A Story of Floating Weeds

In 1934, Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu directed A Story of Floating Weeds (he went on later to remake the film in 1959 under the title Floating Weeds).  The Criterion Collection DVD of the 1934 version is stunningly clean and vivid. This is silent film at its most elegant, its most uncluttered, its most poetic.

The story is fairly simple, but how it is told makes for a rich viewing experience. When a troop of traveling dramatic players enters a small town, the leader of the group must navigate through conflict between his son, a former lover, and a jealous fellow actress. What happens between the scenes of dialog and character interactions are wonderful transitions, pauses, and images that help to carry the emotion of the story.

Ozu uses every opportunity to frame images of natural elements:

– Water: Rain falling in the night indoors and outdoors, rivers, falling snow.
– Light: Solitary light bulbs are always prominent indoors – and sunlight.
– Wind: in trees, rippling through banners, and softly moving through clothing drying on the line.

Certain images echo throughout the film, like the rain and snow illuminated by light bulbs and characters passing by dramatic, massive trees – but he never offers the same composition twice and rarely even offers the same shot twice within a scene (Believe me, I tried to get screen captures as the movie ran and I kept having to rewind since compositions are rarely repeated).

There is never a wasted shot in this film: there is nothing that doesn’t need to be there. The slow, careful tracking shots of all the possessions that belong to the acting troupe toward the end of the film are very lovely, like a poem unfolding, revealing costumes, props, clothing, traveling packs, and bottles of sake. The story is not a complicated one, but it is a deep one, and the images Ozu invokes embody the inner conflicts of the restless, wandering group of actors.  What will these characters do?  When faced with the end of their act, will they float away again or come to rest like the snowflakes that drift through cracks in the roof and fall lightly to the floor?


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