There Was a Father (1942) is one of two films Yasujirô Ozu made during Japan’s efforts in World War II and, as such, is a film that was influenced by the Japanese government’s increased control over all aspects of the country’s film industry. Under the watch of the ruling powers, films were encouraged to promote a positive message. There Was a Father achieves this unique blend of containing a propaganda message of sorts to satisfy the authorities, that of “Father” knowing best and how one must perform one’s work to the absolute fullest, while also, in a subtle fashion, retaining an address of the emotional consequences wrought by the pursuit of duty in the film’s narrative.
In the film, Chishû Ryû plays a respected school teacher named Shuhei Horikawa. A widower, he lives with his ten year old son Ryohei. While on a school trip, a group of students get into a boating accident after ignoring their teacher’s warnings about going out on the lake.
After the class and school staff rush to the pier, Ozu reveals the outcome of the incident over a series of lengthily held shots, largely without dialogue. It begins with a look at the upturned boat, which then abruptly cuts to the students lined up on their knees in an interior location.
Through the diegetic sound of actions a man performs at the front of the room, the viewer gathers that this is some sort of religious service. Our first sign that this is a sombre event, aside from the fact the film has cut to this following a boating accident, comes from a shot of a student visibly trying to suppress an expression of grief.
After then briefly showing Shuhei knelt near the service leader at the front of the room, Ozu shows another teacher being handed a note. After reading it, the man announces that “His family are coming on the night train.”
A student has perished in the accident. We cut to a shot of Shuhei, and the look on his face says everything we need to know to understand the self-sacrificial decisions he will make throughout the rest of the film; this one tragedy dictates the remainder of his life, and consequently that of his son’s.
In the scene that follows, he will resign from teaching for good, feeling responsible for the student’s death even though no one blames him. Since the child was not normally disobedient, Shuhei feels he was negligent and thus a failure in his duty as a teacher, and so it is that he endeavours to ensure his own son grows up with the message to be committed to one’s duty as much as is possible and even in the worst of times.
The tragedy of There Was a Father is that, although Ryohei performs his ever-changing duties at levels to make his father proud, from education to becoming a teacher himself, the drive to do so means the father and son are perpetually separated, only seeing each other sporadically over the thirteen years that precede Shuhei’s eventual death from illness.