When directors remake their own movies, part 1 – Ozu and Floating Weeds

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I recently finished watching Criterion Collection’s Yasujiro Ozu double header – his 1934 B&W silent film A Story of Floating Weeds and the 1959 colour remake, simply titled Floating Weeds. Watching them back-to-back marked the first time I had done so with a movie and its remake. It gave me the opportunity to compare and contrast the two works; how changing times and social mores, the film maker’s own experiences over 20+ years and the availability of new film making technology affected the way the telling of the story changes over time.

The plot, as with all Ozu plots, is simple. A traveling Kabuki troupe, led by a veteran actor (these itinerant actors are the “floating weeds” of society) returns to a small town after a gap of several years. As they settle in for a few weeks of performances, it is revealed that the actor’s old lover and their illegitimate teenage son live in this town. The actor has stayed in touch with the mother over the years, even providing for the son’s education, with the boy believing him to be an uncle. During the troupe’s off hours, he slips off to relax at their house, reminiscing with his ex-lover and trying to build a bond with the young man. But on this trip, the lead actress in the troupe is his mistress and when she finds about his secret ‘family’, she sets out to disrupt their harmony. This is a typical Ozu gendai-geki (family drama), and as with all his films, it is about inter-generational conflict – frequently passive – and the consequent fragility of the nuclear family, itself a relatively recent 20th century import from the West.

The 1934 film is fat-free. Ozu, always an economical director and a master of ellipsis, is particularly spare at this early stage of his career. He doesn’t show every event on screen. The viewer is allowed to fill in what has happened between one scene and the next. Also, the fact that it’s a silent film (there are occasional dialogue cards) means that there is no time wasted on long-winded conversations. All this makes for a brisk running time of 86 minutes.

The 1959 remake is identical in terms of structure and plot, but differs in form. The setting is changed from the countryside to seaside. And of course, there’s dialogue – they end up saying a lot more to each other than they did in the original film – making for longer scenes and a longer movie of 119 minutes. There is colour and interestingly, I found it to be a more vivid palette than in Ozu’s other colour films; is this because Ozu worked with a different cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and not with his regular guy, Yuharu Atsuta? I can’t say, as I’ve only seen Miyagawa’s B&W films (Rashomon, Sansho the Bailiff and Yojimbo).

The 1959 story takes place in contemporary times and this means it is a more ‘open’ society, more explicit about illicit relationships and sex. For example, there is a sub-plot involving 3 actors from the troupe who trawl the town looking for female company. One of them tries unsuccessfully to flirt with a barber’s daughter. All three eventually end up at a bar and make the acquaintance of a couple of seasoned prostitutes – one with bad teeth and loud manners, but a genuinely friendly demeanour; the other is attractive, but cold and mercenary in her behaviour. All this is missing from the 1930’s original and while it’s entirely realistic and the scenes are interesting, it seemed to me to be an unnecessary – almost crass – distraction.

It’s not just the behaviour of these side characters; even the main characters seem simpler and more likeable in the original. In the 1959 version, they are all ever so slightly meaner, more calculating, more worldly wise. I don’t know if this is just a natural reflection of the times, or the choice of actors or something specifically called out by the director.

All the above comparisons may imply that I prefer the original and overall, that’s true. But I do appreciate the remake for the superior visual impact delivered on screen through the use of colour and the improved production design and set decoration, resulting from a larger budget.

The one consistent aspect of both films is Ozu’s famous ‘tatami shot’ technique, with the camera placed on the floor and shooting at the level of the actors’ waist. Ozu’s camera almost never zooms or pans. He doesn’t use fancy transitions like wipes or fades to go from one shot to the other, always a simple cut. Also, the opening title/ credits section is always shot against the backdrop of a sack cloth. Ozu never changed his style throughout his career and so, watching his movies with its familiar actors, settings, tight framing and geometric composition is cinematic comfort food for his fans.

So this story, brought to life in these two films separated by more than two decades of changing social standards, by the use of colour and sound and with a different set of actors, is still recognizable as having come from the hands and mind of the same creator. With Ozu, the focus is always on people and their relationships, on the fear of loneliness and on the poignancy of living and loving and growing old.

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