As a testament to Yasujiro Ozu, I would say it’s been over 5 years since I’d first seen one of his pictures, Late Spring, and aside from confusing the title with some of his others (Early Spring, Early Autumn, Early Summer, etc.) it is still clear as bell in my mind, though I'd only watched it once. I’m not sure why that would be since his movies are invariably slow paced, have little-to-no plot or action and define the very essence of subtlety. Actually, that’s exactly why his movies are so memorable. I remember thinking at the time that I’d never seen a film quite like it and ever since I’d looked forward to seeing more of his films, particularly Tokyo Story, being his most highly acclaimed movie. Sadly, there aren’t many rental stores in OKC offering a selection of Ozu pictures and it would be several years before I’d see another one. While in Japan, I picked up a copy of Donald Richie’s book, Ozu, and read about all the great works that I couldn’t see. The torture was immense.
Well, that’s changed somewhat, thanks to Netflix, and I’ve been able to rent pretty much everything that is available on DVD (in the US, anyway) – though that only represents a fraction of the 30 or so films of his that have survived out of the 50 or so he made.
It doesn’t take much exposure to Ozu to realize the basics: his camera is always at eye level to someone sitting on a tatami floor, the camera rarely moves, the opening credits are always over a burlap background, the story centers around the Japanese family (or, as described by Richie, the extended familial relationships one has at work or school), and he revisits the same handful of themes time and again (generational differences, the single daughter that needs to get married off, etc.). He's often called the most Japanese of Japan’s directors because he’s a such a traditionalist. The latter is peculiar when you consider the modern nature of his medium.
Despite his moniker as the most Japanese of all directors, and despite his obsession with depicting the Japanese family, his movies are most universal.
In Ozu’s world, the younger generations rarely appreciate or understand the sacrifice and love of their elder generation. Meanwhile, the older generation finds some level of meaning and solace through their offspring, even if they may recognize that their offspring is oblivious to their presence or has grown up to be selfish and mean. This theme permeates Tokyo Story. There’s particularly vivid scene where the grandmother is taking her youngest grandchild on a walk on top of a grassy hill. The child seems unaware of his grandmother nearby and is busy picking grass, while the grandmother watches the child in amazement, wondering aloud to herself (since the child isn’t paying attention) what his future may hold. Other scenes in Tokyo Story show how the grandmother’s children feel that their obligation to their parents during the parents trip to Tokyo is a nuisance. Yet, these middle-aged children don’t come across as bad or even unlikable mainly, I think, because they take their obligations seriously enough to fulfill them. In essence, they are so real that they don’t succumb to character types you see in most movies.
Part of the reason Ozu is able to create such realistic characters (or the main reason, according to Donald Richie’s book) is that their development is not driven by plot. This freedom allows the characters to develop in ways that would be impossible or even incoherent if the action of the film had to support a plot. And the characters in Ozu's films are never defined in terms of good or bad or antagonist and protagonists. They aren't created to represent one thing or another. They simply exist.
However, as seen in Tokyo Story and several of Ozu’s post war films, the actress Setsuko Hara consistently plays wholesome, overly loyal daughter (always named Noriko). In the films where there’s a daughter that needs to be married off, it is usually her. Of all the Ozu characters, Noriko comes the closest to being artificial. She’s usually so selflessly devoted to her family that she does not care to marry (a particularly untraditional situation in mid twentieth century Japan). In Early Summer, she’s the single daughter that is more or less the glue that keeps the extended family together, though they all know she needs to marry for the sake of her own future and they all try to get her to so throughout the story. When she finally decides to marry and move to the country, the audience knows that the large family living in the house will subsequently dissipate. Such is life. In Late Spring, Noriko lives with her widowed father who, in an effort to get her to marry, pretends that he, himself, plans to remarry. In Tokyo Story, she’s the widowed daughter-in-law (her husband having been killed during the war) who, ironically, is the only person that genuinely appreciates the company of her in-law parents. I’m guessing that Ozu was infatuated with the idea of a character like Noriko (his version of a Hawks woman) . Setsuko Hara became a sort of icon and mentor for young Japanese girls at the time and was immensely popular. Yet, iconic as her Noriko characters was, selfless people like her exist, if only rarely, so it’s not entirely accurate to think of her as artificial.
Another reoccurring theme in Ozu’s pictures that is universal is the relationship between tradition and modernity. This relationship is particularly evident in Japan’s quick modernization, but exists throughout the rest of the world, too. Ozu has a way of including shots of trains and power lines and other forms of technology on a frequent basis – usually to contrast the traditional things in Japan. Tokyo Story draws this relationship by showing the rural grandparents marveling at the size of Tokyo. The film, Good Morning, shows the influence of television on traditional family life. The two main children in Good Morning spend most of the film trying to get their parents to buy a TV and, in interim, frequently go to the one house in the neighborhood that has one so they can watch sumo (along with all the other kids in the neighborhood). Good Morning is a loose remake of Ozu’s silent I Was Born But...which uses radio instead of television. Anyone who can remember the first Atari on their block or the first VCR can relate to the living room full of kids. Ozu does not betray a preference for either tradition or modernity in his films and remains somehow detached between the two; as do his characters, especially the older ones. Instead, they fully accept the ways of the world.
Ozu is rare in that he celebrates bourgeous life unapologetically. His postwar Japan isn't the same one you'd find in Kurosawa's Stray Dog or like something you'd see in a De Sica film. You won't find much in the way of poverty or black markets, but it captures a specific time and place, just the same.
Generally speaking, if you are searching for a sense of humanity in a film, you can do no better than Japanese classic cinema. This is particularly true of Ozu. On a personal level, I’ve never seen a director that depicts a family as similar to my own as well as Ozu does on a consistent basis – though there’s an ocean of difference between his culture and mine. His movies certainly are not for everyone, but if my fellow Liverputtians are interested, here’s a list of his stuff currently available on DVD:
Story of Floating Weeds (1935) – an acting troupe passes through a village, various dramas unfold. This film is remarkable because the acting is surprisingly low key for a silent movie. Remade as Floating Weeds in the 1959.
Early Summer (1949)
Tokyo Story (1953)
Good Morning (1959) - Warning: contains repititve flatulence humor.
Floating Weeds (1959) – usually included as a set with Story of Floating Weeds. The village in this version is on the coast, whereas the village in the original is in the mountains.
Some of his other films are available on VHS. (If you happen to be named Mat and live in Chicago, you can find several Ozu movies at Facets and should seize the opportunity!)
Ozu movies are best served with sushi, miso, Asahi and sake.