Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Films of Yasujiro Ozu

For the past few months, I've been slowly making my way through the extensive, five decade-spanning filmography of Yasujiro Ozu who, along with Akira Kurosawa, is among the giants of Japanese cinema.  For a long time, Ozu's films were either unavailable or hard to find in the U.S.; however, thanks to Hulu's extensive Criterion Collection, many of them (over 30) are available to stream online.

Yasujiro Ozu

Stylistically, Ozu is very different from Kurosawa.  Whereas Kurosawa's films contain action and sometimes play upon American genres (like film noir), Ozu's films are quieter, unsensationalized, and usually take place within the precise geometry of Japanese homes.  And while Kurosawa experimented with numerous genres and stories, nearly all of Ozu's films deal with the tensions between tradition and modernity as they play out in family relationships.  Not only are the storylines of Ozu's films similar, they are famous for using the same crew of actors over and over again.

A scene from Ozu's film Early Summer.

So what makes these films interesting?  Don't they get boring or repetitive?  My answer to that  There is a zen-like control and precision to the films, perhaps inspired by traditional Japanese artforms like Noh theater--in which a single actor expresses, through precise movements and sounds, a single emotion.  Or one might compare the films to haiku--tightly controlled in structure, but infinite with subtle possibilities of variation and meaning.

The beautiful and mysterious composition of an Ozu shot from Tokyo Story.

Another interesting aspect of Ozu's films is their historical context--late 1920s to early 1960s Japan--a time of profound and traumatic social change, upheaval, war, and death.  Though none of Ozu's films deals explicitly with scenes of war or great upheaval, the signs of change are lurking in the background--traditional wooden Japanese homes juxtaposed with telephone wires, railroad tracks, modern buildings, factories, and, sometimes, the rubble of war.  All of that is in the background, and because Ozu was so prolific, it's fascinating to watch the Japanese urban landscape slowly, film by film, change, for better or worse.  But, again, what is foregrounded are people--families in homes dealing with change and with each other.  There is both a profound simplicity to these films, and a profound complexity expressed in subtle and deeply meaningful ways.

A scene from Ozu's film The Only Son.

Before I discuss the films themselves, I want to discuss a few elements of style which make a film uniquely "Ozu."  First, the perspective of the camera, when inside Japanese homes, is usually very low, so as to emphasize the fact that Japanese people, traditionally, sit on mats on the floor when they are hanging out or eating a meal.  Second, Ozu's framing of shots inside the home are stunningly complex--frames within frames (doorways, hallways, windows), all of which contribute to the mood and emotion of the characters.  Finally, in nearly all his films, Ozu occasionally separates scenes by a shot of some stationary object--a tree, a teapot, running water.  The reasons for these shots are complex and multi-layered, suggesting multiple meanings, as in a poem.

Shot of a stationary vase from Ozu's film Late Spring.

So, without further ado, I present mini reports on 23 of Yasujiro Ozu's films, all of which are streaming online on Hulu.

1.) Tokyo Chorus (1931).  Set in the 1930s amidst an economic depression, the film is about a man who is laid off and struggles to support his family through financial hardship.  Like many Ozu films, the focus is on relationships within a family.  Tokyo Chorus has both tragic and comic elements--poking fun at social conventions like the military-style education system and power hierarchies in the workplace.  It's also interesting in that it depicts Tokyo before it was largely destroyed by the United States in World War II.

2.) I Was Born, But... (1932).  Most of the film has a "Little Rascals" feel, as it follows two brothers and their antics with the other neighborhood boys in a town that seems in transition between tradition and modernity.  The film takes a serious turn when the boys realize that their dad has a boss, which makes them question his importance.  They ask him flat-out, "Are you important?"  A small crisis ensues, which highlights social realities of Japan in the 1930s, as it was transitioning from a traditional/feudal type society where people have stable social roles, into a more modern, individualistic society where social roles are more fluid and unstable.  The end of the film provides a moving reconciliation between father and sons.

