In The Only Son (Hitori musuko), Yasujirô Ozu shines a spotlight on the desolation that derives from family, as succinctly summarized by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child,” opined the Japanese writer, his apt and astute turn of words the perfect preface to a longitudinal study of the expectations and responsibilities of parenthood. The subject would fascinate Ozu throughout his career, his resume built upon successive investigations of the intricacies of ancestry. Yet, in the film that signaled his transition from silence to dialogue, the ties that bind offspring to their progenitors are at their most delicate and devastating.
Ozu’s attention rests with a poverty-stricken mother and son, straddling the span of the latter’s learning by canvassing their connection first in 1923, then in 1936. As a child approaching the end of his elementary studies, Ryosuke Nonomiya (Masao Hayama, What Did the Lady Forget?) yearns to follow his peers into middle school and beyond, but is cognisant of his widowed mother’s limited financial resources. Left only a house and land when her husband passed away, O-Tsune (Chôko Iida, A Story of Floating Weeds) toils night and day to provide Ryosuke with a better life. At first, she greets his request for extended scholarly pursuits with pragmatism, but when his enthusiastic teacher Ookubo (Chishû Ryû, An Inn in Tokyo) visits to boast of his brightness, she is inspired to extend her sacrifice.
For years, O-Tsune works in the unforgiving silk factories that afford the central town of Shinshū with its main source of industry, spinning and sewing within the steam to save for Ryosuke’s education. His promise in return: he will make the most of the opportunity she has given him, and use the gift to become a great man. As proud as ever, O-Tsune boasts to her workmates of his prowess as he graduates and finds a job in Tokyo’s City Hall. Desperate to witness the fruits of his success, she makes an unannounced visit to see the son she has slaved her life away for, but the reality of his situation is not what she has dreamed of.
Ryosuke (now played by Shin’ichi Himori, Street Without End) did indeed study hard and strive to improve his plight, but feels that he has had a bad roll of the dice. Unbeknownst to O-Tsune before her arrival, he has a kind and dutiful wife (Yoshiko Tsubouchi, The Lights of Asakusa), an adorable infant son, and a modest home, but the comfort he has achieved in his personal dealings does not extend to his professional life. Living in the shadow of the city, he now teaches by night for a meagre income that barely supports his family. With his mother’s unscheduled trip into the existence he deems a failure, he is wracked with guilt at the true cost of her selflessness.
The Only Son may exist as an early assemblage of Ozu’s trademarks, both thematic and aesthetic; however the film is more than a mere rough draft for brighter features to come. After 35 credited silents in 10 years, many of which are now lost, his first talkie created the template that successive works would copy, matching contemplative examinations of the bonds of blood with ever patient and observational imagery. His formal composure, in a tale that travels through time but does not bow to it, and with visuals that epitomise restraint whilst probing with their perception, only heightens his narrative revelations. There’s a reason Ozu would replicate the story, subject and style time and again as he progressed in acclaim and appreciation, with the poignant, precise depths of the potent offering universal in their nature.
The rewards of parenting are common film fodder; so too, the disaster that stems from strained familial relationships. Though a growing cohort of features have done so since, The Only Son proved pioneering in its dissection of the most common reality: affection and acceptance flowing freely between both parties with the best of intentions, yet the fate that follows unable to meet the prospective future implicitly agreed upon. Disappointment can be the only outcome, both for the mother who devotes her life to ensuring her child doesn’t relive hers, and for the son that can’t turn his series of studious advantages into financial prosperity. Their love remains, but it is forever tempered by the taste of dissatisfaction; though their relationship is immutable, their outlook has forever changed.
Ozu, astutely aware of truth that lies within his central on-screen relationship, doesn’t shy away from the heartbreaking scenario. The tragedy intimated by the film’s opening statement is there for all to see, made more so by its resonance in reality. Yet, ever the master of fortitude amidst life’s flaws, the helmer and his immensely talented cast eschew the theatrical in the tender rendering of a misfortune known to all that watch. In adapting his own short story – written under the name James Maki, with ultimately Tadao Ikeda (Woman of Tokyo) and Masao Arata (An Inn in Tokyo) crafting the script – he mines the complexity and contradiction of never being able to see hopes realized that gently rages within society’s basic building blocks.
Similarly, as assured as Ozu proves with his parable of acceptance and resignation, the director also shows no signs of reluctance with the medium. His steady gaze returns, settling on the objects of everyday living as indicators of the ordinariness of the situation, and remaining still in his allowance of each scene to play out until its natural conclusion. His use of sound, both in subtle musical accompaniments that augment instead of overpower the emotional core of each scene, and in dialogue that complements quiet moments rather than expands to fill their space, shows mastery that belies the film’s status as his debut talkie. At all times, the beautiful and bittersweet The Only Son retains the hallmarks of his signature style, as echoed through the compelling canon of works of the fortunes of family that would follow.