It's a 1934 Japanese silent movie, from that period when Japan was still making silent films after the West had switched to talkies. What I've seen of them so far has suggested that as a result, they're among the most technically accomplished silent films you're likely to find. This one, if anything, seems less dated than a lot of its non-silent contemporaries. There's no overacting. The storytelling is subtle. You watch it as you would real life.
Furthermore it's by Yasujiro Ozu, traditionally regarded as the most Japanese of directors. It was one of his most successful, both critically and financially, and he ended up remaking it 25 years later. That latter point isn't so unusual for him, though. Apparently this 1934 original was itself based on a 1928 American film called The Barker, which still exists and is half-silent and half-talkie. It sounds good, actually.
All the examples I've found of Ozu remaking his own work come at the end of his career, though. As well as the 1959 Floating Weeds, the same year he borrowed from I Was Born, But... (1932) for Good Morning and then the following year from Late Spring (1949) to make Late Autumn.
The story involves a travelling actors' troupe, led by Takeshi Sakamoto. It would seem that an actor's life in 1930s Japan was both insecure and low-status. Sakamoto has an illegitimate son (Koji Mitsui) with a local innkeeper (Chouko Iida), but he's kept them at arm's length all his life and hasn't even allowed Iida to tell Mitsui who his father is. Sakamoto wants his son to have a better life than he did, which means a proper education and a steady job. He's been sending them money for years to pay for Mitsui's schooling, despite being always broke.
This sounds potentially heavy, but what makes it palatable is the fact that its world is so likeable. Ozu was making a lot of comedies around this time and this time in contrast is supposedly playing it straight, but I actually found the film funny. It has charm. The children are amusing, such as the lad who's protective of his cat-shaped piggy bank. It's not side-splitting, but it has a light touch that makes it entertaining and stops the film from being merely a tragedy. As for Sakamoto and Iida, they're adorable. They're full of smiles with each other and you're delighted to spend time with them. In fact I enjoyed watching Sakamoto so much that I've been looking him up to see what other films he's been in. He's happy-go-lucky, but in a zen way. When he drops his wallet in the river, he accepts the fact and goes on fishing.
My only problem with him is that when he gets angry, he'll start hitting people. This wouldn't be so bad if he were punching other men, but no. It's women and youngsters. Can't say I liked that. However I'll reluctantly give him a pass because: (a) it's 1934, (b) his slap-happy tendencies only tend to exacerbate his own problems, and (c) he only does it when he thinks you're threatening Iida and Mitsui.
There's only one person who's not likeable in this film and that's Sakamoto's current squeeze, Rieko Yagumo. She looks like a snake and she's bitchy enough that Sakamoto can slap her repeatedly and you're still on his side, not hers.
I think you've already guessed how the plot's going to unfold, although the "seduction as a form of revenge" subplot took me by surprise. It's not Yagumo doing that, mind you. She offers money to a fellow actress, Yoshiko Tsubouchi, which I hope isn't representative of the moral standard of travelling actors in the 1930s. The plot's not so important, to be honest, although Ozu's silent movies go at a reasonable lick and at least we're half an hour shorter than the 1959 remake. Ozu was always more interested in his people than his plots. In fairness though this one's solid, keeping your attention as it slowly and amiably builds up to a inevitable pressure-cooker release at the finale. I liked that. It's a powerful conclusion, but not an out-and-out tragic one either. It has strong emotions, but also people being matter-of-fact about their changing circumstances and looking forward to what they're going to do next.
The traditionalist thinking's a bit dated, though. Sakamoto takes what he no doubt sees as the noble, correct choice... but it's just going back to what he's always done. It's his status quo. We're being encouraged to see it as a stiff-upper-lip Japanese choice of duty from a man who's determined to do the right thing by his loved ones (and in fairness that's what it is), but it also looks an awful lot like talking bullshit and then running away. Is he going to get rich? No. Is he ever going to change? No. It's a good thing Sakamoto's so genuine and lovable, or else this could been almost disturbing.
However in fairness it would seem that Ozu's aware of all that and that the erosion of family life is a theme you can find running through his work.
It's a gentle film. People get hurt, especially poor lovable Iida, but not punished. The Sakamoto-Yagumo relationship is particularly delicate, with both sides saying and doing some things that would be taken as unforgiveable in a more judgemental film.
One curiosity is that I notice Sakamoto played a character called Kihachi in four Ozu films, always opposite Choko Iida. In three of them her character's name was Otsune and in the fourth, Otome. I don't think they're sequels rather than simply Ozu having favourite actors and not thinking too hard about what to call them, but I'd definitely be up for watching more films with Sakamoto and Iida. They're great, those two. Incidentally this also means that when making this particular film, they'd all worked together before and knew each other well. I'm sure that helped.
I'm not sure the "dropping the wallet" scene works. Unless the river's going at a hundred miles an hour, I didn't understand why Sakamoto didn't go chasing after it. Visually, that looks wrong. It's a lovely character moment, but Ozu still goofed with it. There's also a bit of head-scratching involved in "we let Shinkichi ruin his future", in which the idea of Mitsui having an actress as a girlfriend is apparently the end of the world, but then at the end of the film Sakamoto's wishing her all the best of luck. Would that be simply because the theatre company's folding, then?
This is an elegant, apparently simple movie, but it's faster-moving than Ozu's later work and there are undercurrents to think about too. For a while I was wondering if we were going to get an incest plot twist, while I notice that it's always water that brings ruin to the actors. Wallets fall in rivers and improvised theatres can be closed by rain. You could even extend this to point out that Iida's job involves serving drinks to people. I liked it. It's running in large part on delicacy and its actors' charm, but that's not to say that in the end it doesn't have emotional power too. Iida in particular is magnificent in that regard. Oh, and by the end, you'll almost have forgotten it's a silent film.
"My son belongs to a better world than you."