The Only Son is a somber film that’s both social commentary on the failure of modernization in Japan in the 1920′s and on the inevitable disappointments of life. Legendary filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu’s The Only Son provides numerous topics of discussion, all while simply focusing on the relationship between a mother and her son.
- Director: Yasujiro Ozu
- Writer: Yasujiro Ozu, Masao Arata
- Cast: Chouko Iida, Shinichi Himori, Chishu Ryu
Somewhere in the countryside in 1920′s Japan, a widowed mother Tsune (Chouko Iida) toils away in a factory to provide a humble existence for herself and her only son, Ryosuke (Chishu Ryu). After Tsune is persuaded by Ryosuke’s teacher that supporting her son’s education is the best opportunity she can provide for him, she sends Ryosuke to Tokyo. More than a decade later, Tsune visits her now adult son (Shinichi Himori) who is now a married father, barely scraping by.
The heart of The Only Son lies in the relationship between mother and son, and the moving portrayal of this bond is the result of Yasujiro Ozu’s effective direction. Considering this was Ozu’s first “talkie”, his command of the dialogue is remarkable. While the acting is strong, it is not acting that makes this film memorable but the pace, tone, and composition of its world. During the opening scenes, whether showing a quiet family home or a factory, the pacing of Ozu’s camerawork establishes a rhythm that puts you into a reflective state of mind. Ozu is known mostly for his composition, often lacking movement. But here, he even shows inventive points of view at times, as when he mounts a camera on a moving car to provide a wide view of an emerging Tokyo.
The parallels between this being an early “talkie” in Japanese cinema and the story’s own portrayal of “talkies” as representations of a modern society are brilliant. Tsune’s own disconnected relationship with an emerging class of professionals who value culture and western influences is effectively conveyed by her lack of interest when attending a film with her son. In such scenes, a underlying sadness lies in the cultural and generational gap created by their diverging experiences. Like the best melodramas, there is a scene of emotional weight when Tsune reveals the extent of her sacrifices for her son. It becomes clear that Ryosuke has been provided with an education at the expense of his mother, and in this way, his complacent and defeatist attitude can be viewed as a slap in the face of his mother’s struggles. Will Ryosuke come to understand this perspective? The open ended conclusion of The Only Son is part of its joy, as it invites us to reflect on our actions.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
As I read in Ebert’s review that he once attended an ikebana class in Japan, it automatically makes me wonder how much of his own personal experiences with Japanese culture would lead him to select an almost disproportionate number of Japanese films to his ‘Greatest Movies’ list. But The Only Son is not a film that one could use to accuse him of favoring a film based merely on cultural familiarity, although such familiarity is not altogether irrelevant in our embracing of certain art. Ozu’s film is a valid selection, although I’m not sure I have the level of appreciation for it that many critics do. Consider Ebert’s own endorsement with statements such as, “Now turn to Yasujiro Ozu, who is one of the three of four best filmmakers in the world, and certainly the one who brings me the most serenity.” There is a paragraph in Ebert’s review that floored me, as he tells his readers that the rest of the plot is for them to discover. He goes on to describe only some of the plot, with the type of concise yet exquisite insight that consistently revealed his genius.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: Good
Do you like The Only Son? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Mystery Train
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Yasujiro Ozu’s The Only Son this week, he now has 313 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.