Floating Weeds ★★★★½

A kabuki troupe arrives at a sea port town for their next round of shows. Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), the middle-aged actor and the head of the troupe, intends to revisit his old flame Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) and his now-teenage son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi). There’s a twelve years gap since the last time the three were together, but Kiyoshi, of whom Komajuro pretends to be his uncle all along and was told his real father is dead, is more than happy to see Komajuro in the town. Komajuro‘s current mistress Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), one of the actress in the troupe, wonders where he’s gone in the day time. When she finds out the truth and visits Oyoshi‘s house unexpectedly, a quarrel is ensured. In an attempt to avenge, she lures Kayo (Ayako Wakao), a young actress in the troupe, to seduce Kiyoshi. Meanwhile the troupe is near disintegration due to financial difficulty.

FLOATING WEEDS is a remake of Ozu’s acclaimed silent film A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS (1934), which basically follows the same plot. The remake version has the advantage of being a colorized talkie, and in Ozu’s formalistic rendering, it’s more poignant and affecting. The immobilized camera at a low-height , the impeccable and meticulous composition (how the rain separates Komajuro and Sumiko during their quarrel, the ragged ship at the port looms over Kiyoshi and Kayo when they’re struggling between love and reality), the vibrant use of colours to enhance the nuisance and warmth, and the narrative ellipses (one of the member steals money and valuables from the troupe and then flees, it’s only mentioned during conversation).

FLOATING WEEDS is first and foremost a melodrama. Komajuro being the central character is deeply flawed, he’s abuisve to Sumiko and Kayo, hitting them like punching dolls when he’s in anguish; he belittles their ‘profession’ and selfishly pretends to be Kiyoshi‘s uncle, thinking his work would hamper Kiyoshi’s future, and only when the troupe is unsustainable would he think of staying. Sumiko at first acts like a jealous woman jeopardising everything, but her predicament is understandable. As a woman in 1950s Japan (though the setting of the film could very well be pre-war period), she could hardly achieve independence, both financially and artistically. Her revenge is more like a reaction out of fear, a survival instinct. They are the ‘floating weeds,’ belong to nowhere and perpetually shifting from places to places.

Their roots are the ‘art of theater’ itself, which the film reflects its disparagement almost comically. Kiyoshi regards the story as anachronistic, outdated and wonders why Komajuro doesn’t perform something else. Could that be the same criticism Ozu received, if any, in his late period? The Japanese New Wave is around the corner, could that be a self-reflexive witticism on Ozu’s unyielding aesthetics? FLOATING WEEDS is permeated with a lighthearted humour, not the kind of laugh-out-loud jokes but it fills your heart with warmth and evokes a long-lasting smile.

The film closes in a relatively happy ending. Komajuro, after Kiyoshi elopes with Kayo, confronts his son with the revelation of his secret, and it ends bitterly. In Ozu’s rendening, it’s the ‘best’ possible outcome. How would they live together when the father-son relationship is built on lies all along? Could Komajuro adapt to ‘stability’ and accept Kayo as his daughter-in-law? On the other hand, Sumiko desperately needs a man of shelter, of comfort, when they stumble across each other in the train station, it’s the second, and perhaps the last chance for their lives to move forward. Are they going to a brighter future? It’s highly unlikely, but in Ozu’s eye, they endure the compromise and have each other along the way, that’s happy enough.