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Criterion Upgrades Ozu’s Floating Weeds to Blu-Ray

Floating Weeds (1959). Photo: courtesy The Criterion Collection.

Last week, The Criterion Collection announced it and its sibling distributor Janus Films have been sold to Indian Paintbrush founder Steven Rales with the promise that the mission and leadership of the companies “will not change” in the wake of the transaction. Cinephiles are sure to hope that Criterion will continue its mission to bring the world of great cinema past and present to to physical media with both a high degree of technical quality and supplemental features that enhance the appreciation of the art of film. In this day and age, when streaming services dominate and film content can disappear—without notice and for who knows how long—from services, cinephiles invested in the art form rely on Criterion and like companies for restoring and preserving the medium’s rich history. Such is the case with Criterion’s recent and long-awaited, if modest, upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray of two Yasujirō Ozu classics, A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and its color remake, Floating Weeds (1959).

Neither of the two feature films is presented with any new supplemental content beyond that included in the company’s 2004 DVD release, but both films are presented in new remasters. More significantly, both films, individually and in comparison, illustrate Ozu’s unique aesthetic and adroit storytelling in a charming saga of intergenerational discord and redemption. Ozu is most generally known for his signature cinematic style, stamped by his “tatami” shots, axial cuts, and unique framing, so instantly recognizable and evocative; he is likewise known for his prolificity, having made nearly 60 feature films, and his frequent collaborations with lead actors. Yet to my thinking Ozu’s work demonstrates an almost uncanny understanding of human frailty and emotion, his characters flawed but complex, seeking the love and acceptance they so rarely found. Ozu was not only one of cinema’s most stylistically distinct directors; he was also among its greatest storytellers.

A Story of Floating Weeds (1934)

Even while in Hollywood and elsewhere, the turn to talkies had begun late the prior decade and completed early in the following, in the mid-1930s Ozu was still making silent films, a medium which he by then had wholly mastered. A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa Monogatari) was one of his last silents, and it is sublime in its expression. (Note that of the 30-plus silent films Ozu directed, approximately half of them are wholly or partially lost, a blunt fact that makes Criterion’s restoration efforts all the more valuable.) Its luminous cinematography is rich in depth and detail, near infinite in its shades of greyscale, striking in its compositions, and, at times, lyrical in its camera movement (sound films of the era in comparison often lacked this same graceful dexterity, burdened by bulky audio recording equipment). This film demonstrates Ozu coming into his own as a visual stylist, adopting but not hewing too strictly to his signature aesthetic.

A still from A Story of Floating Weeds depicting a decanter of Ssake being warmed in an apartment.
A Story of Floating Weeds (1934). Photo: courtesy The Criterion Collection.

The story takes its time settling on the intergenerational—and even slightly autobiographical—conflict at its core. Kihachi Ichikawa (Takeshi Sakamoto) is the head of a traveling acting troupe and a popular, if not especially accomplished actor. Among his troupe is his current mistress Otaka (Rieko Yagumo)—he clearly has had many—and her younger friend and fellow actress Otoki (Yoshiko Tsubouchi). When a days-long downpour interrupts the troupe’s scheduled Kabuki performances, Kihachi whiles away the days drinking and reminiscing at a watering hole run by a former mistress, Otsune (Chōko Iida), with whom he had a son, Shinkichi (Kōji Mitsui, credited as Hideo Mitsui) years before.

Shinkichi, now a student, is unaware Kihachi is his father; he thinks him a kindly visiting uncle. KIhachi has never told Shinkichi of his parentage, thinking himself unworthy of his son, and has chosen to support him silently in his studies. But Kihachi’s attention to Otsune and Shinkichi arouses Otaka’s jealous ire, and she sends her friend Otoki to seduce Shinkichi in revenge. That plot might make for a potboiler narrative in another writer-director or studio’s hands, but in Ozu’s, the complexity of the characters and relationships makes for a poignant tale of forgiveness and redemption. Each of the five central characters—father, son, mother, mistress, lover—is given ample motivation and development, making their eventual partings and reunions meaningful.

Shinkichi (Kōji Mitsui, credited as Hideo Mitsui) sits in silence.
Kōji Mitsui (credited as Hideo Mitsui) as Shinkichi in A Story of Floating Weeds (1934). Photo: courtesy The Criterion Collection.

A Story of Floating Weeds is transitional for Ozu in more ways than one. It’s also something of a genre shift, marking a subtle change from the director’s slapstick silent comedy to the shomin-geki for which he would become best known, in a single picture. The Kabuki performances, before their interruption, are laugh-out-loud joyous, the drama that follows equally poignant and profound. One of his most successful silent films, A Story of Floating Weeds was one Ozu often considered remaking—and did, eventually, near the very end of his long career.

Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33: 1, the disc’s high-definition remaster of A Story of Floating Weeds has been created from a 35mm fine-grain mastering positive. Although it is not as sharp as some remasters, and there is some occasional judder to the image in a few sequences, the depth of scale is impressive, with a rich palette of light grays to deep black all registered in beautiful contrast. The film’s score on this volume is that commissioned for the 2004 DVD release by silent-film composer Donald Sosin, selected for Ozu’s stated fondness for the work of Robert Schumann and presented in 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray.

Floating Weeds (1959)

If 1934’s A Story of Floating Weeds is the germination of the Ozu style, 1959’s remake/update Floating Weeds is Ozu in full flower. I may be one of the few who prefer the earlier version, but there’s no questioning the latter film’s place in cinema history. It’s without question one of Ozu’s best, which makes it one of the best films of all time. Floating Weeds is one of just six color films Ozu directed late in his career: the power of his style did not wane but found an equally full expression in this, Equinox Flower, Good Morning (also a remake), Late Autumn, The End of Summer, and An Autumn Afternoon.

Komajuro and his former mistress, Oyoshi greet Kiyoshi.
Komajuro (Nakamura Ganjirō II) and his former mistress, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) greet their son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) in Floating Weeds (1959). Photo: courtesy The Criterion Collection.

The story is, save for some name changes and details, much the same. The location is made seaside and a larger part is carved out for frequent Ozu collaborator Chishū Ryū, yet the plot—driven by the absent father’s guilt and longing as he tries to connect with his son—remains as it was, essentially, in A Story of Floating Weeds. Komajuro (Nakamura Ganjirō II) is the troupe’s leader, Oyoshi his former mistress, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) their son. The spurned mistress is now named Sumiko (Machiko Kyō) and her younger colleague Kayo (Ayako Wakao). A more expansive canvas allows for the dialogue to provide a bit more detail, the transitional scenes more imagery, the subplots fuller bloom, and Ozu takes full advantage of what feels more like a new medium than an old story.

Criterion’s packaging of the two films side-by-side, as in the 2004 DVD release, invites comparison, yet there is also a point to be made that both A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds stand on their own as great works of cinema, made in different eras with different tools and aesthetics, yet by the same man, Ozu’s imprimatur binding them as much as does the fabric of their like narratives. One does not watch, say, A Story of Floating Weeds and then pine away, thinking If only Ozu had remade this film in color! Or, for that matter, the inverse. To watch the 1934 black-and-white silent is to be fully immersed, engaged, and satisfied in great art. To watch the 1959 sound and color, the same. Together, the two films inform and enrich each other.

A still image from Floating Weeds (1959) featuring a red postal box against the light blue seaside.
Floating Weeds (1959). Photo: courtesy The Criterion Collection.

Floating Weeds is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 in a 4K restoration made from the 35mm original camera negative, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack mastered from the 35mm original positive. The film’s color—often a bone of contention in presenting Ozu’s color films on physical media—is less intense than in a prior Blu-ray release and more aligned with Criterion’s releases of Good Morning and Autumn Afternoon, with a subdued palette that allows still for intense reds to accentuate the film’s earthier tones. The detail is simply spectacular. One might wish for a 4K disc on which to display the remaster, but even on Blu-ray individual strands of fabric are easily discernible. It’s hard to imagine Floating Weeds looking any more pristine than this.

Special Features

Cover of Criterion spine #232 A Story of Floating Weeds / Floating Weeds: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu featuring a Kabuki-style drawing of the principal cast.
Image: courtesy The Criterion Collection.

Criterion’s upgrade of its earlier DVD edition to this Blu-ray is notable for its remastering of the two films, both of which benefit from the effort. The only special features of note included are the same two commentary tracks and the included essay that accompanied the 2004 release. There may nothing new in this package save for the remastered films themselves, but to have any work from Ozu made available in a new remaster is cause for celebration.

Audio commentary for A Story of Floating Weeds by Japanese-film historian Donald Richie: Richie’s avuncular, affable commentary guides viewers gently and surely through the early Ozu gem and its traversing of genres while setting the stage for the later remake to come.

Audio commentary for Floating Weeds by film critic Roger Ebert: It’s a comfort to hear again any audio track from the prolific critic recorded before his cancer and subsequent mandibulectomy. Like that of Richie’s for A Story of Floating Weeds, this commentary was recorded for the 2004 Criterion DVD release. Ebert is among Ozu’s greatest admirers and champions and his affection for Ozu’s art is made clear in his genial commentary track.

The disc package also includes a 12-page color booklet with an informative—serviceable, yet pedestrian—essay by Donald Richie, “Stories of Floating Weeds,” focusing on a rote comparison of the two films; a trailer for Floating Weeds. The older film, on Blu-ray, also receives a new English subtitle translation. As is normal for Criterion releases, the audio commentaries do not receive subtitles.

Criterion’s remastering of Floating Weeds and A Story of Floating Weeds is the news here, not the special features; both films are among the most important of Ozu’s long career and presented here in their best physical media versions ever. To own them in this version is a treasure.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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