Failure, rather than shame, fells the protagonist in most modern tragedies. Disappointment, though, appears less frequently in films or books. Perhaps disappointment, which requires us to empathize with one character’s reaction to the failure of another, is too complex for most writers or film makers to produce. In The Only Son,Yasujiro Ozu proves his power as director of the subtle by creating a devastating portrait of a mother’s disappointment at her son’s miserable life.
In Ozu’s 1936 film, a mother sacrifices her material comforts to support her son’s studies in Tokyo. When, after years apart, she travels from her rural village to visit him, she finds her son living in a shanty town teaching night school classes. At first they speak through smiles like gritted teeth, but soon she confronts him. She is angry not that he lives poorly, but that he has given up after she has given him everything.
Ozu fills the film with details of rural labor among the silk-spinning industry and urban poverty in a Tokyo where 44% of the college graduates are unemployed. 1930s Japan, though, provides only a backdrop for the family drama. While the son points to other young men struggling in Tokyo, the mother makes clear that she cares about her son and her sacrifices. There are moments of partial reconciliation, but Ozu does not allow for resolution. In the end, the mother must resort to fantasies when, after returning home, her friends ask about her visit to see her only son.
Throughout the month of March, venues throughout Washington, D.C., will be showing a retrospective of Yasujiro Ozu’s films.
Originally posted on A Frolic of My Own.