Yasujirô Ozu was one of the most celebrated, idiosyncratic yet -- in his day -- commercially successful filmmakers in the history of the Japanese film industry. He worked, across nearly the entirety of his movie-making career, for the Shochiku Company Limited -- the mammoth studios at which he first started out as an assistant cameraman in 1923 after failing his university exams twice. The company was founded in the late-eighteenth century, initially as a producer of live kabuki theatre; but it expanded its output to encompass movie production in the 1920s, soon abandoning the mannered stylisations and all-male yarō-kabuki conventions of traditional Japanese drama for its own version of the Hollywood star system during the silent era, which ushered in a mode of narrative expression much influenced by that which was familiar from American movies of the day, but which was still concerned with portraying the everyday lives of ordinary Japanese people. Ozu’s work is, of course, renowned for its detailed dissection of family life, which it achieves through the delicate unwrapping and laying bare of character: the novelistic, in-depth exploration of inter-generational relationships between Japanese parents and their children, growing up in a country tinged with regret for a vanishing past even as it comes to grips with modernity. His work began to develop an appeal born of the distinctive technical tropes that separated his later approach to the crafts of filming and editing from the standard visual language adhered to at that time by almost everybody else working in cinema (both in Japan and abroad) during the mid-thirties, when he made a silent film called A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukikusa monogatari) – an adaptation of a 1928 American picture called The Barker, that had been directed by George Fitzmaurice and starred Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. -- and he continued to perfect and refine his style throughout the Golden Age of Japanese cinema, creating many masterpieces that only came to the attention of western audiences in the 1970s. But it was his late-career colour films which gave full expression to the purest manifestation of what became known as the Ozu style.
One of his very last films was a fully-fledged remake of Ukikusa monogatari, which he shot at the age of fifty-six, just a few years before he died. It was one of the few pictures he made outside the auspices of the Shockiku studio and only his third in colour. Although Ozu’s work always stuck closely to the exploration of the same handful of family-related themes and can in some ways be taken as one project, constantly retold from a variety of angles, Floating Weeds was only the second direct remake of an earlier work, coming in the wake of Good Morning, which had been a reworking of one of his first major films from 1932: A Picture-Book for Grown-Ups: I Was Born, But…. This latest remake broke new ground in many ways though, mainly related to the involvement in its production of the president of Daiei Studios, Masaichi Nagata, who backed the picture after work on it had stalled at Shochiku.
Nagata is one of the most important studio figures active during this period of Japanese filmmaking; he produced Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi just as they were making huge waves on the International festival circuit with Rashômon and Ugetsu Monogatari, and he put into production one of Japan’s most opulent early colour films: Teinosuke Kinugasa’s magnificent Gate of Hell, also an early example of a successful foreign export for Japan's blooming fifties film industry. Nagata’s involvement lent a similarly high profile to Floating Weeds, which required that Ozu work with a different cinematographer from his usual collaborator, Yûharu Atsuta - who beforhand had been almost Ozu’s only photographic partner and who had been instrumental in conceiving the visual look of his films since 1937.
Both men were ‘sceptical’ of the shift to colour photography in the 1950s, and had used it in as understated a way as possible on Ozu's first two colour outings at Shochiku. But now Nagata paired Ozu with Kazuo Miyagawa -- the top cinematographer at Daiei, and the man who had presided over the visuals of both Rashômon and Ugetsu Monogatari. Miyagawa also enthusiastically embraced the possibilities now opened up by the growth of colour photography, and the new collaboration between these two masters of their respective arts (the traditionalist Ozu and the embracer of modern practices Miyagawa) resulted in Floating Weeds emerging as a rich, painterly example of Ozu’s best cinema, bringing new depth and vivid clarity to the director’s spartan sense of film grammar (which had become, by this point, an extremely finely pared aesthetic), but in a way that actually emphasises its stripped down economical nature rather than “tarting it up” with unnecessary dressings ... Although Ozu wasn’t going to capitulate to that other new fifties trend: the craze for CinemaScope - preferring to stick to the traditional “picture-frame” box image familiar to the Academy Ratio - Floating Weeds was a sumptuous spectacle of a film, that nevertheless, employed its colour intelligently and systematically, in selective artistic patterns.