The slice of life that Yasujirô Ozu’s Good Morningpresents to us is as homely and delightful as a freshly baked pie. Through a series of vignette-like neighbourly interactions and daily occurrences runs an ephemeral plot line centring on two brothers going on a silence strike until they are granted their faithful wish: a TV. The brothers, Minoru and Isamu, after suffering from constant refusals from their parents and berated for talking back, turn to silence as a way of stressing their point. This disrupts the usual process of social exchange within their family and baffles the people around them, while simultaneously causing problems for the boys themselves; for just like money, verbal exchange is shown to be an integral part of human existence, especially in a close-knit community such as a family or a neighbourhood.
Throughout the film, we see several instances of broken down exchange. Some of this exchange is monetary, such as the missing cash from the neighbourhood women’s collective. This collection is not merely a means of survival in the persistently frugal environment of post-war Japan, but a sort of social glue which allows the neighbourhood women to create a sense of security and responsibility, as well as preserving the vestiges of Japan’s social hierarchy. Although the presence of money and its investment into wondrous modern commodities such as a washing machine is still valued and envied, this money is more important as a symbol of collective strength. It binds the neighbours together in a semblance of a large family, or a corporate business that is so prevalent in Japan. By misplacing the funds, Kikue creates not only a financial problem, but a family rift, which then causes further instabilities; since without these monetary and subsequently administrative ties, the community faces a crisis of relation, resulting in suspicions and misunderstandings. Thus, even unrelated incidents – such as the silent brothers – are instinctively thrown in with the main issue, as Kikue interprets the boys’ silence as a personal insult.
Money plays many other social roles, such as being the license for marriage and the construction of new social bonds, a weapon of power play between frugal housewives and insistent salesmen, and the arbiter of authority and social superiority. Although for the boys of the neighbourhood the main source of prestige is the ability to make a sonorous fart, the adults – especially during the post-war period – seek social cache through employment at various corporations. These jobs do not merely provide money that can be spent on new items, but display their upward mobility in society. Although money is still vital for living expenses – as one of the neighbourhood men laments – it is secondary to the feeling of social acceptance and rising social value of an employed individual.
Thus, when the unemployed man obtains a job – even if it is just of lowly travelling salesman – he is overjoyed, for it gives him a new sense of place in society. When Mr and Mrs Hayashi – the parents of the silent strikers – buy a TV from him, they do so not so much as for the sake of their children’s whims, but in order to affirm this new social relationship and “celebrate the new job”. This purchase of a TV, and the previous discussion of TV at the local bar, creates an interesting allusion to Japan’s growing reputation in the international market of electronics. Although TVs are dismissed as “idiot boxes” and are predicted to create a “society of Japanese idiots”, it will be electronics and the corporation that produce them that will allow Japan to climb out of the post-war slump, and bring it close to world dominance. It is will be those very same “idiot boxes” that will increase Japan’s social standing on the global market and will give it the upper-hand in the exchange with the long-dominant America.
On the whole, money acts more as a sort of social lubricant that permits people to position themselves in relation to each other, and facilitates modes of social exchange. This is parallel to the way that people use words, and no wonder that statement “It makes the world go around”, which is usually used in relation to money, is used to highlight the importance of words. The boys’ English teacher Mr Fukui, who as a translator and teacher occupies a space between langue and corporate culture, attempts to explain this to them, stating that “it would be a dull world without such conventions”; for without the banalities of everyday language and lexical rituals, relationships and social webs would stagnate and breakdown – as demonstrated by the neighbourhood ladies.
The second half of the film is riddled with breakdowns of social bonds. The boys defy the child/parent relationship of respect and obedience, and their silence results in them getting lost in the evening, thereby destabilising their household and causing agitation. Mrs Hayashi is snubbed as a result of a neighbourhood rumour that itself materilaised due to a misunderstanding resulting from another rumour. The young couple with a TV move into an apartment block because they are bothered by their nosy neighbour, while Mrs Haraguchi feuds with her mother-in-law in a domestic power-struggle. Nevertheless, all is resolved (or supressed) with time, and the social exchange is re-established. The disturbance even generates some positive social interactions, such as Mr Fukui’s efforts to find the missing boys as a sign of affection for their aunt, Setsuko.
In conclusion, Mr and Mrs Hayashi’s acquisition of a new TV as a favour for a newly employed friend is a refusal to meet the boys on their own anti-social terms and a way for them to uphold their insistence on social order and exchange. After getting lost, and suffering hunger and frustration from their own lack of communication, the boys are directly faced with the necessity for social conventions that they found superfluous in the past. Without the exchange of words, gestures and emotions, the quotidian rhythms become distorted and strained, and the ripples of conflict reach even those who are not directly involved with the initial disturbance. It is only by renewing these social exchanges and rituals that life can carry on in a function and pleasant way. For the boys, this may be a small lesson, but it is a vital one – for this is a lesson that will last them a lifetime, or until their teenage years… w