It's Ozu's 1959 remake of his 1934 hit, strengthening its themes and fixing its problems. I prefer the original, but my grounds for saying so are slender and I wouldn't dare argue with anyone who disagreed.
Quick run-down of the story. Ganjiro Nakamura and his travelling actors' company come to town, where for the first time in twelve years he can see to his illegitimate son (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) and the boy's mother (Haruko Sugimura). Kawaguchi doesn't know that Nakamura's really his father, which makes the situation awkward when Nakamura's current girlfriend (Machiko Kyo) learns how things stand... okay, it's the same as last time. However it's also really not. The events and story beats are the same. Ozu hasn't changed anything fundamental in the script, but the themes and the audience's sympathies have all shifted. Watching this film makes me wonder if I didn't misjudge its predecessor.
1. Ozu's harsher on Nakamura than he was on Sakamoto in 1934. Sakamoto was charming and obviously trying to do the right thing. You liked him. He won our sympathy, even when his actions or the film's apparent message seemed to be undercutting him. Nakamura on the other hand is a lying git and a good-for-nothing. He bullshits Kyo, then smacks her around and tries to give her orders like a slave when she finds out about his lies. He's high-handed. He has no moment as simple and accepting as Sakamoto losing his wallet, which this time we never see and instead merely hear about much later. What's more, by that point we're so mistrustful of the guy that my reaction was to wonder if it had really gone missing or if it might have instead been discreetly stashed for later. (Straight after the news of the wallet's disappearance, another member of Nakamura's company tells us that he's been robbed of the emergency money in his good luck charm.)
Nakamura's not a villain, mind you. He still cares for Sugimura and he's not unlikeable. However he's stupid (e.g. the chess game) and his running away at the end is much clearly being portrayed as such. In obvious contrast to Koji Mitsui's emotional reaction in 1934, Kawaguchi hardly bats an eyelid at the news and simply tells Nakamura to piss off. Who needs a useless father like him? It's judgemental. It's the younger generation condemning the old. You'll agree, needless to say, but furthermore Ozu clearly does too.
2. It's not just Nakamura. It's all the actors. They're a bunch of lazy so-and-sos who chase girls and talk about stealing from the boss. Note for instance that this time the company going bust is their own fault. That theme of "destruction through water"? That's gone. Wallets don't fall in rivers and the theatre's roof doesn't leak. The reason why the audiences stop coming is that the show's no good. Also note the scene in which Kawaguchi starts dissecting the show's failings and Nakamura responds by telling him to shut up. Not only is the guy a dick, but he can't even listen to his audience.
3. Machiko Kyo is a dreary wet blanket you'd cross the road to avoid... but we're supporting her anyway. This is a 180-degree inversion of the 1934 film, in which Yagumo was a human snake. Kyo though we get to know much better and we're on her side when Nakamura's treating her like dirt.
All these are interesting changes. They've all been done for a reason and the results hang together in a way that wasn't quite true of the original. Thematically it's infinitely stronger. Ozu's even fixed the more mundane problems I had with the original, so for instance there's no bad staging in the "drop the wallet in the river" scene, because there isn't one. It's no surprise this time when Nakamura starts hitting women. The ending doesn't seem confused.
However I still prefer the original.
It's the cast, basically. Sakamoto and Iida blew me away in 1934. They're so impressive that I'm going to be hunting down more Yasujiro Ozu silent movies, just for them. They really are special and there's no comparison between them and 1959's Nakamura and Sugimura. Nakamura is capable of being excellent, but sometimes he's considerably less so when Ozu does his trademark thing of plonking his camera between two actors who are talking to each other, then making them say their dialogue straight to the camera. I don't like it, frankly. It doesn't work. I can go along with it in Ozu's films because that's what he does and it's a legitimate style, but there's a reason no other director in cinematic history shoots like Ozu did. Not only is it jarring for the audience, but I strongly suspect it wasn't helping Nakamura.
Incidentally you'll be excited to know that at one point in this film, Ozu moves the camera! It's a travelling shot from a ferry as it docks at the harbour. This is the only camera movement in Ozu's six colour films.
Both films are feminist, but in different ways. Iida is staggering in 1934, whereas Sugimura in this one seems (a) to have realised that Nakamura's a shit, and (b) to be doing that stoic Japanese thing. Their most effective moments together are silent, believe it or not, when you just see them sitting together and you can reflect on their past. I liked Sugimura, but she's barely even present in the finale and it's simply not fair to compare her with Iida. 1959's feminist slack could instead be said to be being taken by Machiko Kyo, the betrayed woman, and she's certainly getting more to do than 1934's Rieko Yagumo... but, to be honest, I preferred Yagumo anyway. The character's stronger and she makes her plot developments more startling.
As for the youngsters, they're bad. The scenes between Ayako Wakao and Hiroshi Kawaguchi are actually wooden. I realise that the generation gap was a favourite Ozu theme, but if he's going to give important story roles to young actors, couldn't he cast them more carefully? Wakao's pretty, mind you. Amusingly also Kawaguchi isn't even the best actor playing his role in this film, since his 1934 predecessor Koji Mitsui is in this film too as a random member of the actors' company and is rather good.
The 1934 film also had better children. I was sorry not to see a boy with a Maneki-Neko piggy bank, although there's compensating humour value with an ugly woman and her incredibly bad teeth. I quite like the music, though. It's more whimsical than the soundtrack to the Criterion DVD of the original, not to mention sounding French.
Is this a good film? Obviously, yes. Roger Ebert has called it one of his all-time 10 favourites. It's a strong, unified artistic statement in which all the themes are coming together and I'm sure Ozu was rightly pleased with the results. However I personally find the original more interestingly played and more unpredictable in its spikiness. They're both very much worth watching, though.
"Each time he left just like this."