Blu-Ray Review: Floating Weeds

Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Screenplay: Yasujirô Ozu, Kôgo Noda, Tadao Ikeda
Starring: Ganjirô Nakamura, Machiko Kyô, Haruko Sugimura, Hiroshi Kawaguchi, Ayako Wakao
Producer: Masaichi Nagata
Country: Japan
Running Time: 119 min
Year: 1959
BBFC Certificate: PG


For me, 2012 has been a bumper year for Yasujirô Ozu films. Previously I’d only seen Tokyo Story and Late Spring, but early in the year The BFI released a set of four of his early student comedies and then followed that with a three film set of some of his classic melodramas. Just as the year is drawing to a close, Masters of Cinema have joined in on the action too (probably not the best phrase to use when discussing Ozu) with a handsome Blu-Ray release of one of his last films, Floating Weeds.

Beginning with a travelling theatre troupe coming to a small seaside town, Floating Weeds looks at the complicated relationships between the group’s members and the local residents of the town as the actors live there for several months. The story largely concerns itself with the troubled ‘family affairs’ of the master of the group, Komajuro (Ganjirô Nakamura), who we learn has brought them there so that he can spend time with his illegitimate son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi). Komajuro has hidden the fact that he is his father for years (Kiyoshi is now in his late teens) as, beyond the scandalous circumstances of his conception, he feels that an actor is not a respectable enough father figure. When Komajuro’s current mistress Sumiko (Machiko Kyô) learns of this and the fact that he has been visiting with the boy’s mother, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), she plots to ruin this family unit by bribing the insalubrious Kayo (Ayako Wakao) to seduce Kiyoshi.

Ozu was a master of the family melodrama and, without wanting to undermine the quality of this beautiful film, this is more of the same from Japan’s great cinematic figurehead. As ever, the film exudes humanity from every pore. Characters feel real and emotionally complex without forcing this idea upon the viewer. They are flawed, but all the more interesting to watch for this very reason. As usual, most of the film unfolds in ‘around the table’ informal chats filled with small talk and pleasantries, with much being said ‘in-between the dialogue’ or in short sharp outbursts that prove all the more effective due to the surrounding restraint. The most powerful of these uncharacteristic moments here is a rainstorm-set argument between Komajuro and Sumiko where they each stand on either side of a rain-drenched street, a red umbrella separating them in the frame.

Speaking of ‘the frame’, you can’t really talk about Ozu without paying reference to his composition. After reviewing a number of his films this year I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but Ozu’s framing and handling of mis-en-scene is a joy to behold. He’s up to his usual tricks – low, static camera positions and unconventional head-on close-ups, but you can’t call it lazy when everything is so carefully constructed and meticulous. His imagery has a beauty that is hard to express. He doesn’t use elaborate lighting techniques or big, bold Leone-style perspective-trickery, he instead employs a simplistic elegance that is quietly stunning. One of his few films to be shot in colour, this technique is well-employed too, with a combination of the cloudless blue skies, colourful costumes worn by the troupe and flashes of red and blue in the banners and posters around the town.

Away from Ozu’s familiar but expert technique, Floating Weeds distinguishes itself from some of his similar work in a couple of ways. For one, the first third of the film tricks you into thinking the film is a densely packed, multi-character ensemble piece, but, although there are a wealth of sub-characters, the story eventually settles and focuses on the core dynamic between Komajuro and his ‘family’. This brings an interesting structure to the storytelling and gives the protagonists breathing room. Added to this, Ozu also employs a lighter tone to much of the film, when compared to the more melancholic Tokyo Story and other titles of the period. This lightness of touch does drift away as the drama takes over in the final third, but overall it’s a breezier watch than usual and I found its slow pace less noticeable than before.

All praise aside, it doesn’t quite rank as highly as some of his other work in my eyes though. It still puts the majority of melodramas to shame, but I found it less affecting than say Late Spring or Tokyo Twilight. I found some of the later scenes of confrontation less subtle than I have come to expect from Ozu too and the climax wasn’t as satisfyingly well handled as I’d have liked. Still, these are lesser faults than perhaps they sound – if it was from another director I’d probably have gone easy on them, but with a year full of reviewing his films and the high regard he is held, a little nitpicking is acceptable.

Floating Weeds is out in the UK on 3rd December on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I watched the Blu-Ray edition and the transfer is great as always. I did get some slight digital grain issues once or twice in the clear blue skies and the occasional white shirt, but this may be an issue with my player or projector as I notice it quite often in Blu-Rays through that system. Audio is solid too.

