Especially in the West, Japanese director Yasujir Ozu is best known for somber, bittersweet family dramas, the peak of which is undoubtedly the emotionally devastating Tokyo Story (1953). As a result, many viewers find it surprising that Ozu began his cinematic career in the silent era writing jokes and gags for other filmmakers, and some of his earliest directorial efforts were comedies that feature broad physical comedy and scatological humor. But, because he eventually settled into a rhythm of more serious dramatic fare, his quirky late-career comedy Good Morning (Ohayo)-which begins with a farting contest and ends with a visual gag involving soiled underwear-may look to many like an anomaly, when it is, in fact, a melding of the tendencies from his early and late career.
Set in a close-knit housing development in modern (late 1950s) suburban Tokyo, Good Morning is an amusing and knowing joke on everyday civilized formalities and the sometimes inane nature of human communication, especially within families and between neighbors. The story, which reworks several themes and narrative devices from Ozu's 1932 silent film I Was Born, But ..., is viewed mostly through the eyes of two brothers, Minoru (Koji Shigaragi) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu), respectively aged 13 and 7, who impose a vow of silence on themselves when their parents refuse to submit to the ultimate consumer enterprise of purchasing a television. As they are now, in the late '50s electronics and appliances were important signs of social standing and economic achievement, and Minoru and Isamu feel left out because their neighbors have a TV and they don't. Although Minoru and Isamu's parents can afford one, they are reluctant to get a TV because the father (Chish Ry) has heard that TV "will produce 100 million idiots."
The two boys impose silence on themselves not only as a protest against their parents' refusal to purchase a TV, but also because they find most adult chatter to be banal and inane. Phrases such as "Good morning" are, to them, utterly meaningless and, thus, pointless. Their English teacher understands the boys' position, saying, "Well, what they say is true enough. But, then, everyone has to use words like that. And, perhaps they aren't really so unnecessary after all. The world would be rather dreary otherwise."
At the same time, the adults around them are embroiled in their own mundane dramas, including the mystery of what happened to the local women's club dues. Mrs. Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura), the treasurer, is suspected of taking the dues because she has recently purchased a new washing machine, but because of social formalities, none of the other women will come out and directly accuse her. Instead, they talk in oblique circles and then gossip amongst themselves. The story takes a further comic turn when the mystery is solved (it turns out that Mrs. Haraguchi's elderly mother had the dues the whole time), but she assumes that, because Minoru and Isamu do not say "Good morning" to her the next day, that there must still be bitterness about the ordeal in the neighborhood. Thus, seemingly meaningless phrases turn out to have real significance, although not in a way that is necessarily specific to the actual words.
Ozu has been described as the most Japanese of all directors, and the backdrop of his 53 films was almost always the family. As Donald Richie pointed out in his excellent book-length study of Ozu, "The life with which Ozu is concerned in so many of his films ... is traditional Japanese bourgeois life. It is a life singularly lacking in the more dramatic heights and depths found in a society less conspicuously constrained. This does not imply, however, that such a traditional life is less affected by the universal human verities; on the contrary, birth, love, marriage, companionship, loneliness, death, all loom particularly large in a traditional society because so much else is ruled out." Richie hits on an important point here, and one that many viewers will mistake for a lack of depth or dramatic range. Because Ozu is concerned primarily with middle-class suburban lives, his films lack some of the more obvious dramatic intensity of melodramas dealing with the wealthy or social dramas about the downtrodden. By focusing intently on seemingly small areas of bourgeois life, he expands everyday details into larger events of human drama and comedy.
One of his last films, Good Morning found Ozu again working with many of his regular collaborators, including screenwriter Kgo Noda, with whom he wrote more than 25 features; cinematographer Yharu Atsuta, who shot nearly all of his films dating back to the late 1920s; and many of his favorite actors, eight of whom also appeared in Tokyo Story (including Chish Ry, Haruko Sugimura, and Kuniko Miyake). The film's comedy is spry and clever, weaving together the aforementioned obsession with farting (which is rendered non-naturalistically with musical tones of varying pitches), visual puns, and embarrassment. The laughs never feel forced or obvious, largely because they are thoroughly grounded in recognizable social truths, and some of the film's greatest amusements arrive at the most unexpected of moments (such as when one of the neighbors drunkenly wanders into the wrong house after a celebratory evening at the bar). Atsuta's cinematography (this is one of only three color films Ozu directed) is bright and clean, and the musical score by prolific composer Toshir Mayuzumi (he later scored Ozu's 1961 film The End of Summer) is light and jaunty, sounding extremely similar to Alain Romans's work in Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1954), a film whose acute and sublime sense of social observation merits comparison to Ozu's work here. Light-hearted while still taking pointed jabs at important social imperatives, Good Morning is both humorous entertainment and meaningful social satire.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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