Active Ingredients: Constructing setting through editing; Themes of modernity and family
Side Effects: Static staging of dialogue; Development of story
Japanese master Yasujirô Ozu’s early silent effort A Story of Floating Weeds is a delicate tale of tradition and family in a rapidly-changing world, and given the subject of a traveling troupe of actors, announcing the film as a “story” is apt. Interestingly, Ozu remade his own film in 1959, calling it simply Floating Weeds. While that later film is one of Ozu’s masterpieces, A Story of Floating Weeds feels closer to a dramatic narrative the film’s actors might put on. Already by 1934 the director’s visual style is fully-formed, but his over reliance on statically staged scenes of talking heads, in a silent film, mars the emotional story that Ozu was able to fully realize 25 years later. Though the film is silent, it was made six years after the invention of cinematic sound and confirms some early film theorists’ concerns that a reliance on sound would undermine the complex system of visual storytelling that had developed in the silent era. Perhaps Ozu was influenced by the powerful new invention, but with his own prodigious skills he needn’t have embraced a sound film aesthetic without the sound itself.
The story of these antiqued itinerants allows Ozu to explore, as he so often did, the effects of modernity and their subtle manifestations as desire, impatience, shame and submission. While he’s unable to effectively dramatize dialogue, Ozu beautifully evokes his themes through graceful editing and a decidedly anti-Western understanding of film language. The film does away with establishing shots, and freely cuts entirely around its locations, effectively surrounding its characters with houses and enclosures, emphasizing the dream of domestic tranquility. Ozu’s many insert shots of quotidian objects—hanging laundry, tea pots, lanterns—also act as still lives, speaking volumes in their own simple way. This construction of scenes out of meaningful fragments of time gives the film the dynamism and visual complexity, so present in Ozu’s great films, that it otherwise lacks.