By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Normally a DVD or a box set emphasizes one film with a host of extras to support it. Sometimes that gets turned around, as in New Line's 2003 "Willard" DVD; its superb making-of documentary "The Year of the Rat" outweighed the movie itself.
Now comes a DVD with two full feature films on two discs. The Criterion Collection's newest two-disc set unites Yasujiro Ozu's silent film "A Story of Floating Weeds" (1934) with its color remake "Floating Weeds" (1959). Both are masterworks, and neither overshadows the other. Even with the hefty price tag of $39.95, you're definitely getting your money's worth.
Both films tell the same story. A traveling band of actors arrives in a small town. The troupe's leader visits an old girlfriend, with whom he has a grown son. The son believes the actor to be his uncle, and the troupe leader would rather keep it that way. Meanwhile, the actor's current mistress discovers the secret, gets jealous and sends a younger actress to seduce the son. The troupe breaks up and the older actor hits the road once more.
A lesser director would have turned the film into obvious melodrama, but Ozu imitates the patterns of life. He begins the 1959 version with minor characters sitting around a train station talking about the hot weather and the soon-to-be-arriving theatrical troupe. Though it's the first five minutes of the film -- arguably the most important by Hollywood standards -- we will never see any of these people again. And it doesn't matter.
Both versions exhibit an equal mastery. The silent film shows a younger, more passionate, vigorous Ozu who had just established his simple style. He tells the story rather quickly, in just 86 minutes.
The sound version shows an older, more contemplative, more relaxed Ozu, able to spread the same story over 119 minutes without wasting a single shot. Part of the difference is Ozu's use of "pillow shots," which unobtrusively break up the action and give the viewer a moment to contemplate or rest. The "pillow shots" consist of flowers or banners or whatnot; it's such a great idea that you wonder why no one uses them today.
Ozu (1903-1963) carved out an enviable career, working over and over again with the same actors in the same genre with the same simplistic style. He made roughly one movie a year, excising such needless techniques as zooms, pans, dissolves, special effects or tracking shots. In the 1920s and 30s, it took him almost an extra decade to make the transition from silent pictures to sound, and he only added color to his final four films. He shot mainly with low angles, presumably to get the camera out of the way of the action.
Most of his 54 films deal with the middle-to-upper middle class and the collapse of the family. Many of his titles sound the same: "Early Spring," "Late Spring," "An Autumn Afternoon," "Early Summer," etc. And the more time went on, the more unhurried the films became.
Americans for the most part never saw an Ozu film until the 1970s. World War II obviously prevented any of the earlier films from reaching us. Even when Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" and Kenji Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu Monogatari" caught Americans' attention in the 1950s, Ozu's work hit a few snags, mostly because distributors decided that his contemplative style was too slow and "too Japanese" for Americans.
They were wrong. Film lovers the world over have been discovering and falling in love with Ozu's universally appealing style ever since. The Criterion Collection released Ozu's "Good Morning" (1959) on DVD in 2000, and last year saw the release of a double-disc "Tokyo Story" (1953). Both are masterpieces, but this newest release tops them.
Part of the pleasure of watching both "Floating Weeds" films back-to-back is picking out the differences. In the 1959 version, Haruko Sugimura plays the actor's old flame, but with her stage training, she doesn't quite know what to do with her face. It becomes a rigid mask. In the silent version, Choko Iida better understands the power of the screen and uses her expressive face to bring the role to life.
The color cinematography in the 1959 version also makes a huge difference. Photographed by Kazuo Miyagawa ("Rashomon," "Ugetsu"), the extraordinary use of texture with well-placed splashes of color bring the film closer to home. In fact, this transfer of "Floating Weeds" is arguably the finest DVD Technicolor transfer I've ever seen.
Watching both films provides endless pleasure, but the two commentary tracks, by Donald Richie on the silent version and Roger Ebert on the sound, enhance the experience. Richie, who spent most of his life living in and writing about Japan and authored one of the key books on Ozu, highlights some of the film's intricacies. Ebert, who counts "Floating Weeds" among his favorite films, provides a more layperson point of view.
It's unlikely that any other 2004 DVD release will top "Floating Weeds." The packaging, presentation and content are all superb.
1.33:1 ratio (16x9 enhanced)
DVD RATING: ****
THE FILM: ****