The opening credits of Yasujirô Ozu’s 1936 film The Only Son end with a line that seems to promise high melodrama: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” Although the story that follows has its melodramatic moments, Ozu — in this, his first movie with sound (save for the previous year’s documentary short Kagamijishi) — seems equally interested in more mundane, universal sorrows.
The Only Son begins in 1923. Otsune Nonomiya (Chôko Iida) lives in the central Japanese province of Shinshu with her young son, Ryosuke (Masao Hayama). As a widow who performs menial labor in a silk mill, she can’t afford to send Ryosuke to middle school like some of his classmates, but to her dismay, she finds that he’s already told his teacher (Chishû Ryû) otherwise. “It’d be a shame for such a bright boy to quit school now,” the teacher, Mr. Okubo, says to her when he stops by for a visit, then adds, “A person can’t do anything without an education.” Once her initial surprise and irritation pass, Otsune reconsiders the situation and finally changes her mind. Tearfully grasping her son’s hand, she says, “Go to middle school. I can do at least that much for you. What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t?” Although she admits that she would rather have him stay with her, she’s willing to give up her own happiness for the sake of his future, and she urges him to study hard and not worry about her. “Just watch, Ma,” Ryosuke replies, in tears himself by this point. “I’ll become a great man.”
After this scene, the film skips ahead to 1935, when a graying Otsune informs a co-worker that Ryosuke, now twenty-seven (and played by Shin’ichi Himori), has found a job in Tokyo. “I think I’ll go to Tokyo in the spring,” she declares, and following another time jump to 1936, she does just that — much to Ryosuke’s surprise. As it soon emerges, he hasn’t been completely honest with his mother: Without her knowledge, he’s married a woman named Sugiko (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) and even has a baby son, Gi’ichi, named after his own late father. Moreover, he no longer works at city hall, as he wrote to her. Instead, he teaches night school, a decided step down on the career ladder, and although he earns enough to get by, his finances are so tight that he has to borrow money in order to show his mother around Tokyo for a few days. It’s far from the life that Otsune thought her years of toil would help him obtain.
Self-sacrificing mothers are hardly a rare commodity in cinema (or in the real world, for that matter), but if Otsune has traits in common with Mildred Pierce, Ryosuke is no Veda. (Oddly enough, however, he happens to have a picture of Joan Crawford hanging by one of the doorways in his house.) He’s not ungrateful for his mother’s devotion or embarrassed by her low social status; on the contrary, he didn’t want her to come to Tokyo because he was ashamed of his failure to live up to her expectations and his own. “I wish I’d stayed with you out in the country,” he confesses. The city, he feels, is more to blame than any lack of effort on his part: “It’s not a matter of giving up. I’ve done everything I could. But Tokyo’s so crowded. It’s hopeless.” Seventeen years later, a similar sentiment would be expressed in Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but in that instance it would come from a father quoting his son and criticizing the young man’s attitude: “I’m afraid we expect too much of our children. They lack spirit. They lack ambition. I’ve told that to my son. He said that there are too many people in Tokyo, that it’s hard to get ahead. What do you think? Young people today have no backbone. Where is their spirit? That’s not how I raised him!” Otsune might say the same thing, and does, more or less.
Because Ozu so often dealt in domestic tales, with a particular focus on the relationships between parents and children, it’s easy to draw parallels between The Only Son and much of his other work. The film’s closest counterpart may be 1942’s There Was a Father, in which a single father makes personal sacrifices for his son’s benefit, but it also comes across as a sort of prototype for Tokyo Story. There, an elderly husband and wife travel to Tokyo to visit their adult children, and like Otsune’s trip to the city, theirs entails at least as many disappointments as pleasures. Some of the similarities are striking — besides the visiting parents and the dialogue about Tokyo being too crowded and competitive, both movies also contain a scene in which a grandmother talks to her very young grandson and speculates on his future — and the differences are just as fascinating.
Despite Ryosuke’s financial straits and his shame at failing to live up to his mother’s expectations, he clearly enjoys spending time with her after their long separation: showing her around the city, buying presents for her, taking her to see his old teacher and to the movies (though the film, a German-language talkie that’s neither dubbed nor subtitled, puts her to sleep). In contrast, the adult children in Tokyo Story regard their parents’ visit as an inconvenience, if not an outright nuisance. (Even a schoolboy grandson is literally put out by the couple’s presence, as his desk needs to be moved to make room for them.) Their lives are busy, and they have neither the leisure nor the inclination to go sightseeing with their parents or otherwise make the experience a special one for them; instead, they’re only too happy to send the couple away to a hot springs resort or pass them off to a widowed daughter-in-law — the only person who seems genuinely delighted to see them.
To be fair to the children, there are indications that the parents may also bear some of the blame for the less-than-ideal relationship between the generations. At one point, the father shows up at his daughter’s house late at night, unexpected and inebriated. She tells her husband that he was always coming home drunk when she was growing up, and that she hated it; Otsune has no such obvious flaws. It’s worth noting, too, that the family in Tokyo Story appears much more financially comfortable than the Nonomiyas, the father having been the head of his city’s board of education in his younger years. As such, there’s not quite the same sense that he sacrificed everything for his children, living in poverty and slaving away at a mindless manual job for their sake, which might also help to explain why they don’t share Ryosuke’s filial gratitude.
