Analysis of “There Was A Father”, 00:12:00 – 00:17:59

There Was A Father, Scene 797

After the conversation about his resigning teachership with Hirata, Horikawa moves to his hometown with his son. This six minutes concerns the beginning of their life-long sojourn.

It is often noted that an image of train is the central device of Ozu’s films. Here, this device, shot from on board, frames the conversation between the father and the son. Their exchanges signify their rootlessness, home lost. The father says they are going back to his hometown, but there is no place which they can call their own. The shots of this conversation are conventional cutbacks with the exception of its lower camera positions, which brings the larger area of bright exterior background. In fact, it barely avoids the direct sunlight or lens flares. The left cheek of the boy’s face is washed out, losing the details due to the strong reflection, while the right half of the body sinks in the dim interior.
I believe this is one of the rarest cases in which Ozu utilizes the source of natural light to this degree. His direction, especially those in later years, is noted by “well-lit” scenes, so that his balanced compositions are well represented on screen without losing their little details. But here, the gradient of the brightness within the frame is so great, with little regard for “balance”. Those living are in the dark, while the universe filled with brightness is beyond their space. 
Horikawa talks about “your grandfather’s graves and your mother’s grave”. Another reference to graves.
From the beginning, this film resides in the world of eerie human habitat. Almost none but other than Horikawas exists in the train, in the streets, and in the canteen. As if, in this world, while other human souls are all lost, the father and the son have to find their own peaceful place but doomed to wander about. 
There Was A Father, Scene 966
The ruin of the old castle, only the dry stone foundations of which survived, is the stage for the first critical conversation between the father and the son. This seems to be the remains of the Komoro castle, in the city of Komoro, almost 10 miles east of the city of Ueda, Nagano. As you can see from the photo of the remains, this dry stone motte is not as large as it appears to be in the film. Moreover, you do not view the scenery from the top of this construction as this is one  of the very rare examples of the Japanese castles built on the basin, lower in altitude compared to the city around it. But the film gives an illusion that the father and the son are looking down the city. Again, the domineering dark dry stones in front overshadow the sky beyond.
The Ruin of the Komoro Castle (via. nagatabi.hariko.com)

Then the camera places the two in the frame during the conversation. Though the histograms show considerable power at the brighter end of the spectrum, the father’s dark kimono (consistent with the earlier scenes) blocks the view while the larger area of the overcast sky occupies the background. A series of 180 degree flip cutbacks between the father and the son creates symbolic anti-symmetry. Here, we witness the son’s gaze filled with painful introspection for the first time. This lost gaze or posture of silent resistance/rejection is more prevalent when he becomes an adult.

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Analysis of “There Was A Father”, 00:06:00 – 00:11:59

Throughout this six minutes, large part of dark areas are provided by human figures (students and teachers) since they wear dark uniforms or suits, while the brighter areas are from background.

The first few seconds of this segment show very prominent power in brighter end of grayscale spectrum. The images show the white mountain ranges beyond, with dark foreground. Then it cuts to the dark figures, the teacher (supposedly Horikawa) and the students marching on the bright ground, with their back toward the audience. Then, the view of the Mount Fuji over the Lake Ashinoko with the dark framing tree is used as another pillow shot. The composition is almost one of those picture postcards. The shot of the hallway in the hotel is also dominated by the black of umbrellas. The room is filled with students, wearing dark uniforms.
The whole sequence leading to the accident is framed by the shots of Soga brothers tombs. As mentioned earlier, this image of the tombs signifies the path to the “other” world. The second shot of the tombs at Scene 549 has a bright upper half with dark tombstones, creating more stark contrast. You can see the large power is concentrated in the brighter end of spectrum for this shot, and stands out in this whole six minute segment. Another shot with considerable power at the brighter end of spectrum is at Scene 471, the boats before the tragedy. It seems when we glimpse the gate to the “Other” world, the shot presents a strong power at the brighter end. Is this coincidence?
It is quite peculiar that few of the characters in this sequence except Horikawa has name, identity or memorable trait. The student who meets the tragic accident is never introduced, and all other students are just dark lumps in the image. Horikawa being the only person we can identify, we are completely left detatched from the tragedy. This creates the sensation of sudden shock with no tangible narrative. But the tragedy in real life may not have narrative as we know it in art.

