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A Story of Floating Weeds/Floating Weeds: The Criterion Collection

A seriocomic reflection on the itinerant life of a aged traveling actor, Yasujiro Ozu's A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) was one of the filmmaker's final silent works, and it remains a fine example of the narrative inventiveness that would be less apparent in his later, more expansive and leisurely paced films. But while his economy in this earlier picture is admirable, it also leaves one with a feeling of thematic tidiness that seems a bit disingenuous. It's the work of a young artist grasping for a maturity that is decades away. It's little surprise, then, that Ozu would revisit this tale 25 years later with Floating Weeds (1959), a virtual carbon copy of the original work transferred from drab black-and-white to vibrant color, and lengthened to include narrative digressions that highlight and deepen the story's gentle tragedy. Both films tell the tale of a touring theatrical troupe led by an aging leading man — Kihachi (a more conventionally handsome Takeshi Sakamoto) in the first; Komajuro (the considerably less dapper Ganjiro Nakamura) in the second — who has returned to his hometown. Sneaking out ostensibly to visit a "patron," the actor is actually checking in on an old flame and his son, who has been told that the old man is his uncle. Though he has kept his identity secret from the boy, who is now a good-looking 19-year-old, the actor has, at the very least, been present in his child's life financially, paying for his schooling and helping to support the mother. Thrilled by the lad's sudden maturity, the actor begins spending a great deal of time with him, which elicits the suspicions of his jealous traveling companion. Believing that the philandering actor is stepping out with another woman, his vengeful companion, who finds out the true identity of his hidden family, enlists a beautiful young woman in the company to woo the son; thus, depriving the old man of his life's greatest joy. When the actor discovers his companion's sordid plan, he lashes out, but it is the impotent rage of a man long past his prime. With the theater failing to draw an audience, and his son no longer interested in spending time with him, the actor has nothing, and he is faced with his cruel and sudden irrelevance as a professional and as a father. Though both films end on the same tragic note, they are also lighter on their feet than the majority of Ozu's work. A Story of Floating Weeds is a particular marvel, speeding along visually at what constitutes a breakneck pace for Ozu, who eschews any semblance of establishing shots, lending the film a narrative fluency well ahead of its time. Though he employs the low angles and careful shot composition that would be characteristic of his subsequent work, he also cuts the film with a dynamism that wouldn't be seen until the remake. Floating Weeds was Ozu's first film at Daiei Studios, and, along with the fleeter pace, it stands in marked contrast to his work of that period thanks to its vibrant color, which is provided by the brilliant cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, who shot a number of pictures for Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa. With the addition of sound and color, Ozu is able to bring more nuances to his characters, in particular the vindictive jilted lover, who is little more than a stock evil female in the first film. He has also updated the film to reflect postwar Japan. No longer is the son ready to join the military; now, he's working at a post office, preparing to attend college where he'll study electronics. Still, both films offer their own unique take on growing old and the disappearance of the traditional family unit in a brilliantly thoughtful manner that is quintessentially Ozu. The Criterion Collection presents A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds in excellent full-frame transfers (1.33:1) with fine Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include feature-length commentaries by noted Japanese film scholar Donald Richie for the first picture, and one from critic Roger Ebert on the second. A new score for the silent film has been composed by Donald Sosin, and while it's a nice work, the picture is better without it. There is also a theatrical trailer for Floating Weeds and an essay on both films by Richie. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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