When one thinks of the classic examples of children in Japanese cinema, Hiroshi Shimizu is the name which comes to mind but family chronicler Yasujiro Ozu also made a few notable forays into the genre. I Was Born, But… (大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど, Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo) stars one of the premier child actors of the silent era in Tokkan Kozo (later known as Tomio Aoki) who also worked repeatedly with Shimizu (Children in the Wind, Star Athlete) and Naruse (No Blood Relation, Apart from You, Street Without End, Forget Love for Now) among many others. Like Children in the Wind, I Was Born, But… is the story of two young boys and their well meaning dad only this time the boys’ faith in their father is not entirely justified. Ozu would also revisit this theme some years later with the genial comedy Good Morning which also sees a pair of cute as a button brothers going on strike though theirs is one of silence rather than hunger and provoked by the desire for a television rather than just shock and disillusionment on discovering the unfairness and hypocrisy of the adult world.
Mr. Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito) has moved his family into a nice house in the suburbs not far from that of his boss, Mr. Iwasaki (Takeshi Sakamoto). His two sons, Keiji (Tomio Aoki/Tokkan Kozo) and Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) quickly make enemies of some of the neighbourhood kids and start playing truant from school in order to avoid them. Making an ally of the delivery boy from the local sake shop, Keiji and Ryoichi enlist his efforts to get back at the head bully landing themselves top of the local pack.
However, one of the boys, Taro, is none other than the son of their dad’s boss, Mr. Iwasaki. Furiously engaging in a battle of my dad’s better than your dad, the boys are dismayed to see how their father obsequiously greets his superior. Their faith is well and truly crushed when Mr. Iwasaki invites all the kids over to watch some home movies (cutting edge technology for the time) which features some of the employees goofing off, including Yoshi who enthusiastically gurns and performs silly walks for his boss’ benefit. To Keiji and Ryoichi, Yoshi had been a kind of superhero – austere, but strong, honest and inspiring. Realising he’s just another corporate stooge betraying his true self for commercial gain, the boys are thrown into a period of acute existential confusion.
Yoshi’s mantra dictates that he wants his sons to grow up to become “someone”. Keiji and Ryoichi ironically turn this back on him with the charge that he himself is a “no one”. Yoshi cannot argue with their judgement, he is “no one”, in his own mind at least, and harbours a sense of disappointment in his dull and ordinary middle class life. Checking in with his sons after they’ve fallen asleep, Yoshi offers a different kind of mantra during a speech to his wife in that he hopes neither of his sons become company men like he has. He truly wants them to be “someones” but more than that, he wants them to be their own men, living their lives on their own terms and finding a greater sense of fulfilment than he has been able to in willingly debasing himself to curry favour with a boss he doesn’t particularly like to put food on the table for his family.
Keiji and Ryoichi, in a gesture of defiance, go on a hunger strike to prove that they don’t need their father to humiliate himself daily on their behalf. Yoshi can’t get through to them, his authority is significantly damaged and the boys are stubborn but then again their mother’s rice balls are just so tasty they might eventually be persuaded to abandon their mini protest by the power of a rumbly tum. The lesson they learn is one familiar to Ozu’s general philosophy, that battles must be picked and compromises made in the name of pragmatism even if they may uncomfortable to bear.
Ozu shoots with his characteristic naturalism, allowing the boys to goof off as only children can as they pull faces, dance, and strike poses to poke fun at the other boys but also engage in a strange “resurrection” gimmick rather than a secret handshake to bond with their new frenemines. Forgiveness and reconciliation are all around as the boys learn to accept their slightly less black and white world, embrace their new friends, and stride forward towards their eventual destinies. The children occupy one world, and the adults another but perhaps they aren’t so different after all.
Short scene from the film (English subtitles)