There Was a Father (Yasujiro Ozu, 1942)
Japanese Title: Chichi ariki
After an accident where a student drowns during a school trip, Shuhei Horikawa (Chishu Ryu) decides to resign from his position as school teacher. He relocates to a remote town, prompting his his young son, Ryohei (Haruhiko Tsuda) to make new friends and transfer to a new school. Because he is unable to afford Ryohei's boarding school, Shuhei is forced to move to Tokyo to work as a salaryman for a corporation. Years pass by and Ryohei (Shuji Sano) finally graduates from college. Unfortunately, he accepts a job as professor in a college that is far from Tokyo, disabling him from being with his father. Thus, father and son meet infrequently. The times that they spend together is considered by the son as the happiest moments of his life.
There Was a Father was released in Japan in 1942, a period wherein the Japanese Empire was slowly expanding in the Pacific, and young men are separated from their families, most probably without giving their consent, but due to their obedience to their country's ambitions, dedicate themselves in the war. Ozu's little film can reasonably be classified as propaganda. Two scenes amount to Ozu detailing the importance of duty over emotional attachment with familial ties. The first scene is when Ryohei scolds his young student who wanted to go home since his mother has just given birth to a baby boy. Ryohei preaches to the student that his role requires him to be in school and not with his mother, and there is no pressing need to worry about his mother. The scene emphasizes the fact that the student also has an elder brother who is serving as a soldier in the war. The second scene features a quiet argument between the father and son, with the son wishing to resign his post as a teacher to find a job in Tokyo so that he can spend more time with his father. The father berates hi son, stating that his duty is to teach, and not to his father.
While There Was a Father can be considered propaganda, it nonetheless offers a caveat, that while duty is paramount, it can never offer the happiness of being with the family. The father is portrayed as dutiful both to his work and his son, but never do we see him happy or fulfilled. He plays go in the city, discovering after having lived in Tokyo for some years that an old friend is also residing there. The father's emotional crests in the film are those that involve the father when he is with his son, his best friend, or his former student, yet these crests never quite compare with the happiness his best friend, who lives with his family, or his former students, who all have wives and children themselves. The father is almost portrayed as perpetually lonely, grasping on to that singular excuse that he must punish himself for the death of his student. That is his duty. He deals the same fate to his son, but the final scenes of the film somehow change the mood and filmic intent. The son tells his wife that she ought to invite her father and younger brother to live with them, as he was not privileged to have lived his father. While Ozu gives initial importance to duty, he offers a caveat to satisfying that importance. There exists an exchange, a bartering of a more pertinent life aspect which is self-fulfillment.
Curiously, the father dies with that sense of outward fulfillment, despite the fact that his life has been pressed towards duty (he practically wants to go work despite his suffering the pains of impending death) while suffering from the prolonged absence of his son. That is easy to understand as such is his decision he freely chosen, and his duty as a father is to provide, and seeing his son successful and ready to wed is practically happiness and enough fulfillment to make his life complete.
There Was a Father is filmed in the meditative, slow-paced, and contemplative style Ozu has been known for. Watching the film feels like watching events through a slightly opague, but more transparent window, with Ozu focusing on inanimate objects or serene scenery to propose passing time or to suggest subtle emotional movements. It's oddly beautiful. Ozu's control of his visuals, and his spare timing opens the film to plenty of interpretations instead of limiting it to one-sided melodrama, or merely a film that answers in definite terms the issue of duty versus family.