3.) Passing Fancy (1933).  A film about the complex relationship between a poor, single father and his son.  The dad is a somewhat irresponsible drinker, but is also (sometimes) light-hearted and loving.  Like many Ozu films, this is a story about generational conflict.  There's a scene where the son calls his father "useless" because he is illiterate.  As Japan was becoming more modern, new kinds of social and economic strains threatened to tear at traditional family relationships.  The dysfunction between father and son mirrors larger trends in society.  A master of composition and visual storytelling, Ozu juxtaposes modern factories with traditional structures to a evoke a changing society.

4.) A Story of Floating Weeds (1934).  Another film about a strained father-son relationship, this one is about a travelling theater group on its last legs.  The leader of the troupe has a son who doesn't know he's his father.  It's a complex situation in which the father didn't want his son to follow in his footsteps as a poor wandering actor, so he left him with the mother, so the boy could go to school and have a better life.  Both father and son lost something in this situation.  This film is about various inter-family crises in a rapidly changing society.  Ironically, this new generation in which the older generation placed such high hopes would soon fight in World War II, and die in huge numbers. 

5.) An Inn in Tokyo (1935).  This was Ozu's last silent film, before he moved to "talkies," a move he was reluctant and late to make.  The film stars the same father and son as in Passing Fancy, except in this one there is (mysteriously) another son, both of whom he abandons at the end due to poverty.  Thus, An Inn in Tokyo is not a sequel in the literal sense to Passing Fancy or any of the films featuring this specific single father.  Rather, I look at it as an examination of these characters from a different angle, almost as if from a different dimension, in which some things are the same, and some are different.  Ozu's films often repeat stories and characters with slight modifications, as if the director was obsessed with a few very specific ideas and spent his career examining them from as many vantage points as possible.

6.) The Only Son (1936). Ozu's first talkie, a meditation on family, working-class disappointment, and the difficulty of upward mobility, begins with this quote: "Life's tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child."  It tells the story of a single mother who works in a silk factory to pay for her son's education.  When she visits him in Tokyo, after he has graduated and begun his working life, she finds that his education has not a guaranteed pathway to success and happiness.  He lives in a poor area and works as a low-paid night school teacher.  Sitting in a field near the massive Tokyo garbage incinerators, he tells his mother he regrets moving to Tokyo and all she sacrificed to put him through school.  He tells her his life has not turned out like he imagined it would.  Later, when everyone in the family is crying over their disappointing lives, Ozu cuts away to the man's sleeping baby, then to a really long still shot of a "charm" (basically a painting) for keeping babies from crying at night, suggesting that the adults need this sort of traditional comfort too.  The film is also, like most of Ozu's films, a meditation on the gains and losses of rapid industrialization.

7.) What Did the Lady Forget? (1937).  This film is unique in Ozu's fimography thus far, in that it focuses on an affluent (as opposed to working class) family.  It tells the story of a well-off professor of medicine at Tokyo University, his wife, and their young niece visiting from Osaka, whose modern ways create conflict within the family.  The films seems to be poking fun at the hypocrisy and triviality of bourgeois (middle/upper class) lives.

8.) Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941).  For a four-year period (1937-1940) Ozu made no films because he had been conscripted by the Japanese Imperial Army to fight in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).  While stationed in China, he fought in the Battle of Nanchang and the Battle of Ziushui River.  In 1939, his conscription ended and he made his next film, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, about a family of brothers and sisters who fail in their duties to care for their recently-widowed mother and unmarried sister.  A particularly tragic aspect of the story is when the family sells off all their father's possessions--basically turning a lifetime of collecting art and antiques into soulless cash.  The cinematography of this film, shot mainly in the interiors of Japanese homes, is really beautiful--utilizing the complex but highly geometric shapes of the homes to frame his characters' lives.

