Though the resigned melancholy of Yasujiro Ozu’s famed ’50s family melodramas courses throughout his 1932 silent gem I Was Born, But . . . (restored for a two-week run at the IFC Center), such pessimism is mitigated by buoyant comedy. That lightness would subsequently become scarcer in the Japanese master’s oeuvre.
In a Tokyo suburb, two new-in-town sons (Hideo Sugawara and Tomio Aoki) of company executive Mr. Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito) go about their daily juvenile routines: scuffling with bullies, playing hooky from class, and testing the elixir-like effects of sparrow eggs—a coveted delicacy, at least according to the area’s kids—on their pet dog. Ozu’s portrait is steeped in the blissful self-absorption of youth and also fixated on schoolyard codes of conduct, his protagonists’ interactions with each other, their peers and grown-ups laced with behind-the-back funny faces and unspoken mores. Slowly transitioning from nobodies to leaders of their local pack, the boys’ day-to-day shenanigans create a context for their dawning recognition of mature social, economic, and power orders, an awareness painfully personal by the discovery that their father is “not an important man,” but, rather, a sycophantic, ridiculed underling employee to their friend’s dad.
Lighthearted Little Rascals mischief thus gives way to a reckoning with inequity and compromise. Via a series of reverent opening compositions, Ozu conveys the brothers’ conception of their paterfamilias as a totemic figure of authority, nobility, and strength. In this illusion’s destruction, I Was Born, But . . . smoothly segues its jovial comedy into more sorrowful terrain, with the boys compelled to exit the comforting cocoon of innocent early childhood to confront a less forgiving adult reality, in which unpleasant sacrifices made for the greater personal/familial good are de rigueur. The despondence of Ozu’s incisive film comes from its empathetic yet sober acceptance of unavoidable pecking orders and inflexible customs, as the director makes plain during a scene of children marching in lockstep at school juxtaposed with nine-to-fivers toiling away (synchronized yawns included) at their identical workstations.
Still, if reconciled to a world predicated on social unfairness—and the concessions people must inevitably make to survive, or provide opportunities for others—the film retains a measure of tempered hope, born not simply from the father’s command-cum-wish to his slumbering offspring (“Don’t become a miserable apple-polisher like me, boys”), but also from a final act of youthful compassion that binds Ozu’s intensely human characters in glass-half-full solidarity.