“Important things are difficult to say.”
In his essay for the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning (1959), Jonathan Rosenbaum counters Donald Richie’s assertion that the film is, “‘in some ways Ozu’s most schematic film, certainly one of his least complicated formally … an example of a film constructed around motifs.’” Rosenbaum acknowledges the existence and relevance of these motifs, but concludes that when one focuses on the given examples (he and Richie select two), “the possibilities of comic and formal play, at once satirical and musical, become endless. And they are far from simple.” Both critics have their points, but what’s important about this debate isn’t so much what it alludes to specifically (the motifs), but rather the fact that Ozu elicits such divergent—equally thoughtful and appreciative—consideration. There may be a superficial simplicity to his work, which is often commented upon as being at once deceptively so and unambiguously apparent, but it is from this humility that the true, subtle pathos of Ozu’s cinema is revealed. It looks effortless, but it never is.
Written by Ozu and his frequent collaborator Kôgo Noda, Good Morning (Ohayo in Japanese) is an undemanding, nimble film, a quaint portrait of a small suburban town and a select handful of its interconnected inhabitants. As Rosenbaum and others have commented, it is frequently regarded as something of a remake of Ozu’s 1932 silent film, I Was Born, But … (included on the Criterion disc), but while that film carries a compelling commentary about the parallels between childhood rites of passage and adult due-paying, Good Morning differs in two key respects. In this setting, the wives, rather than the “company man” husbands, are now front and center; they are in charge, at least at home, and it is their day-to-day interactions that produce one of the film’s main narratives. For them, the whole fiasco begins when one of the women, played by Ozu regular Haruko Sugimura, is accused of fiddling funds destined for the local women’s association. Though she eventually discovers her dotty mother had misplaced the cash, it doesn’t stop the infusive gossip from temporarily preoccupying this domestic clique. Probably not for the first time in their lives, comical misunderstandings and passive aggressive accusations trigger a petty outbreak of viciousness amongst the women. Expressing a sincere concern for social correctness, they amusingly walk on pins and needles so as not to cause communal backlash—fearing retaliation, one housewife deliberates straight-faced, “Our cat stole her dried fish. Should I return it?”
The other main plotline in Good Morning bears the most similarity to I Was Born, But …, assuming its point of comparison in that it revolves around two young boys. Here, the focal schoolchildren are brothers Minoru and Isamu, played with great gusto by Kôji Shitara and Masahiko Shimazu. When not touting their flatulent dexterity, they call on a roster of neighbors and friends, from their unemployed English tutor, who is currently making ends meet with a translation gig, to two bebopping twenty-somethings, who keep the boys entertained with television and raise the ire of the staid locals (the couple dares to lounge around in their pajamas!). Reacting against their parents’ refusal to buy a TV of their own, and by what they see as the pointless pseudo-pleasantries adults routinely engage in, the boys decree a silent protest, refusing to speak at home and in school, leaving their communication with others non-existent or in the form of charades. The naughty though generally good-natured children see through adult posturing, and of course, they ultimately get what they want anyway, exposing the empty threat ineptitude of their elders.
The television set, so imperative to the boys and their quest for entertainment (sumo wrestling and baseball in particular), is an obvious indication of how things have changed in post-war Japan. One of the quintessential signs of modernity, the television is both a means for amusement and, as it remains, a dominant indication of material wealth. Good Morning still maintains some of Ozu’s more traditional concerns—marriage, a career, public decorum—but now it’s all about installment plans and the modern comforts of home. In a drunken stupor, the boys’ father, played by another familiar Ozu face, Chishu Ryu, decries such conveniences, yet his comments are cursory and the film keeps this largely implied observation underexplored. The generational divide and disillusion would take Good Morning in another direction, and that type of serious review doesn’t appear to be what Ozu had in mind with this film. As Rick Prelinger writes in an essay that accompanied Criterion’s original DVD release of Good Morning, “Ozu visits suburbia and comes back a happier person. He plunks us down into a new Japan, a bright, peppy place where American cultural influences have seeped into everyday life.” Despite the older generation’s rebuff of anything modern and needlessly “techy,” this new Japan is not such a bad place after all.
Ozu’s style is one of the most discussed aspects of his work, and as his second color feature, and his most joyful late-period work, Good Morning is exemplary of how this style correlates with tone. Rosenbaum says Good Morning is “deeply and delightfully musical, both in the orchestration of static visual elements … and in its rhythmic patterns of human movement.” The resulting form, which takes the often remarked upon spirit of Tati-esque buoyancy, is then complimented by Ozu’s delicate touch. Thriving from Yûharu Atsuta’s cinematography, the color is specifically punctuated within each shot, as carefully arranged pops of primary shades, which, though not necessarily symbolic, are visually significant all the same. Nothing Ozu does is without reason and the tactful placement of blues, yellows, and especially reds is an illustrative case in point.
As for the character movements, Ozu’s choreography of people is just as exact. And it has to be—he doesn’t have a lot of room to work here. Living in nearly interlocked blocks of housing, the familial clusters are literally within feet of each other, and as Ozu stages them, it often appears as though everyone is part of the same continuing structure (little wonder the gossip spreads like wildfire). Ozu’s gift for deep focus, which is made all the more impressive when one considers the technical requisites of doing so with color photography, is among the points of praise discussed by David Bordwell in his interview about the film. Fittingly titled “Ozuland,” Bordwell’s analysis examines a number of Ozu’s instantly identifiable constructs, also among them the director’s penchant for low-angle compositions. But like the aforementioned Rosenbaum/Richie disagreement, this is likewise something where its simplicity may or may not arise from veiled complexity. Is there a greater significance to this camera position, or is it as plain as David Cairns contends in his visual essay on the film: “Maybe he just liked the way things looked from down there?”
“Good Morning is the wildcard in Yasujiro Ozu’s career,” writes Prelinger, “the film that looks least like all his others, and one of the few where he sees the world through childrens’ eyes rather than those of an old man.” On the surface at least, it does seem like an atypical Ozu film, and as Prelinger adds, it “sometimes feels remarkably like American TV sitcoms of the same period.” That in itself isn’t so unusual, though. It may not have been his forte, but Ozu was no stranger to comedy, from the broad physical humor of his earliest efforts (as seen in his once-lost 1929 short A Straightforward Boy, a fragment of which is included on the new Blu-ray), to the more mannered, behavioral humor here. Ozu can even go low-brow if needed: Good Morning is pleasantly infamous for its fart jokes and chubby little Shimazu as a cheeky rascal whom Cairns says is “funny just to look at.” But this is Ozu, and behind the frivolity lies unavoidable truths. The humdrum chatter that the boys disparage doesn’t seem to say much, but it means a good deal for what is built from such routine interaction. As the translator argues, this banal dialogue is essentially necessary, for the world would be boring without it, and besides, it’s a start. As he and the boys’ aunt observe, “important things are difficult to say,” whereas “meaningless things are easy.” If it takes idle chit-chat about the weather to launch a relationship, so be it.
Cairns notes that the world of Good Morning, as with all of Ozu’s work, is “beautiful … terrible … or ridiculous.” Or it can be all of this at once. It just goes so show, either way, that nothing is ever so simple. While Good Morning is noticeably on the lighter side of things as far as Ozu is concerned, it packs an expressively perceptive punch, as powerful as many of his melancholier masterpieces.