16 March 2003 | howard.schumann
Funny, charming and lots more
To say that I Was Born, But
is funny and charming is like saying The Godfather is a crime drama. It is that but much more. Featuring outstanding child performances, this silent film by the great Yasijiro Ozu is both a satire on the rigid structure of Japanese society and a coming-of-age story about children learning to live in a less than perfect world. It is an enduring masterpiece that has maintained its universal appeal over the years.
In the film, eight-year old Keichi (Tomio Aoki) and his ten-year old brother Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) come to live in a small town in the suburbs of Tokyo after their father, Mr. Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito), an office clerk, receives a promotion. The transition to the suburbs, however, is not smooth. Neighborhood bullies taunt the boys, but they soon gain the upper hand with the help of a delivery boy (Shoichi Kojufita) who sends the main bully home crying. One of the neighborhood boys is Taro (Kato), the son of their father's employer Mr. Iwasaki (Takeshi Sakamoto) who seems to always be dressed in a black suit, befitting his station in life. The boys' behavior mirrors the adults with their games and power strategies including the very funny "resurrection" ritual.
The two boys' are in awe of their father and consider him great; however, their loyalty is tested when they see him clowning and acting like a buffoon in front of his employer while watching home movies at Iwasaki's home. Mr. Yoshii explains later that as Iwasaki owns the company where he works, he has to treat him with respect. In disgust the boys ask if they will have to bow to their friend Taro, the boss's son, when he grows up. Resentful after a spanking and dissatisfied with the answers they have received to their questions, they go on a hunger strike but it is short lived. After the father talks with them about the meaning of being an employee, everyone learns something about the realities of life.
Ozu seems to endorse acceptance of the status quo but, on reflection, it seems he is merely making observations rather than judgments. He is critical of the father for kowtowing to his employer, yet also sympathetic with the realities the family must face. The children have lost their innocence and must accept the fact that life isn't fair, but they also see that happiness can be achieved by rising above their prescribed status. Sadly, many of the boys shown in the movie had to fight and die in a bloody war only ten years later, in part a consequence of the rigid social structure Ozu satirized in the film.