The Cinema of Japan Guest Post: A Personal Introduction to Yasujirō Ozu

My man Chris Smith, all round legend and contributor to Film Blerg has kindly hooked me up with this brilliant personal intro to one of the true cinematic legends to come out of Japan. Read and enjoy. This is some seriously good shit.

The great man at work

The great man at work

“Sooner or later, everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu”.

So begins Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review on Floating Weeds (1959), the first film I saw of the legendary Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu, and so right he was. I’m not sure what took me so long. I think I’d started watching one of his films before, maybe it was this one or perhaps it was Tokyo Story (1953), the other Ozu film that seems to have infiltrated the zeitgeist outside of Ozu’s work itself. Whichever it was, I remember watching the first few minutes and finding it challenging; first visually with the compositions, and then the slow, deliberate pacing; but man am I glad I stuck with it, because in the films of Ozu we find what might be the purest and most beautiful expression of people and their humanity in perhaps the entirety of cinema as an art form.

floating weeds

Floating Weeds

As a visual film maker, Ozu is a stylist to the point of anti-style. His films are deliberately (and misleadingly) simplistic with scenes often playing out in extended shots (generally low angles), very little camera movement (by the later stage of his colour films the camera ceases to move at all), and often breaking the rule of the “hypothetical camera” (the disorienting effect where the viewer becomes aware that the camera or lens from which they’re seeing this world, which we know must be somewhere, has its space physically taken up by something else – in Ozu it is the reverse angle of two characters talking across from one another).

Narratively, Ozu’s films are mostly anti-climactic with seemingly important events of narrative action usually happening off-screen and what was previously thought to be of so much importance is referenced in simply passing, as so often happens in real life once important events are swallowed up by the past.

So if his films are visually mundane (they’re not) and his plots are uninteresting (again, they‘re not), why is Ozu treated as cinematic royalty? It’s because with the relative removal of these exterior concerns, Ozu focuses on the heart of his stories, which are his characters and their emotions, which we remember long after visual and narrative details have faded in our memories.

The effect of watching a good many of Ozu’s films in quick succession (especially his later work which has been boxed together by Criterion in their Eclipse series) is very much like binge watching your favourite TV show, even a soap opera – just without all the heightened melodrama – as his stable of fine actors, including Ganjiro Nakamura, Shin Saburi and Chisu Ryu – navigate the terrain of Ozu’s thematic concerns (tradition vs. modernity, women’s independence, family relationships) often in the same locales and sets (the majority of these stories tend to play out in traditional Japanese apartments). Like with television, the audience’s investment lies less with the week to week plot, but more with how the characters we love deal with conflict, and it’s these conflicts that lead to the greatest moments in Ozu.

 Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice

Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice

From the old widow O-tane (Choko Iida) of Record of a Tenement Gentlemen (1947); who after neglecting the young lost boy who attaches himself to her and treating him horribly, finally comes to find that she in fact does love him as a mother – only for the boy’s father to come for him just after she’s made this discovery; to the heartbreaking scene of Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) when Mokichi (Saburi) tells his wife (of an arranged marriage) Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) after they’re been married for many, many years that they simply aren’t happy, the world of Ozu is populated by real people we become deeply invested in, often in what may seem like small irrelevant details, but they become so important in the context of his cinematic world.

While a good deal of has been written about the final scene of Late Spring (1949) (the films plot involves an ageing and widowed professor (Ryu) being convinced to arrange for his daughter (Setsuko Hara) to be married to a stranger so she’ll be taken care of once he dies, but she refuses because she wants to stay with her father, leading him to pretend to marry as well) where the daughter says goodbye to her father and the father returns home alone; my own personal favourite moment in Ozu is in his reworking of Late SpringLate Autumn (1960). Hara, now the parent, confesses to her daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) that she has decided not to marry but to live alone while her daughter leads her own life. It’s one of the most poignant and touchingly simple moments in the history of film that always invariably leads to tears from its audience.

I’ve touched on only a few of Ozu’s individual films here and barely scratched the surface of what makes him such an incredible filmmaker, but his entire filmography is a rich and rewarding journey that awaits all film lovers, that as Ebert says, find their way to it.

Chris Smith is a Melbourne based freelance writer who is passionate about film, books and music. His work is often featured on Film Blerg and various other places.

This week thanks to Madman Entertainment, you have the chance to win a copy of Ace Attorney plus two other Japanese films on DVD. Head here for all the details on how to enter.

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