I have always been interested in propaganda and the ways people utilize patriotic images in order to promote their agendas. Advertisements, government bodies and even the movies are not immune to it. Everything from “Hope” to cast members of various television shows drinking coca-cola is propaganda. The history of propaganda is fascinating. During World War II, the propaganda machine shifted into overdrive. No doubt if you are familiar with this decade, you have seen some sort of sign promoting the American, Nazi or even Japanese cause. Movies were used during this time to rally the troops and to keep the men and women still at home pumped up about a collective country’s involvement in the fight. No filmmaker was immune. From Ford to Hawks, from Kurosawa to Ozu. Today I am reviewing a movie that is probably the closest you will come to having a propaganda produced by Ozu.
This film is about an widower father who has to quit his job after a tragic accident. Nobody blamed him for the inciting incident, but he felt that he was no longer qualified to teach children. The problem with his resignation is that he is supporting a young boy in school. He takes various jobs, leaving his son in boarding school alone and by himself. As the young boy matures into a handsome young man, he hopes that his father will come to live with him. But the father still working and old feels like this is some sort of handout. He refuses to take him up on the offer. War breaks out and his son is called up to service. Like everything else he has done, the son passes with flying colors. He comes to stay with his father for a week until he ships off. During this time, the father gets a party thrown for him by his various pupils and tells the son to marry the daughter of one of his friends. One day, the father is preparing to go to work, but something is wrong. He faints and the son whisks him off to the hospital where he dies. The last sequence is of the son and his new wife riding a train. The son eulogizes him to his wife and hopes that he will be as good of a father as his was.
I’m sorry to have spoiled the ending for you, but it factors into what I want to talk about when it comes to this movie. The one thing that I saw again and again in this movie is the son’s complete subservience to his father. Most of the dialogue (which is sparse because you know Ozu) is wrapped up in the father essentially ordering his son around in a semi-affectionate way. He tells the son that he has to do well in his studies, that he is going to Tokyo without him and several other things that would devastate any young boy let alone a boy who is this attached to his father. But instead of embracing him or telling him it is going to be okay, the father tells the son repeatedly to not cry. I mean the father even picked his son’s wife for him. But I find all of this weird because I am American. When this film was made it was a fantastic example of the perfect Japanese father son relationship. The father gave up everything for his son in order for him to go to school and the son does his ascribed duty by following the father’s every order. This is what is expected of a proper Japanese citizen. In fact the father can easily be seen as the Japanese government and the son as the public. The Japanese government told you what to do and you did it with honor. Which is also why the son wasn’t like “Whew. Thank god that old bastard is dead. I am going to go be with hookers and drink a lot of booze and live in Tokyo now,” like an insolent young American man would do. Instead he continues on the path that his father laid out for him and is thankful for his guidance. If you feel like this is a little bit of a stretch, remember that this same government produced thousands of kamikazes, people willing to die by slamming planes into Allied troops ships. That attitude takes some sort of ingrained servitude and honor that stretched for decades before.
There are several other more obvious propaganda Japanese films from this era, but I think this type of film has got to be the most effective because it shows you how a normal person is supposed to live. It isn’t overtly telling you that war is honorable, but it is telling you that listening to the father figure in your life is the best course of action for your life. That can be extended to listening to the government. This is how you can win the skeptical citizens of your country. Not by shouting at them that you have to join the war effort in order to be cool, but to subtly insert yourself into everyday life. This movie was minor in the canon of Ozu movies, but major in his ability to still insert politics in everyday family life.