Good Morning (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Adam Bingham

Produced and directed by Yasujiro Ozu; screenplay by Yasujiro Ozu and Kogo Noda; cinematography by Yuharu Atsuta; edited by Yoshiyasu Hamamura; music by Toshiro Mayuzumi; starring Chishu Ryu, Masahiko Shimazu, Koji Shidara, Haruko Sugimura, Keiji Sada, Yoshiko Kuga, Kuniko Miyake, Eijiro Tono, and Sadako Sawamura. Blu-ray, color, 94 min, Japanese dialogue with optional English subtitles, 1959. A Criterion Collection release.

Most critical commentaries on Yasujiro Ozu’s work include what we may term received wisdom about Good Morning: that it is a remake, or at least a reworking, of the director’s silent hit I Was Born, But… (a 1932 comedy that is also included on this disc), and that it is a formally undemanding, thematically unambitious, generally academic, certainly pleasant but relatively minor film in its director’s filmography. Happily, the critical essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum accompanying this Blu-Ray release makes plain that these assertions are not entirely accurate, or at least in the case of the former do not tell the whole story of the film. If the generally satirical bent of Good Morning is not unique to its era (Masumura’s cruelly acerbic corporate sideswipe Giants and Toys predates it by a year, while Kurosawa’s similarly jaundiced look at big business, The Bad Sleep Well, followed a year later), it is nonetheless remarkable in running parallel to and inverting the nascent new wave of Oshima, Imamura, et al. with a probing yet peppy domestic comedy of mores and manners that could have been made at no other time

Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) and his older brother Minoru (Koji Shidara) have been repeatedly pestering their father to buy the family a television set.

The point to stress, however, is not just the need to reconsider extant Ozu criticism, but also to more closely examine the intricate, at times detailed interconnection between these various threads. The backbone of Good Morning’s narrative—the story that seems to be taken from I Was Born, But…—is the escalating generational conflict between the father Keitaro Hayashi (a typical Japanese salaryman and seemingly implacable patriarch portrayed by Chishu Ryu) and his two headstrong young sons, Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) and Minoru (Koji Shidara). This tension is generated by the father’s continuing refusal to buy the family a television set, a purchase he feels would be a capitulation to a sweeping sociocultural “dumbing down” of Japanese life.

The new TV set owned by a neighbor becomes a local attraction for local schoolboys in Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning.

This story, though far from defining the entire film, encompasses a veritable matrix of detailed and intersecting interpersonal dramas and comic or seriocomic subterfuges involving unemployment, class prejudice, bickering and gossiping housewives, debates around new consumer and white goods, impending retirement, loneliness, and working-class malaise—to say nothing of recurring jokes about grudges between women as well as a series of flatulence contests between schoolboys. The film, in fact, begins with this latter running gag as a setup for the myriad antics to follow. A group of schoolboys return home one afternoon and challenge one another to pass wind upon being prompted. Later, as they prepare to sneak out to watch television at the home of a neighbor, their actions are intercut with their mothers moving from house to house, discussing an allegedly missing dues payment for their women’s group, and otherwise casting aspersions on one another’s honesty and household spending habits. These nefarious and duplicitous activities, on the part of both parents and children, provide complementary images, whose contrasts throughout Good Morning are central to the film’s meaning and effect. Ozu develops the specific juxtaposition of fathers and sons, workplace and schoolroom, from I Was Born, But… to encompass adults and children in general, their respective attitudes and place within a rapidly changing country.     

The setting for these perennially crisscrossing micro-narratives is a small community in a new suburb of Tokyo whose fairly insular yet close-knit residents are so familiar with one another that they regularly visit their neighbors and think nothing of entering their homes unannounced. As such, each household is subject to almost perennial interruptions and interjections, arrivals and departures, and it is these comings and goings, the leaving of the family home and the return thereto, that characterize the problems and concerns of the myriad protagonists who flit into and out of the narrative, as though they were visiting the film itself.

The parents of Isamu and Minoru, Mr. and Mrs. Hayashi (Chishu Ryu, left, and Kuniko Miyake), attempt to deal with the rebellious antics of their young sons.

Indeed, it is these characters’ day-to-day lives that Ozu gently but pointedly probes in this film, and his narrative methodology, and even the title of the film—something of a departure from Ozu’s heretofore poetically declarative and resonant natural or seasonal allusions)—are built entirely around them. This commonplace, everyday salutation bespeaks not only a focus on the quotidian but, more significantly, the notion that such idle talk is at once both useful and useless. Termed by one character a “social lubricant,” this dialogue is nevertheless railed against by Isamu and Minoru, prompting their vow of silence in protest at its overuse by the adults around them. Ozu’s wry perspective and proliferation of micro-narratives allows a humorous and sympathetic articulation of both camps’ points of view. Language is thus central to the film, the specifically adult affliction not being perceived as “useless” small talk but the gossip and backbiting of the adult characters is instead shown to serve as a façade presented to others before later criticizing or denouncing them behind their backs. Particularly with the housewives of this neighborhood, such seemingly innocuous verbal interactions and social intercourse are seen as generally duplicitous undertakings.

