That was a bit extraordinary. It's one of the most fascinating silent movies I've ever seen, actually, working on multiple levels and having a theme that in hindsight is almost devastating.
On a surface level, it's a film about small boys. This is fun. Boys will be boys, wherever you are, and the dubious specimens here at times seem like wild beasts that found their way into the house and started eating. Tatsuo Saito has just moved house, so his sons (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara) have to get used to a new neighbourhood and new school friends. They'd have probably got into trouble whatever happened, obviously, but unfortunately there's a gang of bullies in the area. While the grown-ups assume that their children are having a wonderful time, the boys are waging a low-level war, like cavemen who can only start killing each other when the sabre-toothed tigers aren't looking.
I loved all this. Ozu has an eye for the rituals and eccentricities of small boys, which at times makes them seem as if they've landed from Mars. Look out for the Ballet Gesture of Defiance, for instance. What is that? They'll scratch their groins, or indeed their school caps. (They surely can't feel anything through the latter, so I don't see the point of scratching one. Maybe they have a psychosomatic itch?) Aoki and Sugawara will attack their breakfast like barbarians, then five minutes later be doing the same with the packed lunches they'd put on their heads. They'll prey on sparrows to make themselves powerful, but strangest of all is their ritual of Magical Catholic Death and Resurrection. I think that's what it is. I don't know where they got it from, but look at it! An ecclesiastical finger movement makes your victim drop dead, whereupon you cross yourself in the approved Christian fashion and give the "arise, my son" hand gesture to return him to life. I won't pretend to understand this, but that's small boys for you.
There are other cool (or else just plain odd) details too. One boy has a "do not feed this boy" sign on the back of his jacket, courtesy of his mother. All boys cry in the same stylised way, with fists to eyes and their elbows stuck out like bat wings. When having a "whose father is great" competition, one boy's claim to parental greatness is that his dad can take his teeth out. This is demonstrated by giving him a caramel. Everyone's impressed.
This is kind of awesome. It's nailing the savagery of small boys, that sense of something primordial even when they're doing what they're told and being good and obedient. Sometimes it's also funny. I laughed at the boys' maybe-this-will-work smile on being caught lying with "Ryouichi got an A", while there are laughs to be had from the adults' 1932 home movie.
The bullies subplot gets resolved two-thirds of the way through, but after that the film grows another plot involving Saito. Remember the "whose father is great" competition? Saito has been teaching his sons that it's their responsibility to grow up to be great men. They take it seriously. They believe in him. However on seeing that aforementioned home movie, they completely lose it on seeing their stern father goofing around with his boss from work. Everyone else thinks Saito's on-screen antics are funny, including the other small boys, but Aoki and Sugawara freak out and go into Rebellious Teenager mode despite not being teenagers. They take it desperately seriously. They've lost the entire philosophical basis on which they live their lives and they've decided Saito's a hypocrite and by his own standards, a failure.
If that were all there was to the film, it would still be well worth watching. The small boys are convincingly odd and their misadventures are entertaining. The adorable Takeshi Sakamoto also shows up as Saito's boss and I've loved him since A Story of Floating Weeds.
However that's not the half of it. The really cool stuff involves the themes.
It's about the abuse of power and about challenging authority figures. This film is full of power relationships (the bullies, the teacher, Saito, his boss... even big children vs. smaller children) and all of them are corrupt, hypocritical or badly behaved. Sometimes it's because people are bastards. (Who'd be a sparrow?) Sometimes it's for financial gain (Saito sucking up to his boss, or a helpful adult siding with whoever pays him the most money). Sometimes they're simply weak. The only difference is that the small boys know they're monsters, whereas the adults are expected to be "great".
These would be meaty themes even in a modern film, but we're talking here about 1930s Japan. This is a culture where you respect your elders and do as you're told. The challenges being thrown down to authority by Aoki and Sugawara are almost insanely un-Japanese... but Ozu gets away with it because they're small boys, and perhaps a little bit because they're right. However Japan at the time was being ruled by a government that the previous year had invaded Manchuria and would spend most of the next fifteen years trying to take over South-East Asia and committing atrocities up there with those of the Nazis. They talked a lot about Japan's greatness. They believed they were racially superior and they taught their children so in schools.
See the parallels? It wouldn't have surprised me to see Ozu thrown in prison. Fortunately though no one seems to have got upset about this funny, satirical runaround with small boys and instead it won Ozu the Kinema Junpo Critics' Prize.
It's also worth noting that the film isn't one-sided. The boys are clearly overreacting to their father's clowning around, as if a few funny faces are as bad as the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany. (Japan hadn't signed that yet, though.) They're challenging authority, but they're doing it in a right-wing way that you'd expect of small boys, with the problem being that they've swallowed Saito's lessons too thoroughly. There's nothing leftie about these two, as is shown by the bit where they're asked what they want to be when they grow up. A general! A lieutenant general! They presumably support the war, then. Note also the bit where it's asked where they'll be in ten years' time, to which of course the real-world answer is "dead". Some of the child actors in this film will have grown up only to be killed in World War Two.
It's silent-era Ozu, which means the film has more pace and is funny. Admittedly his direction is already on the road to Yasujiro "lazy bastard" Ozu (note: frivolity), but twice he actually moves the camera and both times achieves a strong effect. One involves zooming in on a just-closed door, while the other involves circling around the boys as if the camera's riding a bicycle. That looked quite cool, actually.
In 1959, Ozu loosely remade this film as Good Morning. I haven't watched that yet, but surely the remake can't have carried the same thematic punch. It's the fact that Ozu is screaming out this message into the fact of this ultra-nationalistic regime that makes it so powerful. I can believe that Ozu made better films, but I find it hard to believe that he made a stronger one. What's cool though is that at the same time it's funny and has small boys solemnly breaking eggs on each other's foreheads.