“I Was Born, But…” (1932)
by A.J. Hakari
We never really grow up, do we? I don’t mean that in the sense that we’re forever slaves to childish behavior and infantile impulses (though some are, and often on Fox News). It’s just that as adults, we deal with different forms of the same stuff that we do as kids: submitting to authority figures, tangling with bullies, and showing off our cool new toys. Each generation has something to teach the other, as Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… demonstrates with a wise and humorous touch. It deals with life’s assorted hiccups with charm and affection, not to mention showing that the ideal standard of living in 1930s Japan wasn’t too far off from what it still is in America today.
The next chapter has begun in the lives of young brothers Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) and Keiji (Tomio Aoki). With their dad (Tatsuo Saito) getting a new office job comes a nice little home in the suburbs too, a climate to which the boys experience some trouble adjusting. They fast become targets of rowdy neighborhood kids, whose roughhousing is enough to get the siblings to avoid school like the plague. But this is nothing compared to the pain of seeing their father kowtowing before his boss, realizing for the first time that their pop isn’t the center of the world after all.
Until now, all the Ozu films I’ve seen have focused on a certain phase of life during its twilight (i.e. the death of loved ones in Tokyo Story or children leaving the nest in An Autumn Afternoon). While I Was Born, But… is about a new beginning, you could argue that, from the perspective of Ryoichi and Keiji, it’s also the end of the world as they know it. Who hasn’t experienced that moment where, after years of looking upon your parents as life, the universe, and everything, you learn that even they have to answer to someone? As lightly comical as their plight is depicted, Ryoichi and Keiji are crushed at going through a whole film’s worth of teasing by classmates, only to turn around and see their dad have to kiss up to someone bigger than him.
But owing to Ozu’s hands-off storytelling, I Was Born, But… skews on the tender side of melodramatic, with hardly a forced frame in sight. The boys are allowed to be boys who’d rather wander around town than risk life and limb on the playground, just as their father is none too happy with sucking up to his superiors but does so to provide for his family. Ozu displays a great understanding of each realm and often parallels the two; as Ryoichi and Keiji come to stand up to their bullies, we see dear old dad all too aware that playing the game is a part of getting anywhere in life. But this is also a very funny film that doesn’t have to announce it, dealing in wryly subtle observations before it ends on a real corker that brings everything the brothers have learned full circle.
Some say that I Was Born, But… was just the first in a multitude of masterpieces for Ozu. It’s not a perfect flick (the second act’s ambling, “Little Rascals”-style shenanigans drag it down a bit), but I’m inclined to agree that for the director, it was the start of something big. Ozu’s hands gently composed nearly everything they touched, and the heartfelt feeling I Was Born, But… gives off is all the evidence necessary.