There Was a Father (1942): Yasujiro Ozu and National Policy

    Japanese filmmaking is known to have begun as early as 1898—two years after the motion picture came to the Land of the Rising Sun with the importation of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope1—and in a short span of time became adopted as a propaganda tool for the country’s military ambitions. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, the newspaper Asahi Shinbun called upon cameramen to shoot films imbuing “the minds of the young with a military spirit” while live commentators called benshi encouraged audiences to cheer “banzai!” whenever soldiers appeared on screen.2 Three decades later—after Japan’s annexation of neighboring lands such as Manchuria and the Korean peninsula—Prime Minister Makoto Saito established the Film Control Committee to hone cinema’s “entertainment-propaganda function.” In 1935, he passed legislature that outlawed “insulting the national policy, the military, or foreign policy,” promoting in their place movies championing “the brilliance of the Imperial Way.”3

    Many filmmakers, even those with no outward interest in military policies domestic and abroad, were influenced and manipulated by this sea change. In the early 1920s, a young camera assistant at Shochiku named Yasujiro Ozu joined the army reserves—hoping status as a part-time soldier would help avoid the draft4 and thus only wrench him from his beloved set job for the occasional training session.5 For a short while, this proved successful; graduating to the director’s chair in 1927, he shot thirty-seven films over the next decade, performing military duties intermittently. But by 1937, Japan’s expansionist agendas in Asia had escalated into the Second Sino-Japanese War. That September, Ozu received a conscription notice summoning him to the front.6

    At the time of the 1937 draft, Ozu—together with Tomio Ikeda and Takao Yanai—had finished a script titled There Was a Father, which the group decided not to pursue shooting until the former’s return.7 Dispatched to China, Ozu witnessed numerous battles and atrocities—including the Rape of Nanjing in 1938—and often expressed interest in making films about the wartime experience. “[I]t is my determination to take in all the sights of the battlefield,” he told a Tokyo Asahi correspondent in December 1937, “and, if I come through this alive, make some sort of movie in service to the national cause.”8 Such a project never materialized after his July 1939 return, however, despite his vocally criticizing unrealistic war films and novels by people who’d never experienced combat. Ozu’s not contributing to the genre might’ve stemmed from moral qualms (as film critic Hideo Tsumura speculated following an interview wherein the director admitted to having become “anxious” about filmmaking)9 but more likely derived from expanded control over motion pictures.

    On March 6, 1939, the government passed the Film Law—modeled after Nazi Germany’s Spitzenorganisation der Filmwirtschaft10—to actively tailor cinema in accordance with national policy. In September 1940, as resources dwindled, studios were ordered to limit their annual productions to less than forty-eight pictures,11 and censorship became so strict that one director requested on-site consultants to gauge what he wasn’t allowed to shoot.12 While war films were aplenty, those presenting Japan’s overseas actions with nuance—e.g., Fumio Kamei’s Fighting Soldiers (1940)—were scorned by the government. The same was true of movies set on the home front, the most favorable of which depicted homogenous patriotism. Having given up on a battle drama, Ozu proposed a “New Years comedy” called He’s Going to Nanjing, later renamed The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice.13 That project went unmade after the Censorship Office of the Home Ministry denounced the script as “Occidental” and lacking “martial spirit.”14

    Reasoning also that “sarcasm or satire” was ill-suited for the times’ political climate, Ozu directed the straightforward Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941), which concludes with a matriarch and two of her children moving to occupied China. After the film received Kinema Junpo magazine’s “Best One” prize and attracted so many spectators that Shochiku entertained plans for a sequel,15 Ozu returned to the script he’d worked on before the draft. As penned in 1937, There Was a Father was an uncomplicated drama about a single parent and his son, but its framework was workable as a patriotic home front movie. Film historian Tadao Sato notes in his book Currents in Japanese Cinema that father-and-son dramas accommodated the censors’ portrait of Japanese domestic life during the war. “The father in the home was a microcosm of the emperor in the nation: as the emperor was the embodiment of virtue, so each father should be a small model of virtue.” (Even though such a presentation, as Sato further explains, “was hardly the case in reality, as often mediocre fathers took advantage of this heaven-sent authority to play the tyrant at home, alienating their children.”)16

    The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941)

    Perhaps to increase the odds of script approval, Ozu made changes playing into what historian Tony Rayns describes as “fidelity to Japan’s wartime ethos. Besides promoting the cardinal virtues of loyalty and obedience, it teaches that every man should be content with his role in society, however modest, and should find fulfillment in doing his best.”17 In the original 1937 screenplay, the father (Chishu Ryu) and his young son (Haruhiko Tsuda) travel to the city of Ueda on a social call; they make the same trip in the 1942 revision, albeit to visit their ancestors’ graves. In both scripts, the pair, after the son’s matured and begun adult life in a community separate from his parent, meet at a public bathhouse; the son (Shuji Sano) expresses interest in relocating so they can live together again. However, whereas the father consoled his progeny in the original scenario, his counterpart in the finished movie, despite wanting them to be together, unleashes a vocal tirade about not shirking one’s current responsibilities.18

    Other scenes are subtler when endorsing national ethics. Early on, the father, then employed as a junior high school teacher, takes his pupils on field trips to Mount Fuji as well as imperialistic/militaristic sites such as the Imperial Palace and Yasukuni Shrine. During these excursions they pose before the Great Buddha statue in Kamakura (Japan’s Buddhist establishment had emerged as a proponent of the war effort).19 Most noteworthy, though, is a scene wherein the son visits his father in Tokyo, hair shorn into a crew cut, declaring he’s passed the army’s physical exam.