Generally speaking, the characters in Ozu’s early films tend to live closer to the poverty line than those in his later works. In his book Ozu, Donald Richie notes that the director’s follow-up to The Only Son, 1937’s What Did the Lady Forget?, marks a significant turning point:
Having said what he wanted to say as perfectly as he could in The Only Son, Ozu, as usual, went off in search of something else — in this case, a new milieu. Most of Ozu’s pictures (with some exceptions, including I Was Born, But…) had been laid in the old section of Tokyo, the shitamachi or downtown, the traditional home of the poor shomin. Just before this period Ozu himself had moved from old-fashioned and downtown Fukugawa to the smart and uptown Takanawa; in this film he went to modern Tokyo, to the well-to-do yamanote residential district. The Japanese have always made much of this distinction, and still do, even now, when it can be said barely to exist. In any case, it was certainly a novelty in an Ozu film for everyone on the screen to have enough money.
The Only Son, then, is something like the end of an era, although a few of Ozu’s later films — especially the first two he made after World War II, 1947’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman and 1948’s A Hen in the Wind — also take place in decidedly less-than-affluent surroundings. In The Only Son, Ryosuke’s relative poverty is not so much dire or desperate as it is drab. (Otsune’s poverty is another matter, however, as she eventually admits — having kept her real situation a secret from her son.) He and his family don’t appear to be in any danger of starving, and his job is respectable enough, if not exactly lucrative, but this is hardly the kind of life he once aspired to. Mr. Okubo finds himself in a similar position after moving to the capital city, running a struggling pork cutlet restaurant instead of moving up in the world. “I never thought I’d have to do this in Tokyo,” he says sheepishly. “But things turn out the way they will.”
To emphasize the mundaneness of Ryosuke’s existence, and Otsune’s as well, Ozu makes effective use of the newest tool at his disposal: sound. At the start of the film, the ceaseless clatter of the silk mill is first heard during an exterior shot, before the interior of the factory — with its lines of spinning wheels and tired, laboring women — is shown. It’s heard again at the end of this dialogue-free scene, even though the mill is quite some distance from the camera that time; perhaps it’s meant to suggest the way Otsune’s work dominates her life, as the noise dominates the landscape. Later, at Ryosuke’s house in Tokyo, there’s a near-constant, repetitive, mechanical noise coming from next door (“That’s why the rent’s so cheap,” he says), adding to the air of dreariness, the feeling that he’s trapped at a dead end, with no change in sight. (Ozu also throws in frequent shots of poles loaded with drying laundry — even more than he typically does, it seems — further strengthening the idea of an endless cycle of dull toil.) The film’s weepiest scene, in which Otsune confesses that she’s had to sell her home and move into a tenement for Ryosuke’s sake, concludes with a long shot of a wall, with this noise gradually replacing the sound of crying as night turns to day. Life goes on all around, regardless of the heightened emotions within the house.
Near the end of Otsune’s stay in Tokyo, a crisis involving an injured child makes her realize that Ryosuke has grown up to be a generous, kindhearted person — qualities more important than material success. Moreover, after Otsune returns home, a still-ashamed Ryosuke informs Sugiko that he plans to go back to school in order to become a licensed high school teacher, thereby giving their own son “a good roll of the dice.” Sugiko, weeping, remarks how fortunate he’s been to have such a good mother. It seems like a neat, optimistic conclusion — but, as is often the case with Ozu, the film goes out on a rather more ambivalent note.
The final scene takes place at the silk mill, where a beaming Otsune is telling a co-worker about her trip, about the bustle and excitement of the big city, and about Ryosuke, whom she describes as a great man. “You’re a lucky woman,” the co-worker tells her, and though Otsune agrees, her smile fades away. She goes outside and sits down, suddenly looking very old and weary. Her head droops; if she’s not crying yet, she’s on the verge of it, and that’s the last the viewer sees of her. The reason for her sorrow isn’t made explicit, but certainly she has cause enough for it. Maybe it’s all the hardship she’s gone through and continues to face, or maybe it’s the fact that she’s missed out on so much precious time with her son. Ryosuke tells a neighbor that she turned down the chance to move in with him in Tokyo, claiming to prefer the countryside, yet one can’t help suspecting that she was concerned about being a burden to him. Money remains a significant issue, and their lives, separate for so long, will stay that way for the foreseeable future.
“Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child” could serve as an epigraph for most of Ozu’s films, including the comedies. They almost always involve parents and children, and so there are disagreements, misunderstandings, separations — whether due to marriage or death or simply growing apart over time. It’s the natural way of things. As one of the daughters in Tokyo Story puts it, “Isn’t life disappointing?” “Yes,” her sister-in-law replies, “it is.” Undoubtedly the characters in The Only Son would agree.
Richie, Donald. Ozu. Berkeley: University of California, 1974.