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from an obsessional filmmaker

Zack Davisson "japanreviewed" (Seattle, WA, USA)

Ozu called himself a "tofu dealer" who sold many different kinds of tofu, but never pork cutlets or anything like that. He was a master of variations on a theme, taking simple stories and telling and re-telling them, each time with a subtle difference, a slight bend in light and tone. In this stunning DVD package, we are treated to two servings of the same tofu, with the flavor variation that comes with ageing.

The older film, 1934's silent masterpiece "A Story of Floating Weeds" ("Ukigusa monogatari") was made by a younger man with a younger man's passion and righteousness, and the more modern update, 1959's "Floating Weeds" ("Ukigusa,") longer and in color, shows the mellowing that comes with age, the greater desire to forgive, as we see the same story unfold in the hands of an older version of the same man.

Like the river weed from which the films take their names, the Kabuki actors in both versions float from town to town, going where the course takes them and leaving behind nothing permanent. Long ago, however, one piece of ukigusa, the troupe leader Kihachi, betrayed his nature and left behind something of himself, a son. Now, the course of the river brings Kihachi back to his house of old memories. He is excited, pleased with his son, and briefly considers abandoning his drifting ways to become a true and settled tree. But Kihachi does not float alone, and his leaves and roots are entangled with his Kabuki troupe, including his lover who is determined to keep him drifting.

Like all of Ozu's films, the role of the family is the forefront of "A Story of Floating Weeds/Floating Weeds." In these films, the idea of family is hard to define. Is it the Kabuki troupe, who live, sleep, eat and work together day in and day out, or is it the biological attachment with a son you have rarely met and a woman you never married. Irregardless of the definition, a breakdown is imminent, and only after the pieces have been scattered can we divine the truth.

Individually, either of these films is a treat, but bound together like they are in this Criterion Collection release the bar is raised even higher. A masterpiece of DVD craftsmanship to compliment two masterpiece films. Each film has a commentary track, "A Story of Floating Weeds" by Japanese film grandmaster Donald Richie, who also did the subtitles and provides an insert essay, and "Floating Weeds" by admitted Japanese film novice Roger Ebert. Both commentaries are incredibly insightful and add to the level of appreciation for these films. The new soundtrack for "A Story of Floating Weeds" is sublime, although I have never heard the original so I cannot make a comparison.

Dale Miller (Ann Arbor, MI)
Spoiler alert: this review reveals elements of the story.

Ukigusa (floating weeds) is a beautiful and moving film, one of only four that Ozu made in color. It is a remake of the director's 1934 silent film, A Story of Floating Weeds, also included in this release from Criterion.

Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) is the master of an itinerant troupe of actors. They have arrived at a town in northern Japan to stage their kabuki drama. Komajuro is accompanied by his longtime mistress Sumiko (played by Machiko Kyo of Rashomon).

Komajuro's lover from long ago, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) is proprietress of a sakeya in the town, and Komajuro clandestinely visits her and the son he fathered, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi). Kiyoshi, now a young man, does not know that Komajuro is his father, but thinks he is an uncle.

Sumiko grows suspicious of Komajuro's attachment to the family of his old lover and pries out his secret. In a fit of jealous pique, she plots revenge, with the help of Kayo, a young actress in the troupe (played by Ayako Wakao). Sumiko gives the girl money and asks her to seduce Kiyoshi. When she makes advances on Kiyoshi, he is immediately smitten. The two fall in love.

When Komajuro discovers what has happened he flies into a rage, and tries to break up the relationship. Eventually his identity as Kiyoshi's father is exposed.

Meanwhile, things are not going very well for Komajuro's acting company. Attendance at their performances falls off, and one senses that this is a company that is past its prime. With insufficient ticket sales to pay the actors, it becomes clear that the troupe must be disbanded.

At the railway station as they are leaving separately, Komajuro and Sumiko reconnect. They make up and she agrees to help him as he attempts to start over.

Along with this 1959 remake, Criterion has included Ozu's original 1934 silent film A Story of Floating Weeds. The commentary is by Japanese film expert Donald Richie, who brings his profound knowledge of Ozu and Japanese culture to bear. The story is roughly the same (the names of the principals have been changed), though the 1959 version has been fleshed out to two hours compared to 86 minutes for the silent film.

A Story of Floating Weeds (the 1934 version) will interest Japanese film buffs and admirers of Ozu. Most viewers will naturally gravitate to the 1959 film, shot in color when Ozu's genius was at its peak. The earlier work carries the indelible mark of Ozu's minimalist style in its embryonic stages. In Floating Weeds it has been fine-tuned to perfection.

