The Only Son – Il Cinema Ritrovato

For the second year, Bologna’s classic film festival, Il Cinema Ritrovato, has included a section “Il Giappone parla!” where 35mm prints of early Japanese talkies are projected. Last night, Yasujirô Ozu’s The Only Son opened this series.

The Only Son tells the story of Tsune, an impoverished widow, and her sacrifices and hardships to put Ryosuke, her only child, through university and college, so that he can have a better life. Only, once he moves to Tokyo, he discovers that the competition is so tough, and the only work he can find is a night-school teaching position with a meager salary. After not having seen him for years, his mother comes to visit him in Tokyo, to discover that he is now married, with a child, in a small, modest home. Ryosuke and his wife make plenty of sacrifices themselves now, borrowing money from their friends and selling their possessions, so that they can show her a good time.

As her visit with them is wrapping up, he admits to being ashamed and disappointed with his life, and asks her how she feels. She tells him that she is not disappointed, though she accuses him of complacency, and giving up too easily. The last four scenes are really interesting, taking one step forward, one step back; one step forward, one step back. After a neighbour’s small child needs to be hospitalized, Ryosuke gives the child’s mother some of what little money he has. Seeing this, Tsune tells him how pleased she is with the wonderful man he has become, and how ultimately this is what matters, more than anything. In the next scene, Tsune has returned to Shinshu, her hometown, and Ryosuke and his wife discuss if they think his mother was happy with the trip. He tells her what a disappointment he thinks that he was, but it’s given him the motivation to go back to school and try to still make something of his life. Meanwhile, back at work in Shinshu, Tsune is seen telling a co-worker what a great man he is, and how he has a lovely wife. Yet, the final shot of her depicts her sitting down, dejected and defeated by what has become of their lives.

There’s a complex duality in how Tsune treats Ryosuke. On one level, once she sees that he is a person with character and morals, she takes great pride in that. Up to the point where Ryosuke tells his wife of his shame, there is nothing that Tsune does or says to suggest that she feels disappointed, and it appears that Ryosuke’s feelings of guilt are just the typically human response of ignoring reassurance: his own saboteur, he chooses to listen to the louder voice of his feelings of inadequacy. Yet, though his perception of the extent of Tsune’s discontent is exaggerated, there is a sense of dissatisfaction with him. While she loves him, and realizes that he has made her proud, as a good parent, she’s only ever wanted the very best of circumstances and luxuries for him. And, after having toiled, working herself past the point of exhaustion in hopes of giving him a chance to succeed, how his life has turned out is not quite what she had hoped.

All of this begs an interesting question: other than feeling depressed anytime he is cognizant of how his achievements fall short of dogmatic societal expectations, all indications point to Ryosuke’s happiness. Ozu spends so much time providing little details that suggest that Ryosuke’s life is, in actuality, not that bad: while he may not be rich, Ryosuke has a very close relationship with his wife, and it seems like they manage. That Ryosuke and Tsune are so dubious in their behaviour and attitudes regarding how they define their success seems to indicate that Ozu is not willing to accept society’s definition of prosperity without a struggle.

In a troubled global economy, where brilliant students finish school only to find employment in menial jobs that require less than their intelligence can accommodate, Ozu’s film – made nearly eighty years ago – is just as relevant now as it was in 1936. This is a sign of why Ozu is truly such a master: whether bemoaning a system that deprives its people, or describing a parental-filial relationship, his was an eye always sensitive to subjects with the potential to endure throughout posterity.