Like virtually all directors of the silent era, Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu cut his teeth on laughs: simple one-reel comedies and adventures. While he turned the corner with this restrained growing-up story, it doesn’t quite hide his apprenticeship in episodic gag-making. The Tokyo suburbs stretch out in empty fields as two young, identically sweatered brothers (Sugawara and Aoki, the latter a child star from Ozu’s short “A Straightforward Boy”) squirm their way through a strange new town. Bullies pick on them; a day of hooky is played. Watching the first hour of I Was Born, But... (unspooling with a bright, new piano score by Donald Sosin) might remind you of a subdued “Our Gang” skit, and not unpleasantly.
The film’s true glory, though, comes with its sucker-punch last act, when our preteen heroes make an embarrassing discovery and suddenly see their hardworking father (Saito) as a obsequious kiss-ass. Nervously, we witness what must have been a primal scene in the homes of deferential salarymen, as the moorings of respect and dignity loosen in the bruised stares of boys. Ozu would go on to make a meal of such domestic tensions; here they appear for the first time, raw and, perhaps, close to home.—Joshua Rothkopf