My first belated taste of pre-war Ozu, and somehow it came as a surprise to find such a fully rounded mature and characteristic masterpiece for his first sound film. He's certainly already mastered with subtlety the unobtrusive little sounds that add to his prodigious sense of "off-screen space". Considered conservative for lateness in adopting both sound and colour, it may be he simply wanted to ensure he'd properly mastered both before taking them on.
The Only Son is about a widow who sacrifices her material wellbeing, slaving in a factory and through years of poverty to ensure her son gets a good education. Quite soon we jump ahead, from 1923 to 35, to find out along with her, (visiting him in Tokyo for the first time) whether he's become the great man she'd hoped and expected.
And i hope i'm not giving away too much (i'm not sure i'd wanted that outcome, even though early in the film, revealed on my dvd cover) in saying that things, a la Tokyo Story, prove disappointing for her; the son turns out to be married, with a baby boy, working as an underpaid teacher and living in near poverty himself. In any event i was initially unconvinced by the son's hiding of his marriage, but later explanations and developments prove largely satisfactory.
This is one of Ozu's most delicate films, beautifully edited, making pure poetry (not for the last time) out of a few chimney stacks, washing lines, pylons, a simple flashing light- in his usual quiet fashion. No great histrionics, no needlessly extended speeches or sequences. Shots and objects repeated or revisited take on a new emotional resonance. It's delicately balanced too in its approach to the main characters' views and social expectations: the mother's critical determination for her son to be more ambitious, his self-disappointment and renewed will to better himself (in part for the sake of his own baby's future, neatly mirroring his mother's maternal instinct) along with the knowledge that success through education is not a given (his own admirable teacher had hardly thrived when moving to Tokyo either), and then his mother's genuinely proud appreciation of an act of compassionate generosity; her acceptance that there's more to being a succesful individual than career status, that decent character and humanity may be better forged in poverty than riches.
Cho(u)ko Iida is utterly convincing as the toughened and resilient, quietly caring, troubled, toothily cheerful, polite, occasionally bewildered, fiercely demanding and ultimately very touching mother. One scene when her face crumples is all the more emotionally piercing for the restraint that's preceded it.
Oh, and good to see Chishu Ryu (in a supporting role) already mastering different ages. Such a young idealistic face, when 17 years later he famously played Tokyo Story's elderly grandfather.
Ozu was 34 when the film appeared in 1936. Already a very wise man and a great master. The Only Son is an unfairly neglected little gem.
(just 2 little niggles- children crying in Ozu films not the most convincing! But does it matter? And of my own 5 favourites by Ozu, none are from his later colour period. Was there a very slight decline?)