Elsewhere, the narrative’s myriad protagonists—from a bohemian couple (the only owners of a television set to whose home several young boys surreptitiously repair to watch programs) who are scorned for lounging around all day in their nightclothes, to the mischief-making youngsters, and the assorted middle-aged and elderly characters struggling as members of the working class or the middle class apprehensively regarding their impending retirement—presents a veritable cross-section of contemporary Japanese society. The interaction of these different strata gives the film its constant movement and flux (and it is a film about movement—personal, interpersonal, and national) as story meets and intersects with story, character with character, dialogue with dialogue, and idea with contrastive idea. Ozu’s typical contemplative distance—wryly and subtly subverted here through the myriad stories that one feels are almost competing for his attention—encompasses all manner of comic, dramatic, romantic, and melancholic travails.

Mrs. Hayashi (Kuniko Miyake) is one of the housewives who regularly engage in gossip with her neighbors.

Good Morning’s satirical image of people living in close proximity, in addition to a preponderance of “nonprofessional” women (i.e., housewives), represents not only a departure for Ozu from the younger professional women and daughters of the Noriko films of the Forties and Fifties (among others) but also a resettlement of Japanese life away from the strictures of war and Occupation that had continued to be felt throughout the Fifties. To this end, the centrality of television and of other new consumer goods like washing machines reflects a Japan on the cusp of an era that would herald a decisive transition in its development and reconstruction: the end of the American Occupation (which a government white paper had declared to be over less than three years prior to this film) and the beginning of the decade that would mark the Tokyo Olympiad, the bullet train, and the attendant “miracle” bubble economy that would make Japan a global superpower. Tension and jealousy over new consumer goods—between, as it were, past and future—highlights Ozu’s quizzical rather than equivocal take on modernity, as is the fact that the schoolboy siblings are learning English—a further indication of Japan’s emerging place at the international table.

It’s notable, too, that the spectre of language should again raise its head here. Spoken language in English, though not fluent, rather than Japanese becomes much less a means of obfuscation and more one of communication, as Isamu and Minoru’s stock phrases (such as the latter’s oft-repeated “I love you”) are used or withheld in appropriate situations to convey responses, both positive and negative, to those around them.

Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu, left) and his brother Minoru (Koji Shidara) sulk after their latest appeals for a family TV are rebuffed.

This landscape of modernity and Japan’s variegated “progress” sits alongside and against one of antiquation, of the past and of now outmoded practices and customs. The sporadic presence in the film of a traveling salesman peddling his meager wares in the community (another round of interjections into a host of characters’ homes) becomes a visible marker of what has been lost or left behind in the country’s race toward a new and an ostensibly brighter future. The prognosis here remains a dark cloud on the otherwise sunny horizon of this film, an (unresolved) counterpoint in a minor key working throughout a breezily melodious series of major motifs whose lack of resolution, of digestion, by the film (and, of course, digestive issues are a constant touchstone throughout), is a marker of Japan’s ongoing problems and concerns.  

It goes without saying that the new 4K digital restoration of Criterion’s release does full justice to Ozu’s favored Agfa color stock and palette, and to the careful yet playful compositions that accentuate certain colors, most often red. Ozu does this as a means both of enlivening the generally earthy tones that predominate throughout and to slyly suggest nonconformity or rejection of normalcy, as this bold color is often connected to characters like Isamu and Minoru or the (jobless) bohemian couple. In fact, note how the three colors of the opening credits reappear in the identical jumpers worn by the two young brothers, a sly allusion perhaps on the director’s part to his often-overlooked leanings toward youth, comedy, mischief, mishap, and rebellion. This critical revision of Ozu, the stress on his status as a comedic filmmaker, is, in fact, covered in a video essay by David Cairns on the disc that traces the director’s multifaceted use of humor.

It is a particularly pertinent addition, as Good Morning closes with an almost self-reflexively comical piece of business wherein the director, almost uniquely in his career, makes a joke out of one of the most common of the so-called “pillow shots” that had by this time long permeated his films—that of washed clothing hanging outdoors to dry—which has a narrative salience here that is generally never in evidence elsewhere in his work. It is a key indicator—subsequently to be confirmed with a much more obvious reworking of an earlier film in Floating Weeds (1959)—that Ozu was continually developing his art while at the same time working to refine the recondite foundations of his cinema. To this end, Good Morning, far from undemanding, is in fact a key film in his canon.   

Adam Bingham teaches film studies, is an editor for Intellect in the U.K., and author of Japanese Cinema since Hana-Bi.

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Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 4