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THERE WAS A FATHER (Chichi ariki)(director/writer: Yasujiro Ozu; screenwriters: Tadao Ikeda/Takao Yanai; cinematographer: Yuuhara Atsuta; editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura; music: Kyoichi Saiki; cast: Chishu Ryu (Shuhei Horikawa), Shuji Sano (Ryohei), Shin Saburi (Yusataro Kurokawa), Takeshi Sakamoto (Makoto Hirata), Mitsuko Mito (Fumiko), Masayoshi Otsuka (Seichi), Shinichi Himori (Minoru Uchida), Haruhiko Tsuda (Ryohei as a child); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; Shochiku; 1942-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)
“Ozu’s most Buddhist, didactic, Japanese and patriarchal film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This beautifully crafted (despite the use of a static camera), sincere and superbly acted old-fashioned “father knows best” family drama made during the war years was a very popular and acclaimed film in Japan. It’s directed by the great Yasujiro Ozu (“The Record of a Tenement Gentleman”/”Late Autumn”/”Equinox Flower”), who offers his wisdom about a close father-son relationship that is special; it’s tautly written by Ozu, Tadao Ikeda and Takao Yanai. Perhaps it’s Ozu’s most Buddhist, didactic, Japanese and patriarchal film, that only seems hampered because there’s some war propaganda about doing one’s duty for country that makes its way into the theme in the film’s second part.

Dedicated and respected junior high school math teacher in a backwater town, Shuhei Horikawa (Chishu Ryu), a widower with a ten year old son named Ryohei (Haruhiko Tsuda), resigns after a student drowns in a boating accident during a school trip to Tokyo to visit traditional revered spots such as the Imperial Palace and the Great Buddha statue in Kamakura. Since Horikawa was in charge, he feels responsible for the child’s death even though no one blames him. The principled Horikawa returns to his seacoast hometown of Ueda and when his son reaches the age of a junior high school student, he sends him to a paid boarding school and visits his dorm once a week. The father states that education is the best way to get ahead and he will do for his son what his deceased father did for him. Set on sending his son to college, the father relocates to Tokyo to get a better paying salaryman’s job in a factory and thereby ensure that he has enough money to finance his son’s education–which is viewed as more important than their separation. Some fifteen years go by with the father and son seeing each other sparingly for brief visits but enjoying immensely each visit that they have. The now 25-year-old Ryohei (Shuji Sano) graduates college and becomes a chemistry teacher in a junior high school in Akita. They spend a few days together in a spa, where they go fishing. Later Ryohei visits dad in Tokyo, where dad has risen to a more prestigious office job, while he takes his physical for the military draft. Horikawa and fellow junior high school teacher Hirata (Takeshi Sakamoto), now also living in Japan, have a festive reunion with a group of appreciative former students. Soon after, Horikawa is taken ill and dies. His last wish is that Hirata’s sweet and beautiful 21-year-old daughter Fumiko (Mitsuko Mito) look after his son. The last scene has Fumiko and Ryohei traveling back to Akita by train as a married couple, with the obediant son bearing his father’s ashes.

Ozu’s familiar motifs are present: such as the parent who self-sacrifices for his child, the train as a reminder of going home for both father and son and the two fishing scenes that bonds the father and son in a natural sporting way–showing how they are at one with nature and themselves (a familiar Buddhist theme). This simple relationship film is perfectly realized and its austere telling relates to the war years where the Japanese people were encouraged to accept their deprivations as a kind of necessary purification for the greater good of society. It also plays along as a spiritual exercise, a toughening of the soul and need for commitment to do the best one can do in whatever endeavor one does (sacrifice and responsibility now becomes the film’s theme). The father’s strongest belief is “Without schooling you can’t become somebody.” When his son grows up and gets that schooling, the message shifts and becomes “do one’s appointed job, no matter how lowly or grim it is, or how backwater a place you are situated in. A good man has to serve his country in the best and worst times.” It should be pointed out that Ozu makes no direct reference to the war, but just throws it out that one should act responsibly as a general statement. The film does not question paternal authority, which is no problem here because the father is such a decent person, but in his postwar films Ozu questions if father is always right and if duty sometimes comes with too high a price to pay.

The 38-year-old Chishu Ryu, an Ozu favorite, gives one of cinema’s greatest performance. He might be the father a lot of us wish we had; and, the timeless filmmaking of Ozu might still allow him to be viewed as one of the best directors in his or any generation.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”