A late work from Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu, and a master class in his particular sense of composition. If the camera barely moves in Floating Weeds, it’s for good reason – all the beauty and drama you need is right there in the frame.
The movie is set in a small fishing village where an itinerant theater troupe has come to perform. The group is led by Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), who has a particular reason for visiting. Years ago, a romantic dalliance led to the birth of a son (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), whom Komajuro visits every once in a great while, claiming to be his uncle. These family secrets upset Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), the company’s lead actress and Komajuro’s current companion, leading to confrontations both personal and professional.
If the camera barely moves, it’s for good reason.
One of those confrontations serves as the picture’s definitive sequence. Having followed Komajuro to the home of his son, Sumiko begins to berate him outside in the rain. They stand on opposite sides of a muddy path, each held in check by the protective shelter of a roof’s eaves. Ozu shoots the scene from two angles: a traditional shot, over Sumiko’s shoulder looking at Komajuro; and a remarkable one from inside the building in which Komajuro stands. Decorative wall panels anchor the left and right foreground, Sumiko’s open umbrella provides a burst of red in the background and Komajuro paces menacingly back and forth in the center of the screen. (Apologies for not being able to exactly reproduce the dimensions in the image above.)
There are thematic reasons for this mise en scene (consider, for instance, the power dynamics at play), but those should only be explored after appreciating the sheer, compositional artistry on display. We’re alerted to this from the opening image, in which a bottle on the beach is held in parallel with the village’s similarly shaped lighthouse. From the recurrence of red to the various ways cigarettes are lit, every detail in Floating Weeds is meant to be carefully seen.
As a narrative, the picture has the feel of an elegy, which is perhaps appropriate for a filmmaker near the end of his career. Komajuro’s act is described as old-fashioned, and indeed the crowds begin to dwindle with each passing day. There is the suggestion that not much of interest is going on onstage. In fact, the performers seem to spend just as much time peering at the audience through the curtain – spying on old lovers, scanning for potential new ones – than the audience does watching them. Ozu is more interested in the soft humor and high drama of actual life – and he captures it in ingeniously intricate ways.