The Collegian
Saturday, April 20, 2024

Cinema in Retrospect: 'I was Born But...'

<p>Graphic by Lucy Stefani</p>

Graphic by Lucy Stefani

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.  

Yasujirō Ozu’s 1932 silent film, “An Adult's Picture Book View — I Was Born, But...” (more commonly referred to as “I Was Born, But…”) is a Japanese comedy film centering the lives of two young brothers, Keiji and Ryoichi Yoshi. At the beginning of the film, the Yoshi family has just moved to the Tokyo suburbs. While their parents are occupied with their respective duties, the brothers are left on their own to parse the world around them. However, they soon are faced with the stubborn hostility and regimentation of their new neighborhood. Following an uncomfortable run-in with a gang of neighborhood kids, the brothers decide to stop going to school and instead counterfeit their schoolwork. Over the course of several push/pull encounters against authority, community and culture, they gradually open up their outlooks on life, in some ways warming up to the importance of social order.

The film relies on what can best be described as a mode of juvenile narrative truth-telling. The brothers are not only the main characters but – with one or two important exceptions – the film’s perspective characters. The camera and narrative present the boys’ images of the world – those formed from their adolescence, innocence and naivety – as matters of fact. The lens, then, transforms the audience into an interloping third child, peering in and, taking part in their antics. What they deem as correct or justifiable is presented as no more or less than such; the audience understands that ditching school is permissible because they bore equal witness to the menacing threat of the bullies.

The earnestness with which the brothers approach their world is magnified via the camera. Such a quality is then transmuted to the audience, asking them to reciprocate onto the film with the same compassion – to join in on the laughing at authority or the frolicking in endless fields; to mutually indulge in a vow of silence or to share in the realization of alternate worlds. Specifically important for this, is that the film’s juvenile perspective is intentionally restrictive. In limiting its perspective – thus, presenting a point of view more reductive than that of any audience member– the film actively draws attention to the presence of unheard voices. The film presents its narrative as real while also expecting the audience to understand that it is dishonest. While the brothers' perceptions of reality are true for them, the film's positioning of such as its primary perspective serves to draw attention to the inherent limitations of personal truth. It is this specific fact of the divergence of personal perspectives that motivates the fallout at the end of the film.

After resolving things with the neighborhood gang, Keiji and Ryoichi are invited to the house of one of the kids to watch home videos. Taro is the son of their father’s boss. And, although the Yoshi brothers had previously paraded around their father as the most serious and powerful man in town, they soon realize how wrong they had been. The home videos show their father putting on comic faces and generally making a fool of himself in the workplace. Distraught by the baffling images on display, the brothers flee the house and run home in tears. 

The videos not only go against their internalized view of their father as a powerful disciplinarian but also pose a threat to their understood futures. If their father must still to be subservient to a larger corporate entity, then how could any amount of work on their end possibly derail them from arriving at an identical future. They are specifically put off by the notion that they will eventually find themselves working for a figure adjacent or equal to their classmate Taro based solely on the fact that he was born into wealth. The chasmic despair they confront, then, is the perturbing reaction that comes from an instantaneous realization that class mobility is meaningfully false. Not only is its mobility false, but also a class-based hierarchy is observably arbitrary and unnecessary.

However, it necessitates a maintained simultaneity between facets of childhood and adulthood – a childish outlook directed by a grow-up maturity. No differently than the brothers' ditching of school was framed as unquestionably merit-able, the film's adults accept that work is fundamentally futile: one does what they can in the interim but is ultimately expected to remain in their place. In this way, social hierarchy and class strata are presented as modes for limiting perspectives. Childhood is only a piece of the picture, in the same way, that any given regional occupancy or class standing is only one perspective out of the world’s myriad stories and lives. This is to say that childhood is a limiting and innocent experience, but so too is adulthood, and so too are regimentation, tradition and hierarchy.

The limitations of adulthood are represented visually by the varied compositions of the frame. Spaces of “sophistication” are demarcated by the sharp lines of architecture. Just as they must abide by given social norms, adults are expected to contort themselves to fit within their allotted surroundings – boxed in by paper walls and floorboards. The domain of childhood, however, is largely immune to the influence of regimentation, instead of taking to winding dirt paths and chaotic, sprawling fields. Important to note this dichotomy is that despite their antonymic appearances, both spaces serve to affirm their housed population’s perspectives; fields indulge innocence by providing a refuge from responsibility just as the Euclidian compositions of domesticity foster hierarchical individuation by saving off the envious gazes of neighbors.

Yet, the promise of pure juvenile innocence is subverted by the creeping presence of electronic infrastructure. Everywhere in the film looming transmission pylons and wires lie latent in the frame. They tower over houses and plant their feet into fields and paths alike. Their vacant compositions threaten stricter conformity than offered even by suburban architecture, whereas the lines of suburbia were complemented by intervening walls, pylons are vectors. Their skeletal structures become the exposed sinews of social constriction. They are unavoidable in terms of visual physicality, but also a social necessity. Most rudimentarily, they are the literalized representation of class hierarchy and class (non)mobility – as elements that are unavoidable and omnipresent. The ineffability of their presence is emblematic of the restrictions of childhood – regardless of how naïve a child’s worldview may be, their operations are subject to systems put in place decades before they ever entered the frame.

It is the very fact that the film is steeped in a childish mystique of innocence that permits it to viscerally explore its subjects. In an almost unavoidable manner, it bears witness to the peculiar equalizations that childhood, as an era of “misguided” innocence. The film reserves room for humor and absurdity, but never loses sight of interrogating, through the lens of two children, the broader structures of culture, society and hierarchy. For all parties involved, it is a film about not knowing, as much as it is a film about coming to understand. 

Contact columnist Henry Skalbeck at

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