The misguided few who have seen but not fallen in love with the work of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu tend to have the same complaint: He always made the same film. Those naysayers aren't entirely off the mark. Ozu returned, time and again, to the subject of families undergoing change as one generation brushed against the next. For each film, Ozu employed the same unvarying style that captured his philosophy of filmmaking: long, fixed shots that, literally and figuratively, never looked down on his characters.
Ozu occasionally repeated himself in the stricter sense, as well. A new double-feature DVD set showcases one such instance, by pairing the 1934 silent A Story Of Floating Weeds with its 1959 remake, Floating Weeds. Telling the same story from opposite ends of Ozu's career, the two movies illustrate how he refined his style through the years. Where the '34 version features an argument involving a volley of vicious slaps (both the direct confrontation and the physical contact are rarities for Ozu), by '59, he'd reduced the moment to a few blows that are more symbolic than violent. The years burned off what little impulse for melodramatic excess he once indulged.
The story, however, remains unchanged. The title refers to a troupe of itinerant actors who travel the countryside performing a kind of low-kabuki variety show. In each, the group's leader (Takeshi Sakamoto in the original, Ganjiro Nakamura in the remake) reconnects with a long-ago lover and meets a now-grown son who knows him only as an "uncle." Enraged, the leader's current lover launches a plan to undermine the stability of the makeshift family.
With no sense of urgency and no great interest in the mechanics of plot, Ozu spends both films' run time on his characters, who ultimately become as familiar as old acquaintances. His camera's generous neutrality simply lets everyone speakor, just as often, not speakfor themselves in a way that encourages viewers to replace any impulse to judge with a desire to understand.
The set includes two informed, companionable commentary tracks. Tokyo-based film scholar Donald Richie, who literally wrote the book on Ozu, hosts the first, while Ozu admirer Roger Ebert hosts the second, summing up the director's craft in a fashion the director would doubtless be too modest to accept: "It helps us to understand what it is to be alive." Maybe that's why, exploring the same subject across 50-plus films with titles that said everything and nothing about what they contained (Tokyo Story, Late Spring, Good Morning), Ozu never ran out of material. The subject of humanity itself could ever be exhausted.