    The film doesn’t nauseatingly harp on these elements. Ozu admitted to having become weary of films that “forgot entertainment and [… preached] to no purpose,”20 and at its core There Was a Father remains a recognizably Ozu parent-child drama with dominant themes of loss and disappointment. By drama’s end, the father has passed away, and his son ruminates not on upcoming military duties but on their having spent less time together than hoped. (The depiction of a child reluctant to leave a one-parent household and the parent obliged but likewise reluctant to see them leave points to postwar Ozu masterworks such as 1949’s Late Spring and 1960’s Late Autumn.) Nonetheless, the familial subject matter and fleeting nationalistic elements won over the censors: There Was a Father received a Bureau of Information award as an excellent national policy film.21 For those same reasons, it was re-edited when Japan surrendered in 1945 and the victorious Allied Powers, led by the United States’ General Douglas MacArthur, assumed control of the nation’s media.

    Tasked with banning nationalism, imperialism, and militarism from Japanese screens during the American Occupation of 1945-1952, MacArthur’s staff replaced existing censorship policies with their own—in addition to confiscating pre-1945 pictures and, if necessary, adjusting them for re-release. The latter practice is plainly evident in There Was a Father, with scenes that stop rather than conclude (i.e., the father being asked to recite a poem at a class reunion; the scene cuts off just as he’s about to speak) and moments wherein characters’ posture suddenly change mid-shot (indicating problematic lines or gestures had been edited out). At the same time, the film exemplifies the Occupation authorities’ inconsistency regarding their own regulations: not removed were shots of Mount Fuji (deemed such a nationalistic image that the volcano was seldom allowed on screen—except in Shochiku’s logo—for several years), dialogue referencing Yasukuni Shrine, and of course mention of the son prepping for military service. Still, There Was a Father, which Ozu counted among his three favorites—the other two being Late Spring and Tokyo Story (1953)22—has long existed in fragmented form.

    Until recently, that is. 2023—the 120th anniversary of Ozu’s birth and the 60th of his passing—has already been an exciting year for fans of this director. In months previous, restored copies of Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) and The Munekata Sisters (1950) debuted at the Cannes Film Festival; news also came out regarding discovery of additional footage of 1929’s short comedy A Straightforward Boy. And on August 22, NHK announced that this year’s Venice International Film Festival will host a restored print of There Was a Father—with scenes originally axed by the Occupation censors. Among the reinstated footage is the above-mentioned poetry scene (likely cut because of rhetoric about feudal loyalty to the nation) and a closing sequence wherein Japanese civilians sing to war-bound soldiers.23 With good fortune, this longer version will receive international home release, allowing Ozu fans to discuss the “new” material and the historical context behind them.

    Works cited and further reading:

    1. Dym, Jeffrey A. “Benshi and the Introduction of Motion Pictures to Japan.” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 55, no. 4., 2000, p. 510
    2. High, Peter B. The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003, pp. 4-5
    3. Ibid, pp. 52-5
    4. Richie, Donald. Ozu: His Life and Films. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977, p. 199
    5. Rayns, Tony. “The Only Son: Japan, 1936.” The Current, 13 July 2010
    6. I Lived, But… A Biography of Yasujiro Ozu. Shochiku Co., Ltd., 1983
    7. High, p. 351
    8. Ibid, p. 181
    9. Joo Woojeong. The Cinema of Ozu Yasujiro: Histories of the Everyday. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017, p. 139
    • Hirano Kyoko. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the American Occupation, 1945-1952. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, p. 15
    • High, p. 294
    • Ibid, p. Xv
    • Ozu eventually used this title on a movie made in 1953, though only a few plot threads and scenes were retained in an otherwise brand-new story. Source: Bordwell, David. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 280
    • High, p. 173
    • Joo, p. 128
    • Sato Tadao. Translated by Gregory Barrett. Currents in Japanese Cinema. New York: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1982, p. 126
    • Rayns
    • “There Was a Father.” Ozu-san. Accessed 26 August 2023
    • Rayns
    • Joo, p. 129
    • Bordwell, p. 292
    • Richie, p. 235
    • “Ozu Yasujiro’s 1942 film ‘There Was a Father’ restored.” NHK World-Japan 22 August 2023
    Patrick Galvan
    Patrick Galvan
    Patrick Galvan is a film journalist who specialises in Japanese and early Chinese films. In addition to Our Culture, he has contributed to such online & print publications as SYFY WIRE, Toho Kingdom, and The Lost Films Fanzine. Author of the biography Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career (2022).

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