The procession of the wake is shifted toward dark end. Night, Horikawa in dark suits, the students in dark uniforms (as if they had prepared for this), all who survived sink into black void, while a moth attracted to the bright bulb is chasing the mirage of its short life.
The following exchange between Horikawa and Hirata creates the gloomy atmosphere with Horikawa wearing the dark kimono as a focal point. This consistency of Horikawa’s dark outfit signifies his psychological burden and guilt he has to bear throughout the film.

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Analysis of “There Was A Father”, 00:00:00 – 00:05:59

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Only six minutes of the film.
But this first six minutes are already filled with wealth of ideas and images.
First, the condition of the print. It is quite apparent that the grayscale of the images are “narrowed”. In another words, the dynamic range has been lost. Black has faded, while white lost its luster. I believe that the surviving material is positive 16mm reduction print. I don’t know if the loss of image quality occurred when this reduction/duplication process was performed, or it has degraded over the course of time.
The modern image processing technologies can manipulate images quite easily. In fact, there are some people who are working with old films, giving the image grayscale stretch, adjusting it until they can get “decent details”, and calling it “digital restoration”. While I am not totally against this approach, I am not ready to accept it as definitive. Digitizing analogue materials, especially deteriorated materials, is quite an intricate matter.
In any case, rather than appropriating details by manipulating the grayscale, I would study the images as they are, as carefully as possible.
A bit of historical background. It will help us to understand some of the aspects in this film.

