The Genius of Ozu’s “Good Morning” (1959)

Yasujirō Ozu, the director of Good Morning (1959), composes his films from long takes by a stationary camera that is almost always located at about the height of a table in a traditional Japanese home. In so many respects, Ozu’s method completely opposes all of the rules governing contemporary filmmaking.

Even in calm moments, contemporary films abound in continual jump cuts from one perspective to another in order to create a simulacrum of action and motion where a milquetoast script plies viewers with absurd, overwrought conversation (almost any conversation in The Mandalorian). Think of any film by Michael Bay (The Transformers [2007], Bad Boys [1994]): exciting for the eye, dull for the ear.

Still from Yasujiro Ozu's Good Morning (1958)
The boys are on the way to school

By contrast, Good Morning (1959) has a salutary effect in its slow but still sophisticated pacing, as it presents the tensions of urban and familial life. Because the narrative is not flitting mindlessly from one scene to another, the viewer is enjoined to observe and think—and there’s plenty to observe and think about.

Primarily the film follows an urban family constituted by a father, mother, aunt, and two boys. Each of these characters has interactions with their neighbors that demonstrate the multiple dimensions of urban life.

One’s neighbor lives only feet away in a house that is at least externally quite similar, and that neighbor’s fortunes and failures impose themselves on one’s own life, regardless of intention. If the neighbor gets a washing machine—an expensive appliance in the 1950s, as today—and the social club’s dues are misplaced, hasty conclusions ensue that damage relationships. If the neighbor’s children do not greet or even verbally acknowledge one, the snub suggests moral judgment.

Still from Yasujiro Ozu's Good Morning (1958)
The cute younger brother

At its heart the story concerns the boys’ unhappiness that they do not have a television like their neighbors. The disquiet reaches a climax when, during an escalating argument with parents, Minoru (the older one) complains that all adults do is talk talk talk saying meaningless things like “good morning” and “how are you?” and “nice weather today.” He decides to take a vow of silence and his little impressionable brother follows suit.

Minoru assaults the basic social graces that lubricate human relationships because he doesn’t understand that “important things are difficult to say” while “meaningless things are easy to say.” Yet there’s also something false about this line from the film. 

Minoru doesn’t understand that you have to say the “meaningless things” in order to get to be able to say the “important things.” 

You have to say the meaningless things in order to create the affective and intentional grounds on which the important things can be said.

That is, by saying these “meaningless” things, you recognize another’s person and thereby create or maintain a rapport that allows other things to be said. And so, it’s quite clear that the “meaningless” things are far from meaningless but are in fact crucial.

Similar complications surround the constant exchanges of goods and services. Exchanges produce obligations, which may sound imposing … and therefore bad. But when my friend borrows something from me, he is also making an implicit pledge of friendship: you can trust me, and lending me this will be the signature on our compact. Other exchanges follow, all of which go on to strengthen those bonds. The completions, failures, and extensions of these exchanges reflect on the characters of the persons involved therein.

What kind of person you are is indicated by what you lend and the terms on which you lend it. Being a philosophy professor, occasionally I had the opportunity to pass on my own pearls of homespun wisdom, one of which is that between friends monetary exchanges should always anticipate loss. Expect to pay more than your share of the check.

Good Morning is therefore aptly titled, as it’s a “meaningless thing” that is necessary before one can say something important. The two are inseparable, and to deny the former only illustrates one’s superficial understanding of the latter.

Interested in writings about other excellent films? Read my explanation of Hitchcock’s Rear Window