Ozu’s Good Morning (why I love it)

Two brothers sit on a grassy patch below an elevated walkway. Behind them, in the far distance, stretches a long bridge that seems to connect the boys to the real, busy world. But they don’t care about that. The boys are in their stocking feet, comfortably eating rice with their fingers, and drinking tea out of the tea kettle lid or their cupped hand. “Messy, isn’t it?” “Yes! Fun, isn’t it!”

Minoru and Isamu have run away from home with their teakettle and rice cooker, because their parents won’t buy them a television set. They’ve decided not to speak to anyone until their demands are met. This is, of course, Yasujiro Ozu’s tenderly beautiful film Good Morning. The film tells the story of a small suburban community and the havoc cast upon it by gossip, suspicion, and two small boys on a silence strike. The film was shot in 1959, and it reminded me of Tati’s films of the same period – full of grace, generosity and gentle humor. It’s about ordinary people going about ordinary lives, but it’s completely captivating.

The boys decide to stop speaking because grownups speak so much and say nothing worth hearing…it’s all just a lot of meaningless talk. “Good morning, good evening, a fine day, where to? Just a ways, I see, I see.” The brothers can talk to each other, if they show the right sign. And they have a shared language of gestures and expressions that are full of meaning, and beautiful to see. Of course their gestures don’t always translate to the rest of the world, and when the little one, Isamu, tries to ask permission to speak in class, nobody knows what he means. The adults in the film, including the boys’ aunt and their English tutor, are amused by the boys’ assessment of grown-up conversation, but they recognize that there’s some truth in it.

The film is full of misunderstandings and half-spoken thoughts and desires. The gossip that travels from small house to small house is a perfect example of meaningless words gone awry and striking out with their own destructive pattern. And yet, the real joy of the film is the moments of understanding between people, and in those moments when we recognize ourselves in the characters, our lives in their lives. They speak Japanese and a bit of English (“I love you!”). They talk in niceties and don’t say what they mean. But we know what they mean, whatever language they speak.

Ozu is famous for defying Hollywood’s rules for creating melodrama in a film, not just by his quiet use of still, low-angled shots, but also because he utilizes narrative ellipses. He doesn’t show the big events, he shows the spaces between them. In famous “pillow shots,” he gives us beautiful small poems of transition, static, but full of quiet, gentle motion within the frame. In the same way, we understand that what’s important in communication isn’t the words, but the spaces between them, and the meaning that they convey through gesture and expression and a universal understanding of human nature.  In the last scene, the boys’ aunt and their English tutor stand at a train station talking foolishly about the shape of a cloud (“Yes, it does look like something…”) But from their barely contained smiles, we know that they know they’re saying so much more to each other.   

Throughout the film, there’s a running series of fart jokes. The boys eat pumice so that they’ll be able to produce a fart on demand when they push each other on the forehead. One of the housewives repeatedly mistakes her husband’s fart for language. During a calisthenic session, two boys admire the flatulent prowess of an older man, and say he has a lot of practice because he works for the gas company. The boys decide that farting is okay, as a form of communication, and doesn’t constitute a breach of their silence strike. This is more than a spate of fart gags, this is a nod to the things that connect us all…our humor and our humanity.

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