware of the game but all too familiar with its results). To be “good at the game" is to have a certain familiarity with and a certain elan within the society of boys. The pure inconsequentiality of the flatulent gesture is precisely what makes it socially effective. Societal manners typically involve mastery over the niceties (the little “nothings") of interpersonal communication. The fart game serves this function while lampooning it -- the niceties here are substituted by vulgarities that are no less the expositing of air than the utterance of “hello".

While the boys ironize the rituals of social intercourse, the adults (as the social knowledge-seekers Aristotle claims we all are) distill every utterance and every gesture for insights into the personal lives of their neighbors. Some missing club dues and a new washing machine bring Mrs. Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura) under suspicion. Each neighbor sifts the available evidence (mostly public acts of greeting and social behavior along with the purchase of household goods) for clues to reveal the inner existences that are hidden behind social niceties. A young married couple who own a television and dress casually within the confines of their home incent further gossip and disdain. When the two boys demand that their parents purchase a television and take a vow of silence until their parent acquiesce, Mrs. Haraguchi assumes their refusal to return her greeting derives from instructions from their mother Tamiko (Kuniko Miyake).

The signals of a hidden inner life in this film are often thought to be registered by material possessions: a washing machine, a television. Such purchases are not mere conveniences to be enjoyed by their owners, they are taken by the neighbors to be indicators of the personalities, values, and worldviews of their owners. No matter how much one might pragmatically wish to simply cut down on housework through purchasing a washing machine (in full knowledge that the neighbors could also afford such a device should they wish to devote the money to it), the fact is that all consumption in this community is conspicuous. Consumption becomes a marker of the self in a community starving for knowledge but too seemingly polite to simply ask for it. In this sense, platitudes such as “hello" and “good morning" are not merely pleasantries, they are acts of reconnaissance.

What Ozu reveals in his characteristically subtle manner is that these platitudes maintain social cohesion through fomenting a certain amount of (mostly benign) social resentment. Gossiping about neighbor A with neighbor B serves several purposes all at once. On the one hand, you and B create a bond -- you share information and are tied together by the fact that you are sharing that information behind A's back. At the same time, you and B explore both the knowability and inscrutability of the other (here personified by A). By sharing gossip, you are assuming there is a truth to be told, but the fact that it is a furtive truth and that you are uncomfortable saying it in a more open forum suggests that your purchase on the truth may be rather slim. The other always eludes our grasp and this entices us to continually pursue knowledge of that other. Let's call this the horror of the Aristotelian social condition.

Furthermore, by gossiping with B, both you and B must realize that you are also possible (indeed, probable) subjects of gossip, the topics of conversation and inquiry. Gossiping demonstrates your own precarious situation within a society that builds a sense of reputation upon such seemingly insignificant social indicators and sources of information. This is, in part, why gossiping in this film and in life tends to drift into self-justification. I gossip with B about A not simply to expose the foibles of A but to declare what I see as right or wrong in the world and thus to declare my own moral standing (the assumption being that I would never do what A is currently doing). Again, this is the horror of the Aristotelian vision: if human language exercises the judgment of the just and the unjust and also serves as a means to foment union among the heterogeneous, the natural result is not so much philosophical discourse but rather, garden-variety gossip.

Ozu, however, seems to have, at least in one sense, a deeply anti-Aristotelian understanding of this social situation. For Aristotle, the point of the heterogeneity of society is that it drives us on to further experience and thus contributes to the dynamic development of human achievement. For Ozu, on the other hand, social platitudes and gossip prevent real change; our typical manner of social intercourse vouchsafes the continuation of our social models. By saying nothing very much at all (one character goes so far as to call such platitudes “indispensable" for adult interaction) we avoid saying what ought to be said. As meaningful as these platitudes are, they are also stultifying. We erase the deeper things we wish to express with the little nothings we say without thinking. A man and a woman, deeply in love but both too reticent to express that love, stand together on the platform of a train station, wanting to declare their ardor but speaking only of the weather.

* * *

Criterion Collection presents a new Blu-ray edition of Ozu's Good Morning. Criterion often lavishes its releases with extras but in this case, the edition is a cinephile's dream. Instead of endless interviews and commentary, this edition comes with two other Ozu films involving large roles for children. The first is the remaining fragment of the 1929 silent film A Straightforward Boy that bizarrely and beguilingly makes comic hay out of kidnapping. The other is the 1932 silent comedy I Was Born, But…, which served as something of a model for Good Morning. Also included are an interview with film scholar David Bordwell, a video essay on Ozu and comedy by David Cairns, and a booklet essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

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