A Story of Floating Weeds

Japan 1934, 86 mins
Director: Yasujiro Ozu

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

The main character in A Story of Floating Weeds, Kihachi Ichikawa, is an echo of the protagonist of Passing Fancy, though he is neither as stupid nor as carefree as his predecessor. The muting of Kihachi’s character derives, like other subdued factors in A Story of Floating Weeds, from the surrounding material which Ozu has included. The film is played in a remote rural village, a realistic locale for the travelling troupe but an unusual setting for Ozu at this point in his career. The cinéaste of urban Tokyo, of nansensu [nonsense comedies] and moga [modern girls], must now impose his narrational system on a different Japanese iconography: the village street, the landscape, the forlorn café, the decaying theatre. He must film a traditional, if ineptly staged, performance. He can no longer cut away to Lincolns or spinning ventilators or Nipper the RCA dog. Ozu now experiments with treating centuries-old material in his own, recently matured manner.

His attempt is thoroughgoing. Instead of puckish cartoons behind the credits, he uses burlap, as if to assert the rustic purity of his tale. The characters wear kimono and play Japanese chess. The very title is a change for Ozu: instead of the vernacular catch-phrase or joke, we have a self-conscious metaphor comparing itinerant players to duckweeds that drift with the tides. Most strikingly, Ozu draws upon the iconography of Japanese religious traditions. Religious motifs are justified by the rural milieu, but Ozu absorbs them into characteristic cutaways. The scene of the troupe’s unpacking is prefaced by a close-up of one kamidana, or Shinto ‘god shelf’. Later Ozu cuts from a second kamidana to a third, fully laid out with cut paper, rope, and salt. Here the two kamidana are employed as an ambiguous transition moving from a rehearsal to a premiere. Later this traditional sign of good fortune is employed ironically. When the performance is interrupted by rain, Ozu cuts back to the third kamidana.

Another religious image, derived more from folk traditions than from shrine Shinto, is the ‘god’ tree near which Otoki waits to seduce Shinkichi. Otoki’s casual intrusion into a sacred space underlines the extent to which the actress is an outsider to the village, and again the religious motif is introduced ironically: a holy spot used to make a date. Significantly, Ozu’s characteristically late introduction of a motif is here reserved for the daruma at which Otsune looks twice in the film. The daruma, the roly-poly doll that always rights itself, is Japan’s popular image of Bodhidarma, the founder of Zen Buddhism who is said to have meditated so long that his legs dropped off. As a customary image of good fortune and successful achievement, the daruma forms a Buddhist equivalent for the Shinto kamidana, and its employment is no less ironic. Otsune first glances up at the daruma after Shinichi goes out on a secret visit to Otoki. In the climactic scene, she consoles Kihachi for the loss of his troupe (‘Even a doll is pitiful if you let it alone for a long time’) and Ozu cuts to the daruma. Finally, after Kihachi has left for good and his family stands weeping, the narration cuts back to the daruma and then to the upstairs room where he had played shogi with his son. In the context created by the daruma, the steaming teapot in the rear (a motif associated with Otsune’s household) cites the poetic cliché of life’s evanescence. (Similarly, the earlier fishing scene insists so much on the way that father and son stand in the river that it evokes Shinto’s doctrine of purification by water.)

An interpretative critic might go on to see the film as enacting a ‘battle’ of Japanese religions, with official Shinto and folk religion ‘defeated’ by a final emergence of Zen Buddhism. But this would miss the obvious and clichéd nature of the imagery which Ozu uses opportunistically, as pretext for asides (are these not the picturesque cutaways of an urban outsider?) and as realistically motivated material for formal patterning. Yet this material, unlike the yoyos and victrolas of Dragnet Girl, resists complete assimilation. The toning down of Kihachi’s character and the replacement of decentring gaps by a subdued irony are only two symptoms of a general muting of formal work. It is as if the rural subject and the religious iconography could not, at the risk of transgressing one currently powerful definition of Japanese tradition, become completely obedient to Ozu’s aesthetic system. The daruma cannot be made the butt of visual jokes as Nipper is, and village life cannot be satirised as severely as can the student or salaryman culture.
David Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (BFI/Princeton, 1988) Reproduced by kind permission of Bloomsbury Publishing © David Bordwell

