4 November 2008

Praise for the Cutaway shot in Ozu's Floating Weeds

Floating Weeds/Ukigusa (1959), Yasujiro Ozu's colour remake of his earlier silent 1934 film A Story of Floating Weeds/Ukikusa monogatari, is an incredibly beautiful film about a troupe of travelling kabuki players who arrive at a small port town "somewhere in the south of Japan" during a particularly scorching summer. The players are brought to the town to perform by troupe master Komajuro Arashi (Ganjiro Nakamura); his mistress, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), also a player, accompanies him. Komajuro ventures off to look up his old flame, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), with whom he had a son some years ago. The boy, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), now in his late teens, believes Komajuro to be his uncle, having been told by that his "father" died when he was child.

Ozu subtly provided more substantial content that added to - and concretely advanced - his film's central narrative in several masterfully crafted and poignant cutaway (or insert) shots. There's one particular scene, bookended by two identical cutaway shots, roughly forty-five mins into the film: Komajuro is upstairs at Oyoshi's house playing chess with Kiyoshi. Sumiko visits, intending to reveal to the family that Komajuro is Kiyoshi's father. She and Komajuro talk downstairs, away from Kiyoshi (though Oyoshi is present). Sumiko strongly hints at the truth, though doesn't specifically reveal it, but enough telling details are revealed for an eavesdropping Kiyoshi to draw his own conclusions.

The scene is established by an interior low-level shot of a window with red flowers nestled in a stone rockery and a blue lampshade in front of it; rain pours down outside, just visible behind the blinds in the window (here the film's 1.33:1 aspect ratio holds the image perfectly). The scene takes place, then we return to the same shot of the window: the rain is still pounding down. Somehow all the harsh realities of family strife, and the rift that caused them, seem both all-important and needlessly trivial at the same time. The shot is no more than three seconds long, but its impact lasts well into, and beyond, the following scene.

The rain falling outside is concomitant to the rift being created inside the house. We are never not aware of it; the continual downpour is audible for the entire duration of the scene. But it doesn't signify a pathetic fallacy. At no point does it feel as if it's there to theoretically replace any of the emotional gravity - expertly invoked through the actors' commitment to the script - unearthed by the confrontation.

After the confrontation Komajuro hurriedly and angrily guides Sumiko outside to admonish her, and Kiyoshi simply sits on the stairs in resignation, staring at Oyoshi but saying nothing. Everything changes from now on. The secret now revealed has not only highlighted Komajuro's long-standing and perhaps needlessly foolish pride (hinting that he maybe shouldn't have feared rejection for being "merely an itinerant player"), but it has also opened a wound and perpetuated the emotional distance between father and son. Together these two factors, and the resulting complexity born out of them, signify the crux of the whole film; it in fact seems to pivot on these brief moments of change.

The scene is crucial because it tells us everything we need to know about the situation, about how precarious emotional family bonds can be and how hidden truths erode hopeful reconnection. It's the substantive heart of the film: everything before it builds up to this point; everything after is determined by how each character reacts here. It lasts roughly 4 mins. The duplicate shot of the window encloses this family secret, keeping peripheral characters outside of the knowledge and the family members emotionally contained in this moment. Ozu uses several stunning cutaway shots (to establish place and event, and to enhance the narrative) elsewhere in the film, but here, in this one scene, his use of them cements a significant and unalterable plot point. Between two identical images a whole world of difference has minutely shifted.

Here, more than probably elsewhere in his work, Ozu showed he was the master of the cutaway shot. He created some of the best truly great cutaway shots; ones that contained an unforced power, which lingered in my mind long after the scene had ended. This one small but significant part of the film confirmed to me his absolute control of his material. It's my very favourite moment not just in Floating Weeds but in all of his films that I've so far seen. He used the elapsing of small pockets of time to determinant effect. In mere minutes-worth of screentime our position on the story, the characters and events big and small has crucially altered.

© Craig Bloomfield 2008

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