No, really, I was born, no ifs ands or buts. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm referring, of course, to the 1932 silent Japanese classic, I Was Born, But ... (the full title translated from the Japanese is A Picture Book For Grown-Ups: I Was Born, But ...), by perhaps the greatest of all Japanese directors, Yasujiro Ozu.
If you don't know who Yasujiro Ozu is, perhaps it's time to get acquainted.
"Sooner or later," Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert has written, "everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu. He is the quietest and gentlest of directors, the most humanistic, the most serene. But the emotions that flow through his films are strong and deep, because they reflect the things we care about the most: Parents and children, marriage or a life lived alone, illness and death, and taking care of one another."
This is one of Ozu's earliest efforts, and his first great film. Like everyone, Ozu had to start somewhere. A big fan of Hollywood comedies, particularly those of Ernst Lubitsch and Harold Lloyd, Ozu cut his teeth during the silent era on a series of family comedies with titles such as I Graduated, But ... and I Flunked, But ... The best of them, I Was Born, But ... was a breakthrough that proved to be a harbinger of Ozu's later brilliance.
Despite being produced in 1932, the movie is silent. The plot could be that of an Our Gang comedy—the antics of little boys and the mysteries of their social pecking order—focusing specifically on a pair of brothers, maybe ages six and seven, loveable scamps who play hooky, fake test scores and bribe a delivery boy to beat up the local bully. They play rousing games of one-upmanship—my dad has a fancy car; oh, yeah? my dad can take out his teeth!—they watch home movies, they collect sparrows eggs. The two boys are refreshingly close (they remind me of my own brothers) egging each other on and presenting a united front against the world. Eventually, they take over leadership of the gang and all is right with the world.
But then at a party, the boys discover their dad, far from being the important man they imagine him to be, is in fact a non- entity, the butt of his boss's jokes, a self-confessed "apple polisher." This is where the simple comedy becomes something more, a wickedly funny insight into the human condition.
"You tell me to be somebody," says the older boy, "but you're nobody!" Then he demands to know why his father must kowtow to his boss.
"He pays my salary," his father says.
"Then don't let him pay you," the boy says.
"Yeah!" the little brother adds with the implacable logic of a six year old. "You pay him instead!"
Out of the mouths of babes.
"Are you important?" the boy asks.
"Why are you pestering me with these questions?" the dad snaps.
"See?" says the boy. "He's not."
I'd have paid money to see Beaver Cleaver have the same conversation with his dad, and I'll bet you that like the father in I Was Born, But ..., Ward curled up with a bottle of Hennessy on many an evening after the closing credits rolled.
By the end of the scene, which includes a first-class tantrum, the boys receive well-earned spankings, but the father is deeply chagrined—sometimes truth is a dish best not served at all, especially when it proves indigestible. But don't despair. This is a comedy and all ends well.
I Was Born, But ... has a documentary feel, and in the hands of another director, the effect would be cold, austere, affected. In Ozu's hands, it's as real as life itself and his work here makes the shaky-cam and frenetic editing of today's movies feel noisy, tedious and utterly phony. It's not that nothing happens, it's that nothing feels as if it's made to happen simply to satisfy the mechanics of plot.
Ozu six times won the Kinema Junpo award, the Japanese equivalent of the Oscar for best picture, including one for I Was Born, But ... Despite being the most celebrated director in Japanese history, however—at least in his own country—Ozu's films weren't seen in the United States until 1970, seven years after his death, previously having been deemed "too Japanese" for Western tastes. (Ironically, Akira Kurosawa, who directed such masterpieces as Rashomon and Seven Samurai, lost favor in Japan because he was deemed "too Western.") Since his introduction to the West some forty years ago, Ozu's reputation has risen steadily; his best movie, 1953's Tokyo Story, now routinely make lists of the Ten Best Films ever made. (Assuming I live long enough, we'll eventually get to Tokyo Story.)
If you're at all interested in Ozu, silent movies or family comedies, you'll want to see this early step in the master's development. But only watch it with the kids if you're a very self-confident father.