I Was Born, But… (Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo, 1932) is an adult story from a child’s eye point of view. Having just moved to a suburb of Tokyo, brothers Keiji and Ryoichi find themselves as outsiders among the neighborhood children. The movie deals with their struggle to ingratiate themselves with the local kids and to come to terms with the importance — or non-importance — of their family in the world at large. Oh, and it’s also extremely funny. I Was Born, But… is the latest totally silent film on the Sight & Sound list (1936’s Modern Times doesn’t quite count), and it is also the oldest Japanese film in the Top 250. The movie is by the prolific director Ozu Yasujiro, whose very formal directorial style works surprisingly well with the kinetic shenanigans of the children in this movie, creating something like an art house Little Rascals movie. Alternately beautiful and supremely silly, I Was Born, But… is the rare movie that let’s children be children, instead of being participants in a sanitized fairy tale or a live-action cartoon. It also let’s adults be adults, acknowledging that they can be nearly as ridiculous as their kids. (91 min.)
J. – This movie was a real treat and a perfect antidote after our unfortunate run in with the restored version of Greed. I Was Born, But… is an excellent silent comedy that absolutely transcends cultural barriers in its depiction of the daily struggle of two kids to fit in. I’m sure we’ll have plenty to yammer about here, S., seeing as we both loved the film, but I guess I’d like to start with the realism mentioned in the intro. The children in this movie acted like actual kids instead of some strange adult notion of what it is like to be children. (Do we somehow forget after a certain age, or is that a condition that only affects script writers?) The kids fight, develop strange obsessions (Sparrow Eggs for Strength!!), have in-joke games, brag about their dads, are generally filthy, copycat each other, and have irrational but believable tantrums. None of it feels hammy or inauthentic, but it’s definitely not cinema verité. The realism just makes the characters that much more ridiculous and the jokes that much better. I particularly love how the kids’ taunts or squabbles instantly turn into panicked flight whenever an adult gets involved.
S. – I did love this film. The success of IWBB… stems from being genuine, a rare achievement in cinema. For what is a very small story centred around an issue that could easily be lost in translation, the underlying coming of age theme is allowed to shine through a mesmerising cast. The cinematography is wonderful without dominating your attention and the kids are outstanding, I can’t even refer to them as actors because I was entirely convinced that they are who I saw on screen. The many small details that populated the brothers interaction with each other and the wider world were a continual source of delight and the kids-eye view provided by the low camera angles further immersed you into the trials and tribulations of Keiji and Ryoichi.
J. – It was a stroke of genius to keep the camera perpetually at kid height. It really turned the whole movie into the children’s world, even if it meant that the upper halves of many adults were cropped out of view. It was sort of a visual equivalent of the “whamp-wha” vocalizations of adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. And the kids were utterly convincing, which perhaps was aided by the lack of sound. It let them act with their bodies and expressions without the potential awkwardness of stiff or over-the-top line readings. But in general I feel like the movie was incredibly naturalistic — certainly far, far more so than any other silent film we have watched to date. I wonder if this is because it is a very late silent film or if it has something to do with Japanese acting styles. Perhaps the extreme reserve that characterizes so many contemporary Japanese stories melds with the pantomime of silent cinema to make everything juuuuuust right. I’d go so far to say that I think this movie would not have to be filmed any differently if it was a sound film; it would have worked equally well with identical shot selections and performances. That’s a remarkable feat.
S. – That is a very good point, perhaps not having to deliver lines was key in keeping the action natural. There are so many great scenes in this but one of my favorites is when the boys, having arrived at the school gate after seeing their father head off in his suit to work, are momentarily paralysed by indecision. Having just received a stern talking to about the importance of achieving good grades at school but facing a yard full of rowdy kids without a friendly face in sight sparks a personal crisis that is brilliant to watch. This time self preservation wins out but the responsibility to perform at an “excellent” level is not forgotten as the elder brother Ryoichi applies himself to his calligraphy work out in the field with mixed results. The relationship of boys with their fathers is the major theme of the movie, Ryoichi’s determination to follow his father’s advice is a simple and effective way of demonstrating the strength of the paternal influence and sets the stage for the tumult caused when the reality of their father’s true standing in the world seeps into their consciousness.
J. – It’s nice that the film really sets up the conflict that ignites in the final third of the film without ever feeling too serious or didactic. There are always power dynamics and issues of social heirarchy at work in this movie, but having it done up in the guise of dirty-faced kids who forget to zip up their flies is an excellent way to hint at adult problems while keeping things light and fun. The scene where the brothers gather at the house of their father’s boss to watch home movies is great. Seeing their father act like a clown on the screen just stuns them into silence and eventually rage, which is a fantastic reaction, particularly because their dad really is genuinely funny. But the disconnect between the authority figure they assume is super important and the goofball who sucks up to his boss is too much for them to handle. I think what’s particularly great about the way the brothers’ disappointment plays out is that it remains petty and childish. And while they may learn a lesson or two from the experience, it’s really the boys’ parents who seem to get taught something in the process. It’s a great inversion of way things usually happen in film, and to be honest is probably more realistic.
S. – I really enjoyed that the father’s goofing off mirrored some of the quirks displayed by Keiji throughout the film. It was interesting that the other boys watching the home movie responded in a positive way to the antics of Ryoichi and Keiji’s dad but the brothers were so shell-shocked by this alteration in their worldview that they failed to notice. Ryoichi in particular struggles with the disconnect between his world and his father’s. In the boys’ hierarchy the boss’ son is well down the pecking order because he isn’t as confident, savvy or brave as the brothers. Evidence that the adult world isn’t guided by the same principles of meritocracy is a bitter pill to swallow. But an engaging story is not all this film has to offer. The cinematography is superb, every scene is a pleasure to look at, which is an amazing achievement by Ozu considering much of it is shot outdoors alongside the tram-tracks of a modest suburb.
J. – It is a beautifully shot movie, but as you mentioned above it is not distractingly lovely. Ozu was clearly very meticulous about his framing and staging. Having previously seen his later film Tokyo Story awhile back, we noted how precise and perfectly arranged the interior sets of that film were. It’s like he is a Japanese Wes Anderson when it comes to production design, except he eschews the fantastic or the whimsical in favor of the perfectly real. You certainly get a bit of that in IWBB… when you are in the brothers’ house, but what is particularly remarkable about the camera work in this film is exactly what you noted, that it is outside in a ho-hum suburb. Ozu finds a way to make the suburb a place of wonder but without ever losing the reality of the place. The film is always grounded, and though the scenery might be beautifully shot, you never forget the suburban banality of it all.
But all of that sounds so serious, and this movie is far too sweet, funny, and rough-and-tumble for me to wax artistical. It’s just plain wonderful.
S. – It was an absolute delight to watch and such a welcome change of pace after the dirge of Greed. I Was Born, But… is a movie I will happily watch again and I look forward to spending more time in the world according to Ozu, who has an impressive total of four contributions to the Sight & Sound list.