Friday, April 5, 2013

Family Business

Film: Ukigusa (Floating Weeds)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

I don’t have a great deal of experience watching the films of Yasujiro Ozu. Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, and sometimes spelled Ukikusa) is only the third of his films that I’ve seen. I’ve noticed some themes, though. First, Ozu hated to move his camera. While he’s happy to cut between shots, almost everything he does is a static shot. This lends an unusual quality to his films—despite people moving within each scene, there is very much a sense of a static world, almost a still life with people in it.

The second thing is that Ozu appears to be obsessed with family relationships. Even in a film like this one, where a huge percentage of the main characters are a part of a traveling theater troupe, it’s all about family and about the relationships between people. The problems here are the problems of real, believable people. We aren’t changing the world, but dealing with life. Of course, for these people, it is the world.

The members of the acting troupe arrive at a small, seaside town and advertise their presence. The group is lead by Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), who has specific, hidden reasons for coming here. That reason is Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), a former lover and the mother of his son. The son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) is grown and works at the local post office, and believes that Komajuro is his uncle.

Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), the lead actress of the troupe and the current mistress of Komajuro, is unclear on this past relationship, and when she discovers that Komajuro is spending a great deal of his time at Oyoshi’s house, believes that he is being unfaithful to her. In retaliation she gives money to another actress in the group, Kayo (Ayako Wakao) to seduce the young man. Of course, she’s young, pretty, and a gifted actress, so this isn’t that difficult for her. The trouble really starts because of two things. First, Komajuro finds out about Sumiko’s plan and Kayo’s involvement with his son. Second, Kayo truly falls in love with Kiyoshi.

While this is happening, the troupe suffers from smaller and smaller audiences, which starts to threaten their livelihood and existence as an acting troupe. Naturally, tensions mount, and eventually everything comes to a head.

Ukigusa is very much like the other films of Ozu I have seen. It is, frame by frame, a visual masterpiece, gorgeous to look at in every moment the film plays. It’s also incredibly slow. Kayo doesn’t learn of Kiyoshi’s existence until the film is about half done. This is not a film to watch at night, because falling asleep during the running time (as happened to me tonight) is a real danger. I’d like to stress that this is not specifically due to boredom. Ozu’s films are too damn pretty to be boring, even if not much happens in them for long stretches of time (the lack of camera movement doesn’t help, either). Rather, Ozu’s pace creates a dream-like quality that slowly lulls the viewer into slumber. I didn’t crash; I floated off.

It could also be argued that because Ozu’s films tend to be about family relationships (Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon are the same in this respect), that they don’t carry the weight of larger films. While they may be beautifully framed and shot, the lack a certain depth or importance. While that may well be a valid criticism, it’s also one with which I do not agree. These stories are small in the grand scheme of things, but they are of vital, central importance to the characters, and this gives them a great deal of weight.

Ozu was, if anything, a masterful visual storyteller. All of the films of his that I have seen are beautiful to look at, and Ukigusa is no different in this. The comparison above with still life paintings is not idle talk; no, each frame is a particular work of visual art. This is the great strength of the film.

Just plan for a much longer running time than the film’s two-hour length would suggest. You shouldn’t be too surprised if you suddenly sit up and realize that you’ve dozed through the last half hour or so without realizing that you’ve nodded off. Either that, or plan for black coffee and caffeine.

Why to watch Ukigusa: No one did family like Ozu.
Why not to watch: It’s so slow, it’s almost stopped.


  1. You are spot on with the etheral quality of the movie. Right from the opening shots this is a visual stunner. Every scene is a potential poster. I the reverse experience, the first half lulled me almost to sleep, but I got so involved in the second half that it pulled me right back.

    1. There are movies that put me to sleep. With some, that's a problem. With others, like this one, it's more of a feature because of the dream-like quality of the film itself.

  2. I love Ozu so much! I can hardly believe I never saw Floating Weeds before. (I saw Ozu's 1934 version a few years ago.)

    Anyway, I watched Floating Weeds a couple of nights ago, on YouTube. What a great movie! And fairly action-packed for an Ozu film. All that hitting!

    1. I think Ozu is a bit of an acquired taste for anyone who isn't already something of a movie nerd, but I'm with you--I can watch a lot of him.

    2. My favorite is Good Morning. Give it a try if you haven't seen it.