It's been really hot here in southern California lately, another year of record temperatures, and once again autumn is shaping up to be hotter than summer. Often in hot weather my mind starts to dwell on movies where characters complain about the heat so this morning I found myself watching Yasujiro Ozu's 1959 film Floating Weeds again.
I was surprised to learn the film's Japanese title, Ukigusa (浮草), translates to "Floating Grass". The term "weed" seems to impose a greater negative connotation for the film's characters. But they are certainly unrooted and disruptive.
Unlike Ozu's best regarded films, Tokyo Story and Early Spring, Floating Weeds isn't as tightly focused on its main characters, its first scenes diffusing and broadening the perspective to include a community, similar to Ohayo. But all these films, and all the Ozu movies I've seen, have in common the idea of bonds being tested or broken by abnormal or extreme circumstances.
The lives of a travelling kabuki troupe are not romanticised for their "floating" nature, the film is very much about how their mode of existence is a disruptive influence for themselves and others. The tendency in fiction, when talking about artists, is to focus on successful and talented artists, but doing so is to neglect what is much more often true, that artists are not typically successful and not always talented--and even if they are, the talent might not be channelled properly. The troupe portrayed in Floating Weeds are not particularly skilled--Ozu's original title for the film was Ham Actor--but the declining popularity of kabuki may as much be to blame for their lack of success. In any case, it's a brutal career that so punishes people for not being masters or superstars.
There's a horrible moment late in the film when an old man, a member of the troupe's staff, cries silently while his young grandson tries to speak to him. His motionless face and lack of response eloquently show how little point he sees in nurturing the confidence of his grandson, a horribly effective statement on just how hopeless the man knows his life is now.
Of course, along with the problems that come with being artists, the members of the troupe are as imperfect as any human being. Without the traditional bonds of family, any mistake or especially bad behaviour can lead to permanent destruction, which is the essence of the film's central tale. Komajuro (Ganjuro Nakamura) has a son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), in town, living with his mother and Komajuro's former mistress, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura). Komajuro's current lover and fellow actor in the troupe, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), is naturally jealous when she starts getting clues about these two people who are probably the reason Komajuro brought the troupe to the little town. Both Komajuro and Sumiko do things to each other over the course of the film that from a purely justice minded standpoint would be unforgivable. They don't seem to have the ingrained motivations of a traditional structure to keep them together, any more than Komajuro can claim attachment to Oyoshi and her son. At any time, these floating people can be cut loose and sent along down the stream, by people with comparatively normal lives and by each other.
So it's essential for Ozu to establish a sense of the town without any particular character's point of view, something his characteristic unmoving camera and careful compositions are well suited for. We briefly meet the barber and her daughter, the prostitutes at the local brothel, the men working in the post office, many of whom talk about the kabuki troupe, wondering if it's worth seeing them perform. The whole point of the actors' profession is to make their performance seem valuable in its own right and you can't fault these people whose lives, rendered so beautifully by Ozu, might be full enough without the actors but obviously it's a cruel state of affairs. So cruel Komajuro seems unable to face it in the end, coming off as almost delusional, but there's a suggestion that this illusion can be a foundation of another kind of bond.