Ozu Yasujirō in CineConcert

Three years ago, I undertook to convince you to watch Ozu Yasujirō’s movies because of five solid reasons: realism on the screen, the opportunity to hear/read spoken Japanese (dialects), excellent actors, the Japaneseness and the stylised, interactive way of filming. I was again impressed by all of these things characterizing director Ozu’s style after watching the silent movie “Gosses de Tokyo” (original title: 大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど otona no miru ehon – umarete ha mita keredo “A picture book seen by adults – I was born, but …” 1932) at Film Fest Gent last week. This film festival showed a selection of Japanese movies as a tribute to the 150 years of friendship between Japan and Belgium (I wrote something about this here!). The screening was accompanied by beautiful live music, a new score written by Gwenaël Grisi and brought by a quintet.

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I had watched a bunch of Ozu’s movies in the past, but “Gosses de Tokyo” was my first silent Ozu movie. The story revolves around two young brothers in a middle-class family who have to deal with bullies at school and the harsh reality that their father is not “the best”. On the contrary, he works for the father of one of their own schoolmates, over whom they gain “power” once they teach their bullies a lesson. The boys rebel by skipping school, quarreling with their parents and going on a (failed) hunger strike. The coming-of-age perspective was also riddled with humor. This line had the audience bursting into laughter:

  • Dad: Did you enjoy going to school today?
  • Son: Yeah, going was fun and coming back was fun too, it  was only the part in between that was really boring.

Other comical elements were the boys’ behavior, in which we all resemble ourselves as a child, and the younger brother constantly mimicking the older one.

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Title screen of the movie (Sorry for the bad quality)

Because it was a silent movie, language use was limited and depended for a great deal on correctly interpreting the context. In some cases, it really helped having some insight in Japanese culture. For instance, there was a scene in which the boys, who had skipped school, asked the sake delivery boy to write the grade “A” (甲 kō) on a fabricated calligraphy homework. Unfortunately, the delivery boy drew the middle line so that it emerged on top, producing thus an entirely different character, 申 (saru, meaning among many other things, “monkey”). When one of the boys proudly presented this homework to his father, he wisely covered the upper part of his ‘grade’. Apart from such rare occasions, the visual story line spoke for itself and was nicely complemented by the music.

Fun Fact: I later discovered that Ozu reworked “I was born, but…” for his color and sound movie “Good Morning” (お早よう Ohayō), which I believe I have watched many years ago. I guess I should watch it again to be sure…

Thanks to Jana for the invitation!

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Five Reasons Why Ozu Yasujirō’s Movies Are Worth Watching Nowadays

ozuYasujiro_OzuOzu 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:

ozuyasujiro20130910_2001271. 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.

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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.

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Ryū Chishū, Hara Setsuko

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.

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yes, she’s talking to you.

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

8 Things You Might not Know About Ozu

References

Wikipedia
– “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.

Tissue Movies

If you’re feeling down, watch a movie. It really helps, especially when the movie itself is incredibly sad. You will think yourself the happiest person in the world after watching. The following Japanese movies have moved an Ice Queen like me to tears.

THE LIFE OF OHARU (saikaku ichidai onna 西鶴一代女) * Mizoguchi Kenji * 1952

This black-and-white film is based on the novel “The Life of an Amorous Woman” (kōshokuichidai onna 好色一代女) by Saikaku Ihara. The title in Japanese a combination of the author and the three kanji of the title’s book. In English, the movie’s called after the main character, Oharu. This girl isn’t very lucky. And that’s an understatement: her life is really miserable. The trouble starts when she is caught on having an affair with a lower ranked page. The young man is beheaded and Oharu’s family is sent away (if you were wondering: the movie is set in the Edo-period 1603-1868, and that’s the way it happened then). From that time on, things only get worse. She tries very hard, but somehow she always fails in living a happy life. Director Mizoguchi is known for his feminist engagement. He wanted to expose the hard circumstances for women, being more an object for men than a real autonomous person.

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This movie reminds me of  Ozu Yasujirō’s work. I have no intention of stereotyping Japanese cinema, but that’s my image of a good, old, Japanese film: black-and-white, low tempo, few talking and powerful shots. Less is more, and there can be so much more said in one slowly moving picture than in a lively dialogue. If you’re not very keen of this kind of movies, or perhaps you prefer colors, I can recommend the following ones.

DODESUKADEN (どですかでん) * Kurosawa Akira * 1970

dodesukadenKurosawa himself said “I must shoot this one in color, otherwise it would be too sad for words.” He was right. The story is based on the novel “The Town without Seasons” (kisetsu no nai machi 季節のない町) by Yamamoto Shūgorō. “Dodesukaden” is the onomatopoeia of a train. The departure station of this train is located in a rubbish dump, transformed into some kind of slum, where people try to survive in extremely harsh conditions. The conductor of the train is a mentally disabled boy. The truth is, the train doesn’t exist but in his imagination. The scene where he actually prepares the fictional vehicle for a ride isn’t amusing at all, it is bitter and wry. And so is the rest of the movie. All “residents” have their own miserable story, from the intellectual, dreamy tramp to the sexually abused girl. I recall two powerful scenes. The first one is the dead of the bum boy. Now the tramp is left alone with his impossible dreams, his last grip on reality has died with the child. The second one is the moment when a fine lady visits the shabby hut of a man who is silent during the whole movie. The man ignores her pleas, behaving more and more like a madman. He obstinately bears with him the burden of her adultery. You will think twice after watching this. How perverse can life be for human beings? All social issues make their appearance.

“Dodesukaden” is completely different from Kurosawa’s other filming. The contrast with pictures like “Seven Samurai” is huge. I was quite surprised; this could only be directed by someone who himself had to contend with mental struggle, even depression. The movie was a commercial failure. A year after the release, Kurosawa attempted suicide, but survived. It was not until 1975 that he directed another film. If you’re too weak harted for hardcore stuff like “Dodesukaden”, here’s a final suggestion.

SKY OF LOVE (koizora 恋空) * Imai Natsuki * 2007

“Koizora” was born on a cellphone. Mika posted her autobiographical story on a cell koizoraphone site, where it grew immensely popular, resulting in a manga, film and drama adaption. I watched the drama, but you can go for the film too, which is shorter (and cost less tissues). At the beginning I had promised not to shed a tear. With great efforts I succeeded in the first 5 episodes, but in the final one I couldn’t hold it anymore. Mika is the Oharu of today. I’m rather suspicious about the real-life aspect, how can someone’s life contain so much bad luck?

“Koizora” is the love story of high-schoolers Mika and Hiro. At first, Hiro is more like a bad boy, but he turns out to be very gentle and for ever dedicated to Mika. They experience a rather difficult relationship: bullying, pregnancy, disease, you name it. I cannot spoil the ending, you should watch for yourself. I challenge you.

Facts for Fun

– Japan has produced movies since 1897. That was almost immediately after introducing the Lumière Brothers’ Cinematograph in Tokyo.

– My favourite Belgian director is Jaco Van Dormael. Most of his films are in French, but the one I can watch again and again, “Mr. Nobody”, is English spoken.  Besides, the cast is fantastic: Jared Leto, Diane Kruger…

– The animation movies of Miyazaki Hayao has become very popular in the West. And quite deserved, they are terrific. “Howl’s Moving Castle” has won my heart five years ago.

References

– watch the trailer of Dodesukaden (no subs)

– watch Koizora (movie, English subs)

– watch Koizora (drama, English subs)

– credits for pictures: Dodesukaden and Koizora