In the early 1960s, as foreign film exports became a thriving sub-industry in the United States, the work of Yasujirō Ozu was deemed “too Japanese” for American audiences. Because of this, many of his films would not premiere in Hollywood until, in some cases, thirty years after their initial release. Nowadays, that Ozu’s films are so “Japanese” feels more like a compliment than an insult; it is, after all, precisely his voice — and what it has to say about the evolution of Japanese society in the postwar era — that makes his work indelible to the history of world cinema.
Ozu is chiefly known for his black-and-white, dramatic features: 1953’s “Tokyo Story,” about an aging couple who visit their apathetic children in the city, is oft-regarded as his masterpiece. His movies are plain and ordinary, both visually and narratively. They are completely stripped of melodrama and proceed at a leisurely stroll. Many are styled after seasons — “Early Summer,” “Late Spring” — while others are named after nature (“Equinox Flower,” “Floating Weeds”). Ozu was a strict formalist, consistent to an almost comical degree, which perhaps is why “Good Morning,” one of his final films, is considered by some to be the black sheep of his filmography: it’s the Ozu fart film!
I’m not pulling your leg. (Or should I say finger?) In the very first scene, we watch as four schoolboys play a good game of “I tap your forehead, then you fart on command.” The farts come in all shapes and sizes: some are played on trombones while others, especially those of the youngest, are clarinets. After all, these are artistic farts, not the lowly, sordid sounds of Adam Sandler! But like “Grown Ups” or “Jack and Jill,” “Good Morning” is nominally a comedy, although a very different kind than we’re used to in the West. It’s a comedy made by a guy like Ozu: an auteur world-renowned for his still camera, purposeful pacing, and quietness. Perhaps it’s better categorized as a “light drama” or, like so much of Ozu’s canon, “a work of real life.” It may be funnier than “Tokyo Story,” but “Good Morning” rings no less true.
The film is about two brothers living in a burgeoning suburb. Minoru (Shitara Koji) is the oldest and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) is the youngest. They lead simple lives: they go to school, they fart, and in between, they watch sumo wrestling and baseball on the television set across the street. Their parents (Ozu regulars Chishū Ryū as their father and Kuniko Miyake as their mother) dislike their obsession with TV, believing it distracts them from their studies of English. But the boys don’t care, and soon they insist that their parents buy them a TV of their own. When kicking and screaming doesn’t work, they devise a new strategy: they will stop speaking entirely to all of the adults in their life, until the TV is theirs.
A loose remake of Ozu’s own “I Was Born, But…” (a staple of his stint in the silent era), “Good Morning” is only his second film shot in color. Said cinematography is lovely, by the way: warm and nostalgic in that magical, old movie way, and gorgeously restored on the Criterion Blu-ray. But genre and color aren’t the only ways “Good Morning” represents a departure for Ozu: it is also a departure in perspective.
The majority of Ozu’s movies are told from an adult point of view, more specifically “mono no aware,” a Japanese perspective on transience that is at once pensive, wistful, and sad. As such, it is often associated with aging and death, appropriate for Ozu’s dramas, which perennially focus on old patriarchs marrying off their dutiful daughters. But with his switch to color comes a realignment in Ozu’s perspective: “Good Morning” is told through the eyes of a child. It reminds me a bit of Fellini’s “Amarcord,” another episodic adventure in childhood told by an aging auteur. What is it about dying that brings us right back to the start?
But “Good Morning” isn’t just told from a childlike perspective: it’s in many ways critical of the adult world, as well. For example, right before his silent protest, Minoru lampoons the banality of grown-up conversation: “‘Hello!’ ‘Good morning!’ ‘Good night!’ … It’s just a lot of talk.” From his point of view, adult communication is more like the lack of it: trivial observations, surface-level dialogue and meaningless, meandering small talk.
Ozu seems to agree. Not that “Good Morning” is particularly scathing; just like his dramatic work — itself concerned with intergenerational relationships — “Good Morning” doesn’t criticize so much as it merely observes. The same goes for Ozu’s commentary on Japan’s consumer culture in the wake of American occupation. Ozu doesn’t raise his voice, but on this point he takes a more “mono no aware” perspective: an old man once deemed “too Japanese,” now drifting through a Japan that he can hardly even recognize.
But back to communication. Let’s start with the extended sequence toward the start of the film, where the suburban housewives go door to door gossiping about each other. Is there any real value to these conversations? Or what about later in the film, when the boys’ aunt and their English tutor flirt with one another through small talk, never realizing their romance in the process: who does that ultimately serve? For Minoru, adults only talk if it’s hurtful or inhibitive.
Maybe that’s why “Good Morning” is so interested in farting. As David Bordwell notes, farting for the boys becomes a kind of second language: “It’s a social interaction, like saying ‘Good morning,’ but it also shows a kind of prowess.” Consider the scene where one of the boys’ fathers passes gas while getting dressed; his loyal wife mistakes it for him calling her. Ozu seems to suggest that adult conversation is no more meaningful than a fart. If it was, we’d be able to distinguish it. 9/10