In August 1941, the government issued a warning to Japanese film industry about the inevitable film stock shorting in the near future. During 1930s, most of the Japanese cinemas were shot, processed and distributed with Eastman film stocks. The only domestic supplier, Fuji Photo Film, was considered technically incompetent, and their films stocks were barely used. However, as the war in China was criticized in the international arena, Japan had stepped into the isolationism, resulting in massive material shortage. In 1940, sugar was rationed, no luxurious ornament was allowed and dance halls were shut down. In 1941, all automobiles (except for military use) were converted into coal-fueled cars, and daily necessities, such as rice and alcohol, were rationed. Film stocks were no exception, and in 1941, it became apparent that the commercial use of film stocks had to be restricted, which caused tremendous impact on film industry. There were 10 major studios at the time, but after the executive discussions, they were merged into two studios (Shochiku and Toho) plus one new studio (Daiei). It was decided that there be six features a month (two from each studio), and 30 distribution prints per feature. All movie theaters were categorized into two groups, “Red” and “White”. This war-time emergency measure was taken into effect on the first week of April 1942. “There Was A Father” was the first feature to be premiered in the “White” theaters.
The film starts with titles and credits. This title sequence is typical of his works, with minimal design and subdued lettering. In fact, this is very typical of Shochiku cinemas at the time. During the war, it was customary to have propaganda titles before the actual feature. For example, there is a title card “Break the enemy to the end (撃ちてし止まむ)” in the very beginning of many films of this era. I do not know if this film had one of those title cards.
The image compositions of the pillow shots in the beginning are significant. First and second sets of the pillow shots are dominated by dark foreground. I tweaked around with its grayscale, and even though the details of the foreground (tree trunks in this case) were lost considerably, they were meant to be a dark foreground in contrast to relatively bright scenery in back. Second pillow shot is undoubtedly the forerunner of that in Tokyo Story as in terms of composition and function in the narrative. There are even sets of large/small barrels/bottles in each shots. Large white walls of the warehouses and higher horizon in the latter bring the image more balanced look compared to dominating trees and very low horizon in “There Was A Father”. Also, very long shadows in “There Was A Father” created by lower altitude of sun indicate bleak early winter morning.
The Pillow Shots: Tokyo Story (Left), There Was A Father (Right)
The morning in Horikawa house in “There Was A Father” also resembles the morning in Hirayama house in “Tokyo Story” (come to think of it, these two films resemble each other in many respects). This is the only sequence in the whole film that the father and the son live together in their own house. Since my first viewing, I fell in love with this sequence. This is filled with caring and love only a widowed father would bring. This is built with the finest composition, with bold 180 degree flip. Movement of characters are flawlessly constructed, which culminates into the Chaplin-resque shot of two walking into the bright vanishing point in the early morning.
There Was A Father, Scene 210
Now the scene Horikawa teaching in the class is the mirror of his son teaching in the later sequence. Here, the prominent blackboard and Horikawa’s dark suits along with student’s dark uniforms dominate the frame. The source of light is from the windows off screen, again with very low altitude. One thing which struck me odd was the manner in which Horikawa speaks of the field trip plan. When he talks about visiting the Imperial Palace, he bows toward certain direction attentively. This gesture is called “Koukyo Youhai (Salute to the Imperial Palace)”, bowing toward the Emperor and his Palace. I thought this custom was very symbolic of the wartime Japan, but not so prevalent in the earlier era. This scene is supposed to be taking place in around 1920, some 20 years prior to the actual film production. I did some reading and found that this gesture was not so strange in 1920s, because Ministry of Education were building its strict teaching policy about Imperial Order around this time.
Sudden cut to group photo session in Kamakura is quite striking. Apparently, this cut caused some debate among film reviewers at the time, some citing that audience made uneasy gasps at the premier screenings. Even in the later years, Ozu did not use the cut/transition with the abruptness of this degree. There are many discussion about the aesthetics of this direct cut to next scenes, absence of fade ins and outs or dissolves, but I guess the primary reason for evolution of this technique is what Ozu repeatedly said. He didn’t like the lousy laboratory works in Japan at the time, and these techniques required skill and knowledge only available in Hollywood at the time. He couldn’t stand the idea that his works being destroyed by some incompetent technicians. But apparently, he was experimenting the technique in this instance.
While the large Buddha statue in the background, all the students were wearing black uniforms. These uniforms were black. I wore them when I was a kid. So this frame is meant to be occupied by large area of black. And next pillow shot is three tombs of Soga brothers in Hakone/Ashinoko. The story of Soga brothers vengeance was one of the most popular Kabuki and other theatrical materials, in which the brothers swore to avenge his father’s death and after long trying passage of time, they did. Somehow, these tombstones not only foreshadow the tragedy in the lake, but also loom on our father and son. These two shots have quite large power in dark end of spectrum and tombstones are especially significant, in which source of light is off-screen low altitude sun.
There Was A Father, Scene 350
This shot is extremenly important. Anyone who visited Hakone knew these tombstones. The area where they are located was called “Crossroad to Other World” or simply “the Hell” in the past. My wife and I visited this area many times, and even though the area is now a major tourist attraction, a quite eerie atmosphere is hanging over in the air. Especially, the hours before the sunset evokes the feeling of something of not this world. The pond (“Shojin-Ike”) was nearby, which was looked upon as “Sai no Kawara” in older times. In Japanese traditional beliefs, “Sai no Kawara” is the river bank, water beyond which is the border between ‘this’ and ‘the other’ world (just like Styx). After this shot of tombstones, one of the student drowns in Lake Ashinoko (just nearby) and dies. Yes, this shot is meant to introduce the death.
Another point of note is, “Sai no Kawara” has an alternative meaning of “wasted effort” or “working hard in vain”. Perhaps I am reading too much from this detail, but the older generation in Japan instinctively knew those things. I have a feeling Ozu carefully calculated this irony. 
Soga Brothers Tombs, now (via Yahoo Japan Travel)