After a presentation of shorts, the George Eastman Museum kicked off its third annual Nitrate Picture Show with a Japanese drama, Yasujirō Ozu’s quiet and gracefully understated Bakushū [麦秋]. In the context of midcentury Japan, Ozu explores the generational clash between tradition and progress, and both the possibilities and the casualties brought on by the latter. Opening with something that deals with changing values was an interesting choice on multiple levels.
Noriko (Setsuko Hara) lives in postwar Tokyo with her parents, Shūkichi (Ichirō Sugai) and Shige (Chieko Higashiyama); her older brother, physician Kōichi (Chishū Ryū); his wife, Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake); and their two unruly young sons, Minoru (Zen Murase) and Isamu (Isao Shirosawa). Noriko earns her own living as a secretary and contributes to the household, maintaining her own active social life. She seems happy, or at least content. Still, her more conventional family is concerned because she’s 28 years old and still isn’t married.
Noriko is a good sport about her family members’ not-so-subtle reminders, but the heat intensifies when an elderly uncle (Kokuten Kōdō) stays for a visit. Her chauvinistic boss (Shūji Sano) plays matchmaker, introducing her to Mr. Matanabe, a business associate in his 40s (all of his interactions occur off camera, so we never see him). He proposes. Naturally, Noriko’s family pushes her to accept his offer, which she considers even though the prospect doesn’t excite her.
Enter childhood friend, Kenkichi (Hiroshi Nihon’yanagi), who returns to the neighborhood with his daughter. He’s a widow in between job assignments. Noriko suddenly develops her own idea about which path she wants to take, much to the dismay of her family.
Bakushū is not a kinetic film—it’s slow, and the action centers on mundane routine activities like preparing meals, eating, conversing, working, and getting ready for bed. Some of the plot’s significant events aren’t even shown. Ozu favors low angles and wide, distant shots. He keeps the camera pretty still. He doesn’t use a lot of sets. On top of that, it takes some effort to keep track of the many characters.
Admittedly, I found myself zoning out at the beginning. Once I settled into Ozu’s rhythm, though, I got more interested in Bakushū. Some of the plot elements make the story seem slightly ahead of its time, but the core themes are universal. This is a family drama; the family unit ultimately falls apart, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The family portrait at the end closes things on a bittersweet note. I sensed more than a nod to the burgeoning westernization of Japanese society.
Bakushū fits nicely into the midcentury films I’ve developed a taste for. I never heard of it or Ozu, but I’ve already looked him up. I’m interested in seeing more of his work. As for this print, it was in all likelihood the very first feature film I’ve ever seen on nitrate (we’re not counting the shorts). The picture was crisp, but I must confess: its quality didn’t wow me like some others I saw after this.
With Chikage Awashima, Kuniko Igawa, Haruko Sugimura, Seiji Miyaguchi
Production: Takeshi Yamamoto
Distribution: Shochiku Company Limited, The Voyager Company (USA), Janus Films (USA)
(Dryden Theatre) B-
Nitrate Picture Show