Nobody could make a movie about "just folks" like Yasujiro Ozu. That name is likely not familiar to you, but if you've been keeping up with this blog, you'll know that I am a massive fan of his work. Of the thirteen of his films I've seen, every single one of them has been worth the time. Heck, Ozu doesn't make movies over 100 minutes long, so anybody has the time to watch at least the essentials, like Tokyo Story, Late Spring or I Was Born, But...
I'm not sure yet whether I count There Was a Father among the essentials by Ozu. It features his trademarks: lower-middle class families, ordinary situations, and an emphasis on the tug of war between work and life. It stars Chishu Ryu, one of Ozu's favorite actors and perhaps the greatest male actor of his career. Ryu himself claimed not to have particular talent - even Ozu thought he was lacking under anyone else's direction - but I find him to be uncannily powerful in his minimalist approach. No one can inspire sympathy in as simple a phrase as, "I see," so like Ryu could.
Ryu plays Shuhei, a widowed schoolteacher with a young son, Ryohei, into whom he plans to put all his hopes for the future. Shuhei is an extremely hard worker, and his discipline and fortitude make their way into the young men he instructs. He is valued as a teacher and as a member of the community, until a boy drowns to death under his supervision on a field trip. Disgraced and ashamed, Shuhei resigns his position, despite his peers' good will and understanding that it was not his fault. In an effort to save Ryohei's future, Shuhei makes the sacrifice to send the boy to a good, but expensive, boarding school far away, so Shuhei can afford to work to pay his tuition.
The film moves on from there, but I don't want to spoil where Ozu takes the story next. Just understand that the grace and stillness with which Ozu tells his story make every moment feel utterly true and believable. Ozu seems to be incapable of making any film that does not have his visual stamp on it, from the almost stock-still camera, to the eye-level-if-seated-on-the-floor angle. Even when the characters' situations are dire and their relationship is strained to the breaking point, Ozu never ratchets up the tone of the film to make it feel like a true melodrama. Ozu taps into our emotions honestly and without sentiment. Ryu, in his first Ozu leading role, is as good as he would ever be here, and he is the platonic ideal of an Ozu actor.