‘Ukigusa” is the latest film of Yasujiro Ozu, the director whom most Japanese consider “the most Japanese director.”
His films are quiet yet powerful, meditative yet implying the strain beneath the surface; they are composed, almost like a mosiac, of small, clear-cut, occasionally even haikulike scenes; they are dedicated to an evocation of the awareness of the transience of all things; they show minor tragedies, and their conclusions are a shrug and a smile.
The current Daiei picture is the latest expression of this “mono no aware” in Ozu’s postwar films. A small theatrical troupe, led by Ganjiro Nakamura, comes to a small town in the Shima Peninsula. As soon as they have arrived, Nakamura goes off to visit Haruko Sugimura, a woman he had known before. Machiko Kyo, the leading actress, is jealous and eventually confronts them. Nothing comes of it, the troupe is losing money and is eventually disbanded. Nakamura leaves Haruko and finds Machiko waiting in the station. They decide to go off together.
That’s all there is to it (though there is a younger-generation plot involving a young girl in the troupe, Ayako Wakao, and Miss Sugimura’s son, Hiroshi Kawaguchi) and Ozu has turned this simple story into a two-hour delight which, if it does rather tend toward the Shimpa in the final reel, is for the most part a completely admirable example of Japanese filmmaking at its very best.
One usually tends to forget the plotlines of Ozu’s films; what one cannot forget are the characterizations which Ozu draws from his actors, and the small details, the little touches. One does not forget the father and daughter watching Noh in “Late Spring,” the father alone, looking at his hands at the end of “Tokyo Twilight”; the office mahjong party in “Early Spring”; and the children’s games in “Good Morning.”
So, in this film, one will not forget Ganjiro and Kawaguchi arguing while fishing; Haruko Sugimura’s face when she realizes that Ganjiro will leave; the deliberately underplayed parody of the country Kabuki; Machiko Kyo at the end of the film trying to light Ganjiro’s cigarette.
What remains after seeing an Ozu film is the feeling that, if only for an hour or two, you have seen the goodness and beauty of everyday things and everyday people; you have seen a few small actions, beautiful because sincere, and it is saddening too because you will see them no more, they are already gone. One can only smile and turn away, because that is the way things are.