Ozu vs. Ozu: A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and Floating Weeds (1959)

In the last few years of his career, Yasujirô Ozu reworked some of his earlier films. Both 1932’s I Was Born, But… and 1959’s Good Morning involve two young brothers “going on strike,” although the details are different: the boys in the former refuse to eat because they want their father to stop abasing himself in front of his boss, while the boys in the latter refuse to talk because they want their parents to buy them a television and because they’re tired of adults’ empty pleasantries. 1960’s Late Autumn tells essentially the same story as 1949’s Late Spring, with a widowed mother replacing the widowed father of the original and the addition of some significant secondary characters. (Elements of Late Spring also appear in 1962’s An Autumn Afternoon.) However, Ozu’s most direct remake of his own work is 1959’s Floating Weeds, based on 1934’s A Story of Floating Weeds.

Some differences are obvious right away. Most notably, the 1934 film is silent, as Ozu hadn’t switched over to sound yet. (In Donald Richie’s book Ozu, he writes, “One reason Ozu held out so long against sound was that he had promised his cameraman, Hideo Shigehara, that he would wait until Shigehara had perfected the sound system on which he had been working for some time. It was very like Ozu, [screenwriting partner] Kogo Noda observed, ‘to go on making silents when the company was howling for talkies just because of a promise to his cameraman.'”) The 1959 film has both sound and color. It’s also more than half an hour longer than the original, which clocks in at a mere 86 minutes. Other differences require closer examination.

First, the original. A Story of Floating Weeds opens with a traveling kabuki troupe, led by Kihachi Ichikawa (Takeshi Sakamoto), arriving in a town that they haven’t visited in four years. Shortly thereafter, Kihachi goes to visit a local restaurant owner named Otsune (Chôko Iida), with whom he has a son, Shinkichi (Kôji Mitsui, credited as Hideo Mitsui). Although Shinkichi is now grown up, his parents have never told him that Kihachi is his father; instead, he thinks that his father was a civil servant and has been dead for years. Kihachi prefers to keep it that way, and he tells Otsune, “He wouldn’t want a no-good father like me.” The two men spend time together fishing and playing chess, but Shinkichi regards him as a family friend and calls him “Uncle.” Meanwhile, Kihachi’s current girlfriend, Otaka (Rieko Yagumo) — an actress in the troupe — becomes suspicious about his frequent absences. When she learns the truth, she’s outraged. After a bitter confrontation, in which he tells her that they’re through and that Shinkichi belongs to a better world than hers, she decides to take revenge. She asks another actress, Otoki (Yoshiko Tsubouchi), to seduce Shinkichi, and although Otoki is uncertain at first, she eventually agrees to do it.

Floating Weeds follows the same basic plot, although the names are different: the head of the troupe is now Komajuro Arashi (Ganjirô Nakamura), his son is Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), his son’s mother is Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), his current girlfriend is Sumiko (Machiko Kyô) and the actress sent to seduce his son is Kayo (Ayako Wakao). I’m certainly no expert on Japanese names, so I don’t know if they were changed in order to sound more contemporary or if there were other reasons.

For the most part, things are expanded rather than altered in any significant way, which accounts for the longer run-time. (In particular, we see more of the other actors in the troupe.) As is typical of Ozu’s sound films, the remake is dialogue-heavy, with a lot of unhurried conversations that establish a world and its inhabitants. The silent original has to rely more on imagery, of course, so things are often conveyed in relatively concise ways. Both approaches are appropriate for their respective forms. Even though I had just watched the silent, the sound version never felt padded, but the silent didn’t feel underdeveloped either. (For the record, I first saw the remake several months before I saw the original, but I watched them in chronological order this time around. Both movies are less familiar to me than a lot of Ozu’s other work — I hadn’t rewatched either of them before — and I think I was as impartial as I could be.)

The difference that struck me most was a matter of casting instead of any changes in the script. When A Story of Floating Weeds was released, lead actor Takeshi Sakamoto was only thirty-five years old. While he might pass for forty, the allusions to Kihachi’s advanced age tend to ring false. Ganjirô Nakamura, in contrast, was fifty-seven when Floating Weeds premiered, which makes Komajuro’s failures — personal and professional — more poignant. He’s not elderly yet, but he’s at a point where starting over is extremely difficult; plus, I got a stronger sense of the decades that he had devoted to his troupe. That said, I think I might have preferred Sakamoto’s performance to Nakamura’s, at least in some respects, so that evened things out a little.

Takeshi Sakamoto (left) and Ganjirô Nakamura (right)
Takeshi Sakamoto (left) and Ganjirô Nakamura (right)

Speaking of Kihachi’s “advanced age,” I noticed something amusing: When he first goes to visit Otsune in the original film, he complains about his stiff shoulders. In the equivalent scene in the remake, Oyoshi tells Komajuro, “You had sore shoulders last time.” He seems to have forgotten all about this and says that he’s okay now.

