Chishu Ryu appeared in nearly all of Ozu’s films, here playing Shuhei, the father. He is a grade school teacher who is shaken to the core after the accidental death of a student on his watch. He is not responsible for the incident, but he blames himself for his inability to stop it. This sense of duty becomes hardened into stone as he quits his post to ensure he does not fail in his duty to his son; or maybe he only wishes to avoid failing again in the capacity of instructor. He moves to the countryside and enrolls his son in junior high school, but must go to work in Tokyo to ensure that the boy’s schooling continues to university. Sounds fairly rote, but it is in the space between the details that the viewer becomes invested with these characters. The son longs for the company of his father, and throughout school up to his first job as a teacher in a technical school, he wishes primarily to move in with his father in Tokyo. As a child he is deeply saddened by the decision by his father to move away and leave him behind, though he appreciates what is being done on his behalf. He holds this desire close to his heart, and rarely gives it voice. As a man in his mid-20s, he expresses his wish. His father’s response leaves him cold, but understanding. “Lasting happiness only arises from the alternation of pleasure and pain”. He refuses to allow his son to quit his job as a teacher and live with him in Tokyo. He insists his son stay with his teaching post and honor his duty with hard work every day of his life, and set aside personal feelings and family connections.
This reflected in some sense the patriotism of the time; There Was a Father was released in 1942, and was celebrated in Japan for its apparent call for duty to society and nation to the detriment of all else. On the surface, this seems to be the case. The father is at work every single day, sacrificing his personal life and ambitions; not only for the benefit of his son, who becomes a dedicated teacher, but for his country and a cultural work ethic. There are holes in this purely political interpretation, however. There is a deep ache of loss permeating through the work that is unmistakable. The parents make great sacrifices for their children, and with the passage of time, these sacrifices yield successful adults. Even so, there is no substitute for those emotional connections that are broken by long hours of labor. His son misses his father terribly, and when his wish for the previous decade – to live with his father and recapture those lost years – is rejected by his father’s sense of duty, this breaks his heart. Overt emotion is not betrayed in this scene between Shuhei and his grown son, but what goes unsaid is always the loudest bit of dialogue in an Ozu film. In one scene, his former students organize a reunion, and fun is had by all in reminiscing. One cannot help but feel that these were his surrogate children; his son conspicuously absent from any conversation looking back with memories. As for his work ethic, he dies while preparing for work, his last complete sentence being his pride in having never missed a day. The patriotic censors of the day praised his film, but There Was A Father could just as easily be critical of this sense of inflexible duty. His father dies with dignity, and does not shed a tear. His son, however, does not have the same reserve. There was something missing, and such things are never regained.
What set this drive for duty in motion was the tragic death of a student, and in grief, Shuhei quit his job. In that moment, he failed in his duty to his students and the parents who send them. This obligation is projected upon his son with immense pressure; the father becomes little more than a machine. This is beyond a reasonable charge – there is something else driving Shuhei. It is always difficult to read characters in Yasujiro Ozu’s films given their reserve, but the titular Father appears to be seized by fear. Fear emanating from the accident, and a possible recurrence if he stays a teacher; fear of failing to honor his commitment to his son; fear of failing to uphold his duty to his society. Overall this intense fear of failure is expressed subtly, but you can see it manifest as Shuhei distances himself from his son by moving to the country, then leaving him in a school and visiting only a few times each year. Buried in his work, he can console his ill-defined foreboding by the sense that he is indeed doing his best and leaving the direct rearing of his son to more capable hands. He pleads with his son to see the benefit of his resolve, and be content with rare visits: “Isn’t this enough?” The tragedy is that his son would have preferred the flawed presence of his father. As it turns out, our children are more than capable of forgiving us our failures.
You may not agree with this, or you may feel that this was a straightforward propaganda piece extolling the virtues of duty and sacrifice. One of the many pleasures of Ozu is the complicated nature of his characters who fail to adhere to plot points or allow signposts to interpret the action for you. You are introduced to the population of the small societies that exist within these gentle films, and after getting to know the people you have met, it is left to you entirely to decide whether you understand them. Maybe you do, more likely you do not. For me, the gratification is in having known them in passing, these shades of humanity. Even if you cannot directly relate to the subjects of his films, you can see parts of them, their decisions, their regrets, and their experiences within your own lives. As such, Ozu is the equal of Renoir in terms of translating the human experience onto the medium of film.