Ozu Yasujirō (1903 – 1963) directed 54 movies, whereof 35 silent ones, 13 in black-and-white and 6 in color. I have to admit that this far I haven’t seen one of the first category yet; there are many silent movies lost, if that may count as an excuse. The movies I watched are from “The Ozu collection”: Tokyo Story (Tōkyō Monogatari 東京物語), also called his masterpiece, Late Spring (Banshun 晩春), Good Morning (Ohayō おはよう), Early Summer (Bakushū 麦秋) and The End of Summer (Kohayagawake no Aki 小早川家の秋).
Recently, more movies have been added to this collection, his silent student comedies for example. It took quite some time before Ozu became known in the Western world, but as Wikipedia tells me, “he is widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential directors”. How deeply he has influenced other film makers I’m not sure. But in my opinion there are at least five reasons why you should give Ozu a try:
1. The realism Ozu’s later work – situated in Japan’s cinematic golden age: from 1930 to 1960 – is often classified as “domestic drama”. It sketches a portrait of a family going through marriage, divorce or death, and depicts the Japanese concept of mono no aware 物の哀れ, the “pathos of things”. At the climax of such a moment, one of the movie characters says “the weather is nice, isn’t it?” (Ii tenki desu ne? いい天気ですね。) Ozu’s films expose a concept Realism eagerly likes to use: “a slice of life” or “tranche de vie” in French. These films are about the life of middle-class families. There’s no particular plot in the story, nor is there any extraordinary event going on. To say it with Ian Buruma’s words:
Plot was never the main point for Ozu. He once said: “Pictures with obvious plots bore me now.” He was interested in character. As in the best soaps, you get to know the people through their little quirks and daily habits, their manners of speech, their routines. This takes time – in TV soap operas sometimes years. Ozu never hurries through a film. They feel like daily life, because they simulate the rhythm of life as it is lived by most people. And most people, after all, don’t live in action movies.
One could easily complain about the slow tempo, or the banality that characterize these films. But I think that this is what makes it worth watching: you discover the daily life of a Japanese family in the fifties. You hear daily expressions, you see what keeps these people busy all day. His films are as simple as they are intellectual. There are hints of humor, as in real life. Next to that, women are often placed central. My teacher at university even called it “pro-women cinema”, and I read more than once “subtle feminism” on the Internet.
2. The language For students of the Japanese language, Ozu’s movies can be a real challenge. No clean, standard Japanese, but daily speech, often muttered while sipping tea or pronounced almost incomprehensibly. Sometimes a dialect is featured, like Kansai-ben 関西弁 in “The End of Summer”. Because this kind of speech is most likely what you will hear once you arrive in Japan, some hearing exercise beforehand can be useful. You can also observe the differences in formal, outside situations, and informal scenes shot at the home of these families. And, as I mentioned before, you can learn a lot by paying attention to daily expressions and so on. I also have to praise the translator of “The Ozu Collection” in Dutch for his pleasant creativity. He succeeded in translating four successive “sou desu ka“‘s そうですか in four completely different ways, for instance.
3. The acting We know Ozu liked to collaborate with the actors Hara Setsuko, Ryū Chishū and Sugimura Haruko. His favorite actor Ryū appeared in no less than 52 (!) of his films. Rumor has it that there was some kind of relationship going on between the married actor and the unmarried director. Hara is called “the symbol of the golden era of Japanese cinema of the 1950s”. She also never married; again I found endless speculations about that on the Internet. Leaving the personal remarks out of consideration, I couldn’t find much about how their acting is experienced. When I first saw a Ozu movie, I believed it not very natural. Then I thought, perhaps, that’s exactly how it was at that time, and I grew used to it. I mean, Japanese people tend to keep a poker face in any situation whatsoever. And they cry real tears, so the acting should be okay I guess? (Hereby it is clear that I have no discerning eye for this kind of things.) Anyway, these actors are symbols that cannot be missed if one wants to explore Japan’s golden cinema period.
4. The Japaneseness Of all Japan’s great directors, Ozu has been called “the most Japanese one”. He is so “typically Japanese” that his movies were only reluctantly introduced in the West: foreigners wouldn’t understand. Ozu was seen as hopelessly conservative by the following generation of directors. Not that he only shot historical drama, on the contrary, he portrayed a Japan penetrated by Western modernity. Often the clash between these two makes up for a social topic in the movie, like in “Tokyo Story”. And there exactly is where the genius is hidden: we do not see the exotic Japan full of samurai and geisha Westerners want to see; we see the Japanese life of everyday. Two women walking side by side, one in kimono and wearing geta, the other one in a colorful summer dress wearing Western shoes. A group of business men in suits sitting shoeless on tatami in the tea house while waving their fans. An old man in hakama making a phone call at the pub around the corner. Can it be more Japanese than this?
5. The filming technique No hovering, no close-ups, no over-the-shoulder shots or panning – Ozu perfected the stylised, minimalistic still shot. During dialogues, he places the camera between the speakers, which draws the public into the conversation as well. In the beginning it feels weird, because the characters talk straight into the camera, as if there’s no one else but you. Ozu also invented the “tatami shot”, in which a camera is filming the characters at very low height, about 70 centimeters off the ground. Between different scenes, he films random things or landscapes. I personally prefer this kind of techniques over other ones. It is simple, minimalistic and relaxing. One can focus on speech, acting, scene decoration and so on. And it suits the tempo of the movie of course.
I have given five reasons to like Ozu’s work – or at least to try watching it. I’m sure there are reasons to dislike him as well. He may be considered a bit old-fashioned nowadays. But there is not and there will not be a second Ozu again… Have you watched one of his movies? How do you think about it? Let me know!
Facts for Fun
– “Yasujiro Ozu.” The Criterion Collection, n.d. http://www.criterion.com/explore/22-yasujiro-ozu.
– “Yasujiro Ozu: An Artist of the Unhurried World.” The Guardian, January 9, 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jan/09/yasujiro-ozu-ian-buruma.
– Bordwell, David. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. London; Princeton, N.J.: BFI Pub. ; Princeton University Press, 1988.
– credits pictures: Wikimedia commons, Nishikataeiga and own work.