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
©: Shochiku Co. Ltd.
Production Company: Shochiku Co. Ltd.
Assistant Directors: Kenkichi Hara, Hamao Negishi, Tokio Tanaka, Kazuo Ishikawa
Screenplay: Tadao Ikeda
Based on an idea by: James Maki
Based on the film ‘The Barker’ by: George Fitzmaurice *
Director of Photography: Hideo Mohara
Lighting: Toshimitsu Nakajima
Camera Assistants: Masao Irie, Yuharu Atsuta
Editor: Hideo Mohara
Art Director: Tatsuo Hamada
Set Designers: Yakichi Otani, Tamizo Kadota
Set Decorators: Shintaro Mishima, Yoshio Hino
Costumes: Taizo Saito
Studio: Shochiku Kamata

Takeshi Sakamoto (Kihachi Ichikawa)
Chôko Iida (Otsune, café-keeper)
Hideo Mitsui (Shinkichi, Ichikawa’s son)
Rieko Yagumo (Otaka)
Yoshiko Tsubouchi (Otoki)
Tokkan Kozo (Tomibo)
Reiko Tani (Tomibo’s father)
Seiji Nishimura (Kichan)
Nagamasa Yamada (Mako)
Yoko Taira (man in cottage)
Mitsuru Wakamiya (station employee)
Mariko Aoyama (barber’s wife)
Koson Ikebe (village man)
Kiyoshi Aono
Munenobu Yui
Shusuke Agata

Japan 1934©
86 mins

* Uncredited

With live piano accompaniment by
Meg Morley (9 September)
John Sweeney (23 September)

Tokyo Story (Tōkyō monogatari)
From Fri 1 Sep
I Flunked, But… (Rakudai wa shitakeredo)
Sat 2 Sep 16:15; Wed 13 Sep 20:35
Tokyo Chorus (Tōkyō no kōrasu)
Sat 2 Sep 18:30; Sun 17 Sep 16:00
An Autumn Evening with Yasujirō Ozu
Mon 4 Sep 18:15
I Was Born, But… (Umarete wa mita keredo)
Mon 4 Sep 20:30 (+ intro by Jinhee Choi, King’s College London); Fri 15 Sep 18:30
Tokyo Twilight (Tōkyō boshoku)
Thu 7 Sep 18:00; Wed 27 Sep 20:15
The Only Son (Hitori musuko)
Fri 8 Sep 20:40; Sat 16 Sep 18:10 (+ intro by season curator Ian Haydn Smith)
A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa monogatari)
Sat 9 Sep 11:50; Sat 23 Sep 16:00
Good Morning (Ohayō)
Sat 9 Sep 18:10; Sat 30 Sep 20:40
Floating Weeds (Ukigusa)
Sat 9 Sep 20:30; Sun 1 Oct 11:30 BFI IMAX; Mon 2 Oct 18:00
Late Spring (Banshun)
Sun 10 Sep 12:15 (+ intro by season curator, Ian Haydn Smith); Fri 22 Sep 20:50
Early Summer (Bakushu)
Sun 10 Sep 15:00; Wed 13 Sep 14:30; Sat 23 Sep 20:35
Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Todake no kyōdai)
Mon 11 Sep 18:00; Sat 30 Sep 18:20
There Was a Father (Chichi ariki)
Mon 11 Sep 20:40; Thu 28 Sep 18:20
City Lit at BFI: Ozu: Cinema of Everyday Life
Tue 12 Sep – 3 Oct 18:30-20:30
Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Nagaya Shinshiroku)
Tue 12 Sep 20:30; Wed 20 Sep 21:00; Sat 23 Sep 18:30
Early Spring (Sōshun)
Thu 14 Sep 20:10; Sun 1 Oct 18:00
The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (Ochazuke no aji)
Fri 15 Sep 20:45; Sat 30 Sep 15:30
The Anatomy of Ozu
Sat 16 Sep 12:00-17:00
Late Autumn (Akibiyori)
Sun 17 Sep 18:20; Sat 30 Sep 12:30
Equinox Flower (Higanbana)
Thu 21 Sep 18:00; Sun 1 Oct 15:10
An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji)
Sun 24 Sep 18:25 (+ intro); Tue 3 Oct 20:45

Influence and Inspiration
Make Way for Tomorrow
Sat 2 Sep 12:40; Sun 24 Sep 15:50 (+ intro by season curator Ian Haydn Smith)
Sun 3 Sep 14:00; Mon 2 Oct 20:45

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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