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March 27, 2008

Silent Reflections – I Was Born, But… (1932)

by HELEN GEIB

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Director Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932) is a gentle domestic comedy with a substratum of wry social commentary. The slice of life story charts the daily routine of an ordinary family of a father, mother, and two schoolboy sons over the course of a few days. The film begins with a transition in the family’s circumstances (they have just moved to a new house in the suburbs) and ends with a transition in the boys’ relationship with their father. Even the “big” events are ordinary and expected parts of family life, and the focus of the film is on the familiar incidents of everyday living.

The suburb is a new development served by a trolley line, with unpaved roads, dusty yards, and plentiful open fields. There’s a local school, from which the boys play truant on their first day, and an established neighborhood clique among their contemporaries. Much of the film follows the boys on their small adventures exploring the neighborhood, going to their new school, and coming into conflict with, and then becoming integrated into, the local gang. This part of the film is entirely charming and quite funny, and fully validates Ozu’s reputation as a masterful director of child actors. The performances by the two boys playing the sons of the family are delightfully natural and effortlessly dominate the film.

The boys’ interaction with their peers is simultaneously comedy and social commentary. The commentary is no less evident for being largely unforced; most of the time, it is simply implicit in the story, a portrayal of individualistic newcomers being absorbed into the existing, well-defined social structure. Ozu on occasion makes the point that the children’s society is a reflection of adult society explicit by cutting directly from the boys’ activity to a parallel scene of the father’s office life.

The father is a salaryman (a white-collar office worker) locked into customary rituals of office politics, office drudgery, and social flattery. The boys’ disillusionment when they witness their father clowning around to amuse his boss triggers the family quarrel that occupies the film’s climax. The children’s acceptance that adulthood requires accommodation with social norms resolves the crisis, and is depicted as a part of growing up. The audience recognizes what the characters do not, that the children are already unwitting participants in the same social norms. It is left as a matter of interpretation whether adult society perpetuates childhood, or childhood mirrors adult society.

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