There are riveting performances by Ganjiro Nakamura and Machiko Kyo. Cinematography is by Kazuo Miyagawa (Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, Rashomon). New subtitles by Donald Richie are an improvement over the ones on the old VHS version, where for example yuuwaku, the Japanese word for seduction, is translated as "vamp." The commentary for this version is by Roger Ebert who, despite his modest disclaimers, displays a keen insight into Ozu's work. His explanation of "pillow shots" (stills marking the transition between scenes in place of fades or dissolves) offers an important key to Ozu's cinematographic style.

Floating Weeds belongs with Ozu's masterpieces Late Spring and Tokyo Story. Donald Richie has called it "the most physically beautiful of all of Ozu's pictures." I couldn't agree more. As usual, Criterion has done a masterful job of giving this gem the setting it so richly deserves.

Cosmoetica "cosmoeticadotcom" (New York, USA)

Yasujiro Ozu was perhaps the greatest obsessional filmmaker in history. Thus, it's no surprise that not only did he rework the same themes over and again in his films, but that he also redid earlier films of his own years later, such as 1932's I Was Born But... as 1959's Good Morning. The most famed examples of this trait are 1934's silent black and white A Story Of Floating Weeds (Ukikusa Monogatari), written by Ozu and Tadao Ikeda, and 1959's sound color film, Floating Weeds (Ukigusa), written by Ozu and Kôgo Noda. Both films, whose titular metaphor revolves around the lives of itinerant actors, tell basically the same tale, in slightly different ways, with differently named characters. They follow the ups and downs of the leader of a really bad theater troupe, on its last legs (not unlike the characters from Federico Fellini's first film, Variety Lights), who lands in a town and visits an old girlfriend who bore him a son. In both films, the son believes his father is really his uncle, and the major development in the films is how the father's jealous actress girlfriend tries to sabotage things by having a pretty young actress seduce the son, thus recapitulating the father's key moment in life, one the father believes ruined his chance at stardom and happiness.
If one is thinking that this is the stuff of pure melodrama, it is. But that's true only on the surface. This is where depth and execution of an art come into play. It also abnegates claims that Ozu eschewed plot in his films for melodrama is about nothing if but plot. While it's true he did not strive for A to B to C narratives, and preferred `organic' story growth, the fact is that all his films had plots, and good ones. But they were not plot driven, nor dependent upon the heavyhanded machinations most drama and films rely upon. The difference between having a plot and being plot driven is something most critics seem to not understand. Ozu simply removes the superfluous plot moments and adds contemplative, poetic, and metaphoric shots in their place, what are termed `pillow shots.' The emphasis is thus not on the driving, but the driver, of plot. After all, the tale of a parent who has a long lost child is not fresh, although the way it's told can be.
As for the films, the earlier one is actually the slightly better film, mostly because it's more concise- clocking in at 86 minutes vs. the two hour remake....In defense of the later film, it has more humor (one character from the troupe claims his name is Toshiro Mifune- the great star of so many Akira Kurosawa films; a nod to Ozu's rival), and the son's reaction to the news about his father seems a bit more mature and realistic than in the earlier film, while the mother seems more resigned to her lover's leaving, rather than being devastated- as in the earlier film....Another plus that the later film has is its use of color and symbolism, which is far more striking. The opening scene contrasts a lighthouse in the background with a foregrounded bottle. It is a stunning visual image, and such phallic symbols abound in the film, as bottles are repeatedly seen, and there is a scene where the local prostitutes tease the male troupe members as they suck on popsicles. We then see the lighthouse from other perspectives over the course of the film. The earlier film is not set at a seaside town, but in a rural area, and the scene of the father and son fishing is superior in the later film, for there is no oddly stylized synchronization of the pair tossing their fishing lines into the river, over and again, as in the 1934 film, and what the duo speak of- their views on the father's approach to acting, is far more cogent than in the silent version, whose major moment is when the father drops his wallet into the running water. The later version also mimetically puts the father and son in the position of the bottle in relation to the lighthouse at the film's opening. What this means, from a phallic perspective, is open to several interpretations. Another major difference between the two films is that the earlier film has more motion in it- literally. It was made before Ozu got caught in his tatami mat point of view mode, and therefore the emotion of the drama is recapitulated better in the earlier, more kinetic, film....Both A Story Of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds are proof that not all obsessions result in negativity, a thing one might remind oneself of the next time someone speaks ill of that trait. They are also fine examples of what made Yasujiro Ozu a great artist, even if the art in them might fall just a bit shy of overall greatness. Viva obsesión!?

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