Yasujirō Ozu's first sound feature, the 1936 drama The Only Son (a.k.a. Hitori musuko), is a clear stylistic and narrative forerunner to the later films of his that I've seen, all of which I've loved. I had a cooler response to The Only Son, and I suppose that a lot of that has to do with the absence of Setsuko Hara, the magnetic star with whom he'd start working 13 years later on the fantastic Late Spring. With a style as deliberate as Ozu's, it helps to have performers who can breathe extra life into the long stretches of quiet contemplation, and The Only Son's cast, while mostly fine, did not meet the transcendent standard that I've come to expect from his films.
Like the other Ozu movies that I've seen, The Only Son studies the tensions that develop within a family between life's expectations and realities. A poor, widowed mother Tsune (Chōko Iida) makes sacrifices to send her young son, Ryosuke, to school, with the understanding that he will use this precious education to become "a great man." Many years later, Tsune travels to Tokyo for a visit with Ryosuke (Himori Shin'ichi), whose adulthood hasn't turned out the way either of them had hoped.
As expected from Ozu, The Only Son is a delicate film with deep empathy for its characters. Even though it deals with a simpler narrative and fewer characters than the Noriko Trilogy, Ozu examines its ideas with his usual poignancy and restraint, particularly the cascading shame of disappointment and the complacency of failure in the big city. Much of the the film focuses on the exorbitant purchase of impressive foods, a form of materialism with no lasting value. Western culture looms conspicuously over Ryosuke's life, signifying a displacement of aspirations or a distraction from one's purpose and the Japanese work ethic. Ozu's favorite trope of overindulged children behaving badly gets ample service in The Only Son, running profoundly through the central narrative conflict, leading to a final scene of compelling emotional dissonance.
Both Iida and Shin'ichi are good, and Ozu stalwart Chishū Ryū appears briefly as an influential teacher who also seeks to better himself in Tokyo, but his time onscreen is brief and I missed the spark and complexity that Hara brings to Ozu's later films. There's nothing bad about The Only Son — well, except for two of the least convincing crying child actors that I can recall — but it did give me a sense of how those who find Ozu dull might yearn for something more dynamic to happen. His painstaking artistry and depth of feeling are enough to make The Only Son worthwhile for me, regardless, but it feels like a lesser, albeit important, movie in his canon and development.
The Only Son was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Alex Christian Lovendahl, who ranks it at #76 (97%) on his Flickchart, making it his 22nd favorite out of the 220 movies he's seen from Roger Ebert's list of Great Movies. The Only Son landed on my Flickchart at #917 (77%), where it's #159 out of the 254 films that I've seen From Roger Ebert's Great Movies.