Tragedy in life starts with the bondage of parents and children.
The film opens with a single extended scene with the title card reading: Shinshu, Central Japan 1923. Ozu guides us in with his pillow shots framing the story’s sequences with images of his locales which neither serve the narrative nor reveal anything about our characters at hand. But he more than many directors is well aware of his environment and basking in its very contours.
The opening premise has to do with a young middle school-aged boy and his mother. The problem is whether or not he will go onto high school. You see, his father is dead and his mother must eke by a living. They don’t have much money. School costs money.
There are two stories going around. The one he told his mother saying he would not continue his schooling and then the one he told his teacher. His mother only finds out when the man comes by to acknowledge how happy he is for the boy.
Though distraught at first, from that day forward the mother vows to pay for her son to have schooling, first high school and then college. Likewise, he vows dutifully to become a great man so her maternal sacrifice is not in vain.
Flashforward to the present and the now elderly mother decides to pay a visit to her son in the big city of Tokyo. He’s grown now and has a job. But it turns out that things are not as she might have hoped.
First off, he has a couple of surprises for her. He got married and already has a baby son. Also, their home is fairly run-down and humble because his salary as a night school teacher is meager at best. So much for being a great man. It turns out such aspirations are difficult, especially in a metropolis like Tokyo. Look no further than his old teacher who has turned to running a butcher shop just to provide for his family.
However, despite these circumstances, the son throws out all the stops to make a lavish showing of hospitality for his mother’s benefit. After all, he can’t possibly let on how things are actually going. Because that would break her heart. He would have failed her.
So he buys extra chicken, offers small trinkets, and they attend the picture show. Things he probably never would have done if she were not present. Slowly he’s sinking under the surface, borrowing money from everyone who might oblige.
But of course, the truth always finds its way out. She worked so hard to get him to college and the hope of his successes kept her going. The revelation of his current situation pains her heart and she’s forthright in telling him precisely that. She is utterly ashamed as he explains how difficult it is to become a big man in Tokyo. Hard work does not always cut it.
This could be the end of their relationship right there and yet there is another moment. After a horrible accident, he gives all the money they have left to help a single mother pay for her son’s medical bills. It’s a meaningful gesture and right before she leaves, the mother tells her son that she’s proud of his integrity.
All he can think about is how unsatisfied she must be and how much he didn’t want her to come to begin with. His wife concurs he’s lucky to have such a good mother, because by the standards of Japan, she made her child her all so that he might succeed.
Meanwhile, the mother regales her solitary friend back home about her son who has become a great man and his lovely wife and how she can die now without any regrets. All the while we know the full truth but she must save face and so she makes up the most satisfying story she can. Hidden away from view her head is downcast in grief and shame.
What’s striking to the very last frame of The Only Son is the conflicting feelings it provides. It constantly flits back and forth between this false sense of security and contentment to moments of deepest regret.
It never quite allows you to rest on a single one of these emotions but instead requires you to cope with them in equal measures as the scenes are layered one on top of another. First, the mother is happy, then the son is anxious, then the mother is ashamed, then proud. Her son is regretful and finally spurred on to make another go of being a great man. So there’s this lingering sweetness, this not uncertain hope, and yet his mother is in the backroom head bowed, saddened by where she left her boy.
There is no easy answer. There is no definite category. There’s no way to siphon off this person’s emotions from that person’s because they all remain interconnected. That’s what allows this film to make sense and have such an emotional impact as it quietly whiplashes us back and forth between mother and son. We feel for both of them even if their hopes and aspirations seem somewhat misplaced. It’s a film that pains the heart of anyone who hates to see lives in utter distress.
I must confess that I racked my brain for the reason Ozu might spend so much time cutting to shots of the hanging laundry — a recurring motif throughout the film. Surely, there’s some intricacy that I am missing or some subtle symbolism. While that is undoubtedly true, I realized even more clearly that Ozu did not require an overt reason for his shot choices.
Just as our eyes stray to observe the world around us so his camera turns its lens in such a way. It is attracted to faces, rooms, and maybe even the mundane qualities of hanging shirts as the wind softly swirls past. There need not be more than this.
Likewise, I kept on staring at the image of the glamorous movie star up on the wall of their humble home. I was trying to decide if it was Joan Crawford or some German actress I am not aware of. Someone else might be able to distill my ignorance but I realized, again, it did not matter as long as I enjoyed the overall experience.
Ozu can be cast much in the way of the famed woodblock printer Katsushika Hokusai most famous for his “36 views of Mount Fuji.” Likewise, the Japanese director took similar forms and topics and unearthed the intricacies of temperament and interrelations which he subsequently revisited again and again.
If you notice, he has simply reversed his normal dynamic of father with daughter and it has become mother and son. Relatively similar origins and yet the outcomes are no less enlightening. So it’s not necessarily about the novel. There can be just as much relish in taking something that we are so used to, like parent-children relations, and recasting them in such a way that we recognize the situations with greater lucidity. Therein lies a space for growth and understanding.
Surely Ozu takes some getting used to. However, eventually his style will age on you and you will come to find the same fascinations he does until your tastes meld and it becomes second nature to see the empathy and beauty in his subject matter just as he seems to. Pretty soon it feels as if you are looking alongside him. If you let him, it can become a thoroughly symbiotic relationship between filmmaker and audience.