Monday, September 3, 2012

Good Morning [1959]

Top of the Morning

Has there ever been a more charming, universal master of cinema than Yasujiro Ozu? He's the kind of the filmmaker that gives the word 'accessible' a positive connotation. While countless auteurs have long been the exclusive domain of the cinephiles and academics, Ozu films offer great thematic depth and mastery of form while never (or at least very rarely) engaging in pretension or abstractions. 

Good Morning, while perhaps not his most well-known or respected film (Tokyo Story and Late Autumn are the two most commonly cited as his 'masterpieces'), is a perfect example of Ozu's great respect for the whole spectrum of contemporary audience members. For the enthusiast, there's the opportunity to see the master engage in contemporary themes: reflecting on the aging process and the generation gap during the early days of television. For the historian, a fascinating document of a rapidly modernising suburban Tokyo, with the landscapes becoming more and more obscured by electricity pile-ons. For the general audience, a charming & light-hearted story and an affectionately-realised cast of characters. For everyone, fart jokes.

Indeed, it may come as a surprise just how much flatulence there is in Good Morning, given classic cinema's oftentimes undeserved reputation for over-seriousness. Here the schoolboy characters consume small amounts of ground-up pumice stone in the belief that it will allow them to fart on cue. And it's a pretty damn funny running joke. It's not all lowbrow toilet humour though: the film contains a plethora belly laughs, and time & translation have done little to diminish the comic worth. Young Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) provides many of the film's funniest moments, adorably declaring "I love you" (in English) to all and sundry. When his brother Mimoru (Kôji Shitara) forces him to go on hunger strike (and subsequently a vow of silence) to protest against their parents' refusal to buy a television, there's plenty of chuckles to be had.

Funny though it may be, Good Morning also brings Ozu's trademark social commentary out in force. As previously mentioned, the rapidly modernising suburbs are the setting, and Ozu frequently examines how traditional Japanese values and customs are ill-suited to this new, rapidly evolving world. The title refers to Mimoru's observation that the daily polite greetings of the local adults are hollow and meaningless. The housewives of the suburb engage in petty gossip and acts of minor betrayal, perhaps out of jealousy about one woman's new washing machine (although it may sound stereotypical now, Ozu consistently develops believable, fully realised female characters). A couple that are clearly attracted to each other are unable to do anything about their mutual fondness due to the fact he's unemployed (the jobless, even today, are treated with much disdain through Japan's rigid social code). The men all face early retirement and the financial difficulties that entails. 

Of course, television is one of the key topics of this production, and aptly given that it was around the time of this film's production that TV posed a major threat to cinema itself. Ozu, however, is not entirely dismissive of the new medium. While clearly not fond of most of its output (older characters comment that it's not healthy for the kids to be watching sumo wrestling all day) the ending - where the parents finally cave to their children's demands and buy a set - seems to suggest it can serve a place in any home, albeit one that shouldn't distract from the more important things (like, perhaps, great cinema).

Good Morning is a breezy, thoroughly enjoyable little film that addresses several still pertinent topics without looking down at the audience. While certainly amongst the finest directors in cinema history, Yasujiro Ozu is the rare auteur who never forgot to entertain as well as enlighten. The film shows a real affection for its characters, even when they're doing foolish or selfish things. And while this may not be the most distinctive example of his visual style, the 'floor camera' and low angles - alongside generally pleasant colour cinematography and art design (dig the matching costumes) - confirm this is very much an Ozu film while keeping the focus squarely on the characters. The core narrative and tone may appear light-hearted and disposable, but the director achieves much with a seemingly limited story. From fart jokes to grand ponderings on Japanese society's catalogue of contradictions - Good Morning may just have something for everyone.

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