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Boyhood before ‘Boyhood’: Silence, simplicity and Yasijuro Ozu’s ‘I Was Born, But…’

I have reached new levels of pretension. I am now writing on a black and white silent Japanese film from 1932. I’m literally the fucking worst. But also, I’m the absolute best. Have you seen I Was Born, But…? Didn’t think so, philistine. 

Translating myself, I am now writing on a genuinely wonderful film. The ability to lord it over your peers turns out to just be an added bonus. Yasujiro Ozu is the king of the kitchen-sink drama, and I Was Born, But… is one of his crowning jewels. I Was Born, But… follows ‘First son, Ryiochi’ and ‘Second Son’, who navigate social relationships from school bullies and school mates to that between father and sons. 

Translation is a topic that dominates this piece. The film’s full title is ‘Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo’, meaning ‘An Adult’s Picture Book View – I Was Born, But…’ The language divide is not only between the Japanese and English, spoken and read, but the dialect of adult and child; the distinctly childish form of the picture book is made for adults, I Was Born, But… attempts to show to its adult viewer/reader the ways of seeing and speaking that are distinct to childhood. 

Boyhood comes with its own language. You know you are getting old when you don’t know what some slang means or don’t understand a meme. Jesus, I just reread that sentence and I literally sound like a 58-year-old inside a 20-year-old’s, deeply sexy, body. 

The language that characterises I Was Born, But… is sign. We know the relationships of the schoolboys through their gestures to each other. It is the leader of the gang that gets to perform the boyhood ritual of shooting his finger gun before making the sign of the cross and ‘resurrecting’ the lesser members of his group; the sales boy tips his cap to the mother and raises his fist to the son; the brothers are synchronised in their eating, putting on shoes, and throwing a tantrum. 

Boyhood is a physical experience – it is a thing done. The emotions are presented in the physical: sadness is the balled fist to the scrunched eye, the tilted down head, pout, and puppy dog eyes; love is a pat on the head. 

Simplicity is tied to the silent film. I Was Born, But… works at the root of boyhood; the basis from which the boy can grow, bringing together simplicity and possibility. I Was Born, But… says, though of course doesn’t say at all, ‘this is what you get, now go and make literally anything with it.’ The lack of language makes all words homonymic (fuck me that sounded smart). A phenomenon which I think (having to add ‘I think’ to remind the reader that I am humble as well as profound) makes the film representative as well as a representation of boyhood. Though I Was Born, But… is a picture book for adults, it is the kids’ eyes we look through. 

Ozu places his camera lens at the level of the child’s eye. He doesn’t give either of the parents names; crediting them as ‘mother’ and ‘father’, Ozu defines them through their relation to the boys. Which, to put it simply, I think is genius. I mean, I don’t know about you, and of course don’t care to know as this column is all about me, but I don’t call my mum and dad Louise and Daniel, unless I’m really in the mood to be turd. The language the boys use to describe their parents becomes increasingly loaded throughout I Was Born, But…. Ozu comments on the mistranslation between boyhood and adulthood: where the other adults praise the father for being ‘comical’, his sons no longer see their comic relief parent as ‘great’; to them, his role as ‘employee’ is synonymous to ‘servant.’ There is a language barrier between the sons and father, whereas it is in the moments of silence that communication is able to take place.

So, how old were you when you found out your parents were losers? 

With illustration by Alex Abrahams