Written by Forrest Maynock
When I first sat down to watch I Was Born But…(1932) I did not know what to expect; I know the work of Yasujirō Ozu, but not the silent era work of Ozu. This film was a pleasant experience and surprise from other silent films that I have viewed.
American silent films have a feel to them that is not quite the same in American films with sound. I have watched many Japanese films, but never a silent one; I was curious if the same feeling I achieved when watching American silent films would translate in the same way with this silent Japanese film.
After my viewing of this film, I can say I didn’t feel quite the same as I had felt viewing other silent films, but I did note one similarity that was particularly pronounced during my viewing: The direction of Ozu.
It has been quite a while since I had seen an Ozu film, but his fingerprints were almost immediately visible when I first started the film. Ozu’s particular “everyday” style is abundant here. This film is very realistic and almost counter to the Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton style of comedy.
This comedy just seems like a funny story a grandfather would tell to his grandkids. There was a visual gag that I found especially funny at around 36 minutes into the film. One of the boys says that they won’t have to go to school if they cannot cross the tracks, and they then both grab onto some cords attached to the train blockade. The scene cuts to one boy and the father crossing the tracks, the boy turns around and sees his brother standing with the two cords in his hands, looking at each one questioningly.
This scene stood out for me because it was a subversion of the typical comedic response; in a Charlie Chaplin film the boys would have probably been lifted into the air and there would have been a big hullabaloo to get them down. Instead, Ozu shows us an equally comedic and more realistic take. This one small segment really gave me a good laugh.
There were several themes that stood out for me, but the main theme that seems to play in both the boy’s and father’s stories together is “fitting in.” The two brothers start the film being bullied by a group of their schoolmates, but after they hire an older boy as a bully beater they are accepted by the group. The father has a similar arc where he seems to be trying to “fit in” with his boss and his lifestyle.
The first half of the film follows the boys as they try to work around their bullies. After “beating” the bullies they join the group of schoolboys as peers. The father in the home movie screening is seen “acting like a clown” for his bosses’ enjoyment and is even accused of trying to “get in” with the boss by fellow workers earlier in the film. The boy’s view this as hypocritical of their father and accuse him of “tell us to become somebody, but you’re nobody!”
While the styles of “fitting in” are different, both the boys and the father are trying to fit into their situations as best as they can.
Another lightning bolt struck me during the viewing of this film, I had seen it before. Not literally, but I had seen a very similar Ozu film from 1959 titled Good Morning, which carries many of the same themes and story beats.
One sequence that stands out, in particular, is the brothers deciding to go on a hunger strike because of their father’s perceived weakness and response to their questions. A similar sequence plays in Good Morning where the two brothers of that film decide to go on a silence strike after an argument with their parents.
The two films are their own, but it is fun to take note of the number of “remakes” and “retellings” that Ozu carried out during his career. Many of Ozu’s other films carry similar themes and plot structures, but they are also very distinguishable stories that each have their own highlights.
For me, this film was a quintessential coming of age story. A story that has not changed too drastically for generations, but also one that remains meaningful and impactful for all ages.
Acknowledgement: This article was originally an assignment for the course of Film and Literature, Term 1 & 2, 2020. I would like to thank Dr. Chung and everyone from the course for their participation.