Although not the rarest item on display at BAM’s Late Film series, at which it plays tonight, nor the film most in need of rediscovery (it’s been something of a favorite since Criterion brought it to DVD in 2000), Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning finds an established, confident artist revisiting his signature material, applying a fresh perspective to a familiar setting and peppering the work with any number of outré touches — in other words, exactly the stuff that the late film is about.
A comedic change-of-pace amidst the filmmaker’s run of late dramas, the 1959 film is set in one of the new suburban communities on the outskirts of Tokyo that cropped up in the wake of World War II. A hive of petty squabbling and status envy to rival any American keeping-up-with-the-Joneses counterpart, the isolated hillside development becomes in Ozu’s treatment a singularly claustrophobic setting. More so than even in the director’s other domestic-set dramas, the action remains almost entirely confined to private interiors, boxed-in frameworks enlivened by bold Technicolor patches of reds and blues and framed by an entirely stationary camera. Respite comes courtesy of a single outdoor-set scene, a tea-and-rice picnic enjoyed by two truant boys flouting the adult-devised routine.
In his late work Ozu’s attention often turned to the younger generation, and Good Morning, although dividing its focus between a handful of characters of all ages, aligns its sympathies most clearly with the two school-age sons of a typical salaryman (Ozu regular Chishu Ryu). These boys spend their time practicing farting (an alarmingly high percentage of the film’s comic gags revolve around that somewhat tiresome conceit), sneaking off to watch television at the house of their proto-hippie neighbors and bugging their father for their own set. But when the older man grows tired of their repeated requests and tells them to shut up, the boys decide to punish him by taking a vow of silence.
Citing the silly repeated formalities (“Hello” “Good morning” “Good evening”) that make up the excessive chatter of the adult world, the boys uphold their vow with admirable persistence — both at home and school — remaining mute for most of the duration of the film. And in a way they’re right to reject the conversation of the adult world: at its worst — as in the vicious gossip spread among the status-conscious housewives of the development — it can be far worse than simply idle chatter. But in Ozu the conventions of domestic arrangement must ultimately be accepted and, as several of the more sympathetic adult characters explain, the seeming trivialities of public conversation are a necessary formality; without them nothing can be done. Still, as the film suggests in its penultimate scene, as a potential romantic consummation remains maddeningly unachieved, these formalities are only a start. It’s in moving beyond them that lies the real challenge.