Film Reviews

The Only Son Yasujiro Ozu

Rating - 9/10

Yasujiro Ozu's first "talkie" of the 1930s, The Only Son, begins with an epitomizing and foreshadowing quote by author Rynosuke Akatagawa that would continually resurface later in his most revered work.  "Life's tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child" serves as a preface for the film depicting mother Otsune's sacrifice to ensure financial security and quality of life for her only child, Ryosuke.  The Only Son manages the situation in a unique and remarkable way, balancing point of view through the central premise of supporting family and, as film scholar Tony Rayns puts it, "investing more than one could afford in getting a good education."  To understand the film's core issue, examination of the era's wealthy background is required, but its wealth can only be measured in the capacity of dilemmas.  Pre-WWII Japan in 1936 was plagued by social injustice, mutinies, resource shortages, and poverty.  Instead of manufacturing an environment for the film, Ozu captures that grim reality of Tokyo with its barren fields, lower income housing and industrial factories on the outskirts of the city.  While The Only Son is dedicated to a specific time period for a majority of its duration, the film remains the lone work in Ozu's filmography with notated time gaps; their importance is fundamental to establishing emotional links in the characters' journeys through educational and personal aspirations, topics that resonate as true today as they did seventy-five years ago.

In the opening minutes (in 1923), the young son, Ryosuke, approaches his mother with the subject of attending middle school in the sinking expectation that he will be denied for financial reasons.  However, when his teacher Mr. Okubo visits, the mother learns that Ryosuke has already lied to her and accepted a placement in the school program.  The two remain silent while Okubo lectures about Japan's current climate.  "A person can't do anything without an education," he emphasizes to ultimately convince the mother to work ceaselessly to ensure her son's success.  Yet this desire to better one's life through toil and dedication is often overshadowed by the unconsidered negative repercussions elucidated in the film.  The Only Son instills honest and emotional realism in a unanimous picture; in converse to positive mental attitude, it shares career unfulfillment, disillusionment, the inevitable debt of educational training, and the limitations of specific occupations.  In a confessional walk to the outskirts of Tokyo thirteen years after the opening scene, mother and son face the unspoken troubles of their lives.  "This isn't the live I expected for myself," Ryosuke reveals after she learns that his years of schooling have only resulted in his part-time job as a night school geometry teacher.  Of course his assessment and her reaction are only measured in terms of financial and professional success; Otsune does not judge the character, moral and familial responsibilities he has undertaken.  In fact, the film turns to the grand theme of the measure of a man in light of his generosity and modesty.  When the neighbor boy, Tomi, is knocked unconscious by a wild horse in the final third of the film, Ryosuke's empathy for the victim's family touches his mother deeply.  This moment proves to be revelatory for both family members; in the final scenes, Ryosuke resolves to acquire a full license to teach high school, which will then promote a promising future for his young son.  Essentially, the scene cyclically revisits the opening sequence, strongly complementing the notion of values instilled in us by our parents as a child will also be bestowed to successive generations.

Japanophiles and film enthusiasts familiar with Ozu's other work and will likely recognize the emerging craft and film language of a stunning director in The Only Son: the seated low-angle shots, heavy dialogue, light humor, and empty transitional interior and exterior frames.  However, The Only Son is even more alienating in its treatment of those transitional images with prolonged silences and lingering takes, which, in addition to the downcast tone of the film in many scenes (enhancing the mood and reality of the environment), also indicate the stylistic transition from the silent to sound era.  While movement and gestures were more pronounced in the silent era and individual frames reserved for text, this nevertheless remains a fruitful subject concerning Ozu's stubbornness to transition to the new emerging medium in the 1930s. Tony Rayns is illuminating on the film’s subtle meta humor during the scene where Ryosuke takes his mother to the theater for a screening of Unfinished Symphony, a German musical-drama about composer Franz Schubert.  "The real joke is that Otsune is so unimpressed by her first talkie that she keeps dropping (or nodding) off."  Of course, Ozu would discover that the form required for his talkies would prove to be just as revelatory as his debut features, resulting in positive reception by critics and audiences alike.   

Part of the grand success of The Only Son is embodied in the final moments, which highlight Ozu's nuance of tone, humanity, and grasp of clashing elements to imbue a certain sentimental depth that was impossible during the silent era.  Defining the film as a triumph of the heart or a tragedy is too one-dimensional (though the opening quote does suggest the latter), as Ozu experiments with techniques worthy of repeated scrutiny.  Captured at a close-up, Otsune appears somber and meditative as she rests outside her factory tenement.  However, the disheartening image is oddly glossed with a progressively buoyant and charming flourish of music.  A closed gate is then juxtaposed with her image and the music, perhaps offering that an auspicious chapter of her life is at an end, but a suitable one is probable to open.  Otsune embraces her son's decisions but must face the severe reality of poverty for the remaining years of her life.  In this sense, film scholar Kristin Thompson compares the film's close to Late Autumn (1960), in which another mother, Akiko, faces a life of loneliness without her daughter.  Even though the title of The Only Son purports a singular focus, its universal resonance and inclusion of themes relevant to all cultures is remarkable to this day.  Confronting topics of financial limitation, continuing education, personal responsibility, luck, morality, war (subdued in the background), The Only Son can be considered timeless.  Though overshadowed by Ozu's lengthier and more complex Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953), at a slim eighty-three minutes, the film absolutely remains of one of Yasujiro Ozu's most notable works.