You only get a trailer as an added extra, but as usual you get a booklet included in the package which more than fills the gap.

Trailer:

David Brook
RowThree's UK correspondent.

14 Comments

  1. Are any of his films in your list for next year?

    This would probably be a good starting point actually as it’s a little lighter than some of his other later films. Saying that his films aren’t usually heavy-going as such, but they are slow and often quite melancholy. I will warn you, on first viewing you might not see what the fuss is about, until the end of the film that is. I saw Late Spring first and I was getting a bit fidgety as I watched it, struggling to appreciate all the seemingly innocuous small talk, but then when the end came around I turned into a gibbering wreck. I’ve found that effect with a few of his films – they creep up on you without you realising. This however has more humour and variety in its first half to draw you in.

    Reply
    • I’ll agree with David on the point that Ozu can definitely be an acquired taste, whether it takes you one full viewing or many to get into his particular groove. Personally, I think his color period is a good place to start off with him – all the films I’ve seen from that phase have some nice doses of humor that compliment the more melancholy bits quite nicely. For specific films, I’d recommend Good Morning or An Autumn Afternoon.

      Reply
      • Good Morning is the only Ozu I’ve seen, and I also endorse it as a good starting place. I’ve tried watching Tokyo Story at least two or three times and always ended up putting it off until I was more ready – I might be close now. Tokyo Story is definitely not one I’d recommend to someone new to Japanese cinema in general (as I was the first couple of times I tried to watch it). But Good Morning was charming and relatable.

        Reply
        • Yeah Tokyo Story was one of the titles I was struggling to get through at the half way mark, so I can see why you didn’t get through it, but the final third totally won me over and you realise what all the hard work was for.

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          • Yeah, it’s weird to explain – it’s not so much that I was bored by it (though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t to some degree), but that I sensed while watching it that I would get more out of it if I waited until I had some other Japanese cinema under my belt first. It was a calculated decision to turn it off in the middle, rather than simple abandonment.

            That’s good to hear about the final third. I’m thinking I’ll put Tokyo Story back on my list for 2013 – I’ve genuinely loved some contemporary Japanese cinema (especially Sansho the Bailiff and The Naked Island, both of which run slow), so I think I might be better prepared for more Ozu now.

          • Being both the first Ozu I ever saw and part of my undergrad “Intro to Film” course, Tokyo Story was also something of a trudge for me when I first saw it. But then I naturally sought out more Ozu afterwards – again, mainly his color stuff – and learned to truly appreciate his craft. While I’ve caught up on and really enjoyed older ones of his like Late Spring, I haven’t seen Tokyo Story for some time, and I’m curious to see how I’d find it now. Hmm…maybe a group review post of Tokyo Story is in order?

          • It sounds like a lot of you want to give it a rewatch (or first watch) this year so that could be an idea. I feel like I’ve been reviewing Ozu all year with the two box sets and this being released though! I might let you guys chat it over and join in for the comments :)

    • No nothing on the list for next year. That was supposed to be for mostly “classic” film that are kind of for everyone to see. But I do want to explore some Ozu. For some reason (without knowing much), it sounds like it’s sort of along the lines of some Kim Ki-Duk’s stuff maybe? (I’m a huge fan of 3-Iron and Spring Summer, Fall…).

      Reply
  2. Looks like the Masters of Cinema edition isn’t packaged this way, but for North American viewers, the Criterion edition of Floating Weeds also includes Ozu’s earlier silent version, A Story of Floating Weeds. I’d be curious to check them out together – directors remaking their own stuff is always interesting. On the other hand, Criterion hasn’t upgraded this one to Blu-ray yet, so the Masters of Cinema edition has that advantage.

    http://www.criterion.com/boxsets/369-i-a-story-of-floating-weeds-floating-weeds-i-two-films-by-yasujiro-ozu

    Reply
      • Oh, wow, those do look different. First glance at a couple of the shots, I’m drawn to the brighter Criterion colors, but on closer inspection, looks like Criterion has over-sharpened it a good bit, and thus probably over-saturated it, too.

        I think both films are on Criterion’s HuluPlus channel, so that might be the way to go for North Americans to see the earlier film, but looks like either importing the Masters of Cinema or waiting for Criterion to upgrade to Blu (and hopefully better their transfer) is the way to go for collectors.

        Reply
        • I know what you mean, at first glance the Criterion looks nicer, but it does seem a bit over the top, definitely in terms of sharpness. I don’t know how they prove these things, but supposedly the softer, greenish hued version is more inline with ‘what Ozu intended’.

          Reply

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