“Good Morning”: When it comes to comedy, Yasujiro Ozu isn’t just farting around

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Sorry, “Cries and Whispers.” Too bad, “Breathless.” There’s only one film in the Criterion Collection that inspires a movie critic to use the word “fartiest,” and it’s Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 comedy “Good Morning.”

“Good Morning,” recent re-released in a new Blu-ray edition from Criterion, earns the honor of being Ozu’s “fartiest” film honestly and loudly. In the 1959 comedy, flatulence is like fingerprints, with each character’s toots providing a different tone. In what I guess is the Japanese version of “pull my finger,” the boys in the village press each others’ foreheads, eliciting a variety of high-pitched squeaks. (One boy has trouble providing the required sound, and often has to run home to change his underwear after getting his forehead pressed.)

Meanwhile, the old man in the village emits a soft, almost mournful bass note when he lifts his leg. The sound effects are not realistic, but playful musical notes – Ozu isn’t completely without taste or decorum. “The farts in this movie are not completely real farts,” film critic and UW professor emeritus David Bordwell says in one of the Blu-ray’s bonus features, in a quote that I still can’t quite believe is on a Criterion disc. “They’re tuned farts. They have different registers. There’s a suite of sounds.”

Hearing such learned experts of Ozu as Bordwell and David Cairns discuss the artifice – or, we might as well just say it, the “fartifice” – of the fart sounds in “Good Morning” is worth the price of the Blu-ray in itself. Fans of Ozu’s more serious family dramas like “Tokyo Story” or “Late Afternoon,” which tell complex family stories with simplicity and elegance, might be shocked, shocked at Ozu’s silliness here.

But as Cairns points out, Ozu started in silent film for being known as a “gag man,” punching up his movies and others with silent jokes and astute physical comedy. In fact, “Good Morning,” is considered a loose remake of his 1932 silent film “I Was Born, But . . .” which appears as a bonus feature on the Blu-ray, along with the surviving 14 minutes of another lost silent film, “A Straightforward Boy.”

And, really, Ozu’s chief subject was always the human condition – “Good Morning” just finds the funny side. The plot is really just a series of interactions and misunderstandings between the residents of a crowded little village, all occurring in each other’s laps. There isn’t so much a plot as a series of situations. In one house, two brothers (including one of the most adorable little boys in cinema) give their parents the silent treatment until they agree to buy a television set. (It’s heartening for parents in 2017 to know that battles over screen time were being waged 60 years earlier.)

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Meanwhile, the wives in the village are gossiping over some missing dues, and an innuendo campaign is building that one woman may have pocketed the dues to buy herself a washing machine. It seems like barely enough plot to hang a movie on, but Ozu’s real focus is not on these situations anyway, but the ordinary interactions between neighbors, the “good afternoons” and  “good mornings” of the movie’s title.

While the boys sneer at such pleasantries as empty grown-up talk, Ozu posits that they are necessary as a social lubricant in an increasingly crowded world, keeping everyone on good terms. “Important things are hard to say,” one man, a translator, says. “Meaningless things are easy to say.” “Get around to the important things,” he’s told.

Visually, Ozu illustrates the close quarters of the village with his precise framings, often hemming in his characters into the middle third of the frame, with screens, doors and walls blocking the left and right thirds. But there’s a lot going on within that cramped middle third – sometimes we look past the primary focus of the shot and see other characters in the room behind them, or even through an open door or window into characters into another house.

The result is a look into these lives that is narrow, but deep – a visual approach that reflects Ozu’s insight into these characters, as he focuses in on seemingly ordinary life and makes it colorful, sharper and more vibrant – “Ozuland,” in Bordwell’s words. In “Good Morning,” that deep view into our lives is made with a chuckle rather than a sigh.

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