9.) There Was a Father (1942).  A father, in struggling to provide for his son's education, must make difficult choices, which involve leaving his son at a boarding school, and then moving away to Toyko to seek work.  It's about the sacrifices that he makes in order for his son to have a better future.  This film was made at the height of World War II, when the country was struggling and many families were losing loved ones.  Though it's not explicitly about war, it is about the kinds of sacrifices families were being asked to make during the war.

10.) Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947).  In 1943, Ozu was again drafted by the Japanese military.  He spent three years in Singapore, before returning to Japan in 1946, when he began working on his next film, Record of a Tenement Gentleman.  A better translation of the Japanese title would be A Who's Who of the Back Streets, because the film focuses on the lives of people living in a poor region of Tokyo which was bombed by the U.S. during WWII.  The memory of war looms large in this film about a young boy who was separated from his father after their house was destroyed by U.S. bombs.  A widow reluctantly takes in the boy and the two develop an affectionate relationship.  One of the closing scenes of the film is of a group of "war orphans" in Tokyo hanging out aimlessly.  The film is about an important, but not often discussed, aspect of World War II--its impact on Japanese children--thousands of whom were orphaned as a direct result of relentless American bombings.

11.) A Hen in the Wind (1948).  Set in Tokyo right after World War II, this film is about a poor woman, waiting for her husband to return from the War, whose young son becomes ill.  Due to scarcity of work, rapid inflation, and the generally devastated nature of Japan, she must take drastic measures to pay for his treatment--she prostitutes herself for one night.  When her husband returns home, she tells him, and for a while he is unable to cope with this information.  He becomes brooding and violent.  One day, as a kind of catharsis, he visits the house of prostitution where his wife sold herself.  There, he finds a young woman in nearly the exact same position as his wife--poor and desperate.  Ultimately, after nearly killing his wife by accidentally pushing her down the stairs, the two reconcile amidst tears and hopes for a brighter future.   The film is about the various traumas caused by the war--not just physical, but emotional, psychological, and relational.

12.) Late Spring (1949).  Begins with a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, then cuts to a scene in which a Japanese professor is writing a manuscript, in which he mixes up 19th German economist Friedrich List, whose theories are actually relevant to what was happening in Japan at the time, particularly with regards to industrial development and a mass rail system, and composer Franz Liszt, a forward-thinking pianist/monk.  Then the professor and his daughter take the train into Tokyo, where he attends a conference, and she visits the doctor (she is still recovering from forced labor during the war), and then goes shopping.  In previous films, the increasingly industrial/commercial landscape is present in the background, but in this one it is often foregrounded--almost as if the unnatural landscape is a character competing with the natural.  Here we see large buildings, factories, and rail yards.  A tree planted in a concrete-surrounded sidewalk.  Also, for the first time, we see evidence of American commercial interests--Coca-Cola advertisements, public signs in English, etc.  American movie stars, sports, and recreational shopping are becoming part of the Japanese cultural consciousness.  The professor's daughter and her divorced friend discuss their views of marriage, eat at a western-style table, and, subtly defying gender roles, the father serves them.  The classic Ozu low mat-shot feels disjointed, as people sit in higher, western-style chairs.  The daughter's traditional aunt seeks to see her neice "married off" and her cheerful smile turns to sadness.  Father and daughter attend a Noh play, which is highly significant in terms of Japanese culture and early film.  The father, nostalgic, smiles during the performance.  The daughter is visibly sad, nearly in tears.  The film is about conflict between father and daughter regarding changing ideas about marriage and gender roles.  The options for her life shrink around her, as everyone tells her to "hurry up and get married," even though she clearly doesn't want that.  She wants to care for her aging father.  She is presented with an arranged marriage, under the guise of it being her choice.  In reality, she has no choice.  It's about the problems created when people attempt to impose their vision of reality onto another.  It's about a loss of freedom, under the banner of someone's idea of "necessity" or "progress".  The closing scenes, of the father drinking in a bar with his daughter's friend, saying he lied when he told his daughter he would re-marry: "It was the biggest lie of my life."  And then him peeling an apple, and weeping.  And then waves crashing and receding.

