Floating Weeds (1959)

casey I think one of the challenges in watching “great movies” as a layperson is 1. learning to appreciate older movies and 2. trying to make sense of films from different cultures. So here’s a double whammy: a movie that’s old and Japanese.

brooke Yeah, tackling films from other cultures brings a lot with it–trying to understand cultural norms, trying to focus on the story and not get distracted every time someone takes their shoes off, etc.

casey btw, I want a pair of wooden sandals.

brooke So Floating Weeds is about a traveling acting troupe that arrives in a small seaside town where the troupe had spent time several years before. The Master of the troupe Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) uses the visit to spend time with his former mistress Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) and her son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), who doesn’t know that Komajuro is also his father. Soon, however, Komajuro’s current mistress and fellow actor Sumiko (Machiko Kyo) begins to suspect something is up and the plot thickens.

casey I feel like I’m supposed to have had more of a reaction to the movie than I did. Roger Ebert named it one of his ten best of all time, but I have a hard time understanding why. This may be where the distance in time and culture comes into play, because I often wondered why characters reacted the way they did, or what the emotional stakes were supposed to be. The plot wasn’t hard to follow, but I didn’t always get why the characters were doing what they were doing.

brooke Interesting. I really enjoyed it for the most part. I followed it pretty well and found it to be an interesting human drama, although I thought it was a little long and dragged in places.
I think some of the subplots, like the male actors trying to find girlfriends in town, were a little distracting from the main story surrounding Komajuro, Oyoshi, Kiyoshi, and Sumiko.
Kiyoshi’s little romance with another one of the actresses was adorable too, mostly because he looked like a plank of wood anytime he kissed her.

casey Awkward nerdy teenagers are a universal constant.

brooke As are teenager hormones.

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casey I thought Master Komajuro was a peculiar character: He’s charming and affable, but sometimes stern and cruel. His affection for his family and his troupe is obvious, but he’s also openly contemptuous of the people he works with at times. Frankly, he’s kind of an asshole to the women around him.

brooke He really is. He seems almost two-faced with how kind he can be one minute and cruel the next. Then he’ll ask for forgiveness, sometimes. He’s complex, but it plays out a little funny.
The women were the best actors IMHO
Oyoshi’s character didn’t have much to do, but Sumiko and Kiyoshi’s girlfriend Kayo (Ayako Wakao) turn in fantastic performances.
Sumiko especially interested me. Her relationship with Komajuro is obviously unhealthy, but she doesn’t seem to care so long as she gets to be in charge.

casey It seems like the women came from low stations and believed they would struggle to find reputable work without the acting troupe. Near the end of the movie the’re forced to disband after a run of bad fortune, but both women seek to stay with Komajuro in spite of how he’s mistreated them.

brooke It’s definitely indicative of the cultural expectations, that the honor they get from their profession is nearly nonexistent. Komajuro has repeatedly called both of them sluts and bitches, but they accept the criticism to stay in his good graces, even when he can’t promise any work.

casey The station of actors is likewise evident in how Kamujaro elects to hide that he’s Kiyoshi’s father, and in how badly he reacts to Kiyoshi’s relationship with Kayo. There’s a compelling kind of self-loathing about him.
I think I’m talking myself into appreciating the movie.

brooke Sounds like it
I was so sad at the end when Komajuro chooses to go back out to find more acting work rather than stay. His promise to Oyoshi to return as a great actor feels hollow. You get the feeling he’ll never come back.

casey Yeah
Dang, that was sad

You know what else is interesting? The camera work! Specifically, the way the dialogue was often shot with the actors looking almost directly at the camera. That and the very static camera give the movie a unique look.

brooke I especially loved the scene where Komajuro confronts Sumiko for meddling with his family… The camera looks straight at him, but whenever it cuts to her it’s at a side angle, giving the audience the sense that she doesn’t have the same sway over Komajuro that he has over her.

Apparently, Floating Weeds is a remake of a movie by the same director (Yasujiro Ozu) 25 years prior. The original was a silent film, which I think would be awfully hard to pull off. I’d be interested in seeing the original version, just because there is so much that needed to be said out loud for this film to work.
And this was our first Great Movie in color!

casey Another thing that caught my attention was the references to Word War II. It’s by no means a movie about the war or its aftermath, but it makes sense that people would have been feelings its repercussions over a decade later. We probably don’t appreciate how much of a scarring or world-altering experience it would have been.

brooke Interesting that it’s called Floating Weeds, isn’t it? It’s a pretty obvious reference to the transitory nature of this particular kabuki troupe while also communicating the way the actors are seen in regular society: weeds waiting to be pulled up and sent along to the next place.

casey It’s not a movie you can watch casually. It’s deliberately paced, even a little dull, and I suspect it’s one that I’ll chew on for a while. Maybe I’ll come around to calling it great in the future.

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