It’s worth noting, too, that in the remake, Komajuro hasn’t visited this town in twelve years, as opposed to the four years of the original. Consequently, he hasn’t seen his son since he was a child, which puts a slightly different spin on their relationship — as does the fact that the son thinks Komajuro is his mother’s brother. Neither movie really explores the relationship between the actor and his son’s mother, which is disappointing. It’s clear that they’re on very good terms, but we never learn the circumstances of the son’s birth, when and why they split up, or anything of that sort. Was the son conceived when the actor happened to be passing through town? Were the actor and the mother madly in love, but her family opposed the match because of his unsettled profession? Although it’s fun to speculate, we don’t get any answers.

Another difference that stuck out to me also involved the son. In the original, Shinkichi is a post-graduate student who has already finished agricultural college, and his mother notes that he’s eligible for the draft next year.  In the remake, Kiyoshi works at the post office to save up for a trade school, where he wants to study electronics. This reflects some of the changes that had occurred in Japan in the quarter-century between the two films — not only the growth of the electronics industry, but also the country’s demilitarization after World War II. “They’d have drafted you back then,” Kiyoshi’s mother says when his father admires how much he’s grown.

It’s always fascinating to see how the characters are portrayed in various incarnations of the same story. One thing I liked about the remake was the fact that the current girlfriend gets more screen time before she acts on her jealousy. Machiko Kyô’s performance reveals how hurt her character is when she learns that her boyfriend has been visiting his old love in secret; her tone is bitter, but she’s holding back tears all the while. It makes Sumiko more sympathetic, even when she behaves badly. Otaka, her counterpart in the original, pays a not-so-friendly visit to the son and his mother right after she finds out about them. She has sympathetic moments of her own — she even suffers violent treatment from Kihachi, which may be difficult for viewers to watch — but not until after that moment of cruelty. Then again, that means we start to reconsider her earlier actions in a new light, which has its own merits as a method of storytelling. In a similar way, the aforementioned violence that occurs in both versions forces us to reevaluate the generally good-natured Kihachi/Komajuro character.

Much remains the same, though. As Donald Richie points out in Ozu, one of the most obvious similarities is the staging of the confrontation between the actor and his current girlfriend. Here’s A Story of Floating Weeds:

…and here’s Floating Weeds:

(If there’s any significance to the fact that their positions have changed, it’s beyond me. I could say it’s because Sumiko is more well-rounded than Otaka and thus merits more attention, but that would be reading far too much into it, I think.)

A lot of the dialogue in key scenes is the same as well, at least in its English translation, though sometimes it’s tweaked in interesting ways. In the original, when the actor sees his grown-up son, he says, “No wonder we’re old now.” In the remake, the line becomes “No wonder we’re getting old” — despite the fact that the first speaker is in his mid-thirties and the second is pushing sixty.

Both films also have lovely cinematography (by Hideo Shigehara in the original and Kazuo Miyagawa in the remake), and the colors in Floating Weeds are gorgeous. Although I don’t know why Ozu moved the setting from an inland town to the coast, the blues of the sky and sea provide ample justification.

Even some of the actors are the same. Chishû Ryû (a ubiquitous presence in Ozu’s films) makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in the original as an audience member, and in the remake he has a small part as the owner of the theater. More importantly, Kôji Mitsui, who plays Shinkichi in A Story of Floating Weeds, appears in Floating Weeds as an actor named Kichinosuke. In addition to the seven movies he made with Ozu, Mitsui worked with Akira Kurosawa seven times and with a number of other major Japanese directors, including Masaki Kobayashi, Keisuke Kinoshita and Hiroshi Teshigahara. He’s also, in my opinion, much better as the son than Hiroshi Kawaguchi is in the remake.

Kôji Mitsui in the original (left) and in the remake (right)
Kôji Mitsui in the original (left) and in the remake (right)

One final note: As explained in this article from the Austin Film Society, A Story of Floating Weeds was at least a partial remake itself, as it was inspired by a 1928 American film called The Barker, directed by George Fitzmaurice. It’s well worth a read.

This post is part of the They Remade What?! Blogathon, hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.

4 thoughts on “Ozu vs. Ozu: A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and Floating Weeds (1959)

    1. Thanks so much! Ozu is one of my favorite directors, and he has a unique, formalistic style that’s instantly recognizable from one film to the next. There’s more experimentation in his early silents, but his signature style was pretty well established by the time of A Story of Floating Weeds. I tend to prefer his more domestic stories — which means virtually everything else he did, at least in the sound era — but Floating Weeds might be a good starting point, as it’s a bit more plot-driven than his others. Late Spring is my absolute favorite, though.

      Liked by 1 person

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