In 1959, near the end of his career, Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu returned to a story he had directed twenty-five years earlier, remaking his silent-film classic A Story of Floating Weeds as Floating Weeds. (A Story of Floating Weeds: 1934, silent, black-and white; Floating Weeds, 1959, sound, color.)
Keeping the arc of Ozu’s career in mind makes for an especially poignant experience when watching Floating Weeds, because it also a story of returning.
Floating Weeds opens with the fanfare of a traveling acting troupe arriving in a small, seaside Japanese town. In an essay for the Criterion Collection, Japanese film historian Donald Richie notes aspects of Ozu’s mature visual style—“the famous camera position, just up off the tatami, its refusal to chase after the actors (the dolly) or even turn its head (the pan)”—that can be observed as he captures the excitement of the town’s children as they follow the troupe through the streets; many of them, it seems, have never seen live theater before. We quickly learn, however, that this is not the first time the troupe has visited this town.
Ozu interweaves scenes of the acting troupe preparing for their performances with the story of Komajuro Arashi, the aging leader of the troupe, visiting Oyoshi, a woman from the town, and her son, Kiyoshi. Kiyoshi has grown up believing that Komajuro is his uncle, when he is actually his father. The ways in which this secret is revealed, and the consequences it spawns among the family and the troupe, form the dramatic core of Floating Weeds.
In his Criterion essay, Richie notes that while Ozu employs many of the same techniques in both A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds, the pain of the latter film is not felt as sharply as it is in the former: “The earlier version seems the more bitter of the two. Toward the end of his life, Ozu mellowed, and one does not, for example, see or feel in Floating Weeds the pain of the once-again abandoned mother.... A Story of Floating Weeds shows us a bleak despair rarely seen in Ozu’s more expansive later work. In 1934, Ozu felt deeply and personally the wrong that life inflicts. Twenty-five years later, he felt just as deeply, but perhaps less personally.”
—Tyler Petty, from his blog Faces Unveiled