13.) Early Summer (1951).   Like Late Spring, this film is about a family's attempts to marry off their single daughter, Noriko.  Her friends are evenly divided between married and single.  There is considerable social pressure to marry, but the freedom of the single life is also attractive.  Family and friends attempt to arrange a marriage for her with an older business executive, and are shocked when she "rashly" and "independently" agrees to marry a young man named Kenkichi, who was friends with her brother (who was killed in the War).   Though her family is at first disappointed by her decision, they eventually accept it.  A recurring image in Early Summer is that of birds in cages, perhaps a reflection of the situation for women like Noriko.  Also, the film takes place in a Tokyo that seems to be rapidly recovering from World War II.  There are lots of tall buildings and automobiles.  By the end of the film, Noriko's family has been scattered--she is moving with her husbnd to Akita, and her parents are moving to the rural town of Yamato.  The film ends in Yamato with Noriko's elderly parents surveying their family's situation and looking out over fields of ripe barley.  In fact, the Japanese title of the film can be translated "Barley Harvest Time."

14.) Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952).  Tells the story of a wealthy husband and wife in an unhappy marriage who, ironically, are trying to arrange a marriage for their niece Setsuko, who is a modern woman and sees arranged marriages as "primitive."  She is more interested in following her uncle around as he gambles with his friend.   Eventually the uncle sympathizes with his niece, and tells his wife, "Forcing her to marry against her will would just lead to another couple like you and I" (meaning, an unhappy marriage), which leads to further alienation between them.  As the film goes on, you learn that the husband is from a working class background, while his wife comes from the upper class.  This difference explains some of their distance, emotionally, from each other, and relates to the title of the film.  Green tea over rice (or chazuke) is a humble dish which relates to the simple pleasures of life.  In the end, there is a beautiful scene of reconciliation in which husband and wife prepare and share a simple meal together, of green tea over rice.

15.) Tokyo Story (1953). This is undoubtedly Ozo's most famous film, and it is often cited on lists of "best films ever made" perhaps because it expresses so concisely many of the themes the director explored throughout his life.  This film tells the story of an elderly Japanese couple from a rural town who visit their children in Tokyo.  It is similar to Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family in that it shows how the younger generation has lost their concern and connection to the older generation.  The sons and daughters shuffle their parents around, ultimately leaving them at a resort.  The only member of the family who cares for the parents is their poor, widowed daughter-in-law, whose husband (their son) died in the war.  There is a profound feeling of pathos throughout this film--the family dysfunction reflects a larger dysfunction and loss in postwar Japanese society.

16.) Early Spring (1956).  For Early Spring, Ozu stated, “I tried to portray the pathos of the (white collar) salaryman’s life as society undergoes transformation.”  The film begins with lots of people getting up for work to the annoying ring of an alarm clock, and getting dressed in western-style clothes.  This is the army of white-collar workers, dressed in similarly looking-business outfits.  Every morning 340,000 office workers enter Tokyo by train.  The new business-centric environment of Postwar Japan creates a highly regimented day.  People, losing their sense of individuality, focus on escapist fun, rather than serious reflection.   Much of the film takes place in the rather cold confines of a corporate office building--the regimented geometry replacing the home as the site of peoples' identity.  "That's the fate of salarymen," says one character, "The world today isn't very interesting.  Everyone's dissatisfied.  You ought to try to have a good time."  The main character Shoji and his wife are quietly unhappy.  He starts an affair with a co-worker, mainly out of frustration and boredom.  Critic Michael Koresky writes, "The economic miracle supposedly bolstering Japan in the 1950s is portrayed as no more than workaday drudgery and domestic alienation." 

17.) Tokyