I couldn’t tell you why, but for me this Japanese film felt French.
Floating Weeds is the story of a washed-up theater troupe and its summer stint in a small Japanese seaside town. By night the troupe runs through the same tired Kabuki shows which won them acclaim in previous years, but which bore modern audiences. And the town is so small that by day there isn’t much for anyone to do except for take naps, go fishing, or try to pick up girls.
That’s what the troupe’s leader Komajuro (Nakamura Ganjiro) did several years ago – in fact, he has a son in town, with an old girlfriend (Haruko Sugimora). Their son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) is now a strapping young man working at the local post office to save up for a stint in college. Komajuro is all for it – he knows he’s a bit of a washup and wants his son to aspire to loftier goals. In an effort not to get in the way of his success, he and his old girlfriend Oyoshi have agreed to pretend that he is a distant uncle who just so happens to drop in every few years.
In fact, it’s been ten years since Komajuro’s troupe has been in town – so his visit to Oyoshi doesn’t sit right with Komajuro’s current girlfriend Sumiko (Machiko Kyo). She stops by Oyoshi’s cafe one afternoon for lunch to snoop around a bit, and thoroughly pissing off Komajuro when he catches her there. They have a huge blow-up of an argument where he accuses her of trying to ruin Kiyoshi’s life, and he warns her to stay out of his business. But Sumiko didn’t even know about Kiyoshi before this, so this gives her the perfect idea for revenge; she takes aside another, younger woman in the troupe, the shy Kayo (Ayako Wakao), and pays her off to seduce Kiyoshi. Kayo is initially lured by the money, but Kiyoshi is easily smitten with her – and soon Kayo is equally smitten with Kiyoshi. So by the time that Komajuro discovers their summer romance, Kayo and Kiyoshi are both in deep, and Komajuro has a big problem…
I’d said that this film felt French in a way – perhaps I was reminded of the seaside town in M. Hulot’s Holiday, where nothing of consequence really happened and the film just followed people around watching them be idle. Despite the soap-y love drama with Kayo and Kiyoshi or with Komajuro and Sumiko, most of the film is really about the lazy boredom you get in small towns in summer; it’s too hot to do anything energetic, and everyone’s too broke to do much of anything else, so everyone mainly just sits around smoking, drinking, and gossiping. There’s a whole running-gag subplot involving three other guys from Komajuro’s troupe who clearly are only interested in women – they half-ass their performances so they can get finished early and go to the bar, they peek out through the curtains during the shows picking who they’re going to try to flirt with later, and when they’ve drunk through their meager stipends, the girls drop them like old laundry and they are stuck with nothing to do during the day but sit around on the beach and complain, or gossip about the unfolding drama with Kiyoshi and Kayo and Komajuro.
Ironically, showing these three guys undercut the drama for me – and made it all the more realistic. In my theater days I did one show that had a six-month run – and that was long enough for a lot of the elements of the show to become routine, and for everyone to settle into a groove; we’d all heard everyone’s jokes and stories already, there were shifting and morphing and evolving grudges that ebbed and flowed and waxed and waned, sometimes one of us got extra money from our day job and could treat the others to a drink and sometimes we were all flat broke and spent the downtime sitting around the theater doing kind of nothing, watching time pass until it made sense to get up and start getting ready for the show. We also knew that as soon as the show closed we wouldn’t be anywhere near as interested in the things that were capturing our attention then. We were broke, we were bored, the “what happens after we close” question loomed large for each of us, and gossip was simply more comfortable to think about.
Because the troupe knows that the writing is on the wall here – it’s been getting harder and harder for Komajuro to find them bookings, and audiences are getting smaller and smaller and a lot of the troupe knows that their days are numbered. Komajuro seems to have some kind of soap-opera-y thing going on, but all the rest of the cast has is a lackluster summer in a small town, chatting with the locals or hanging out with each other and waiting for time to pass so they can finally get around to figuring out the next phase of their lives.
Hmm. Looks like I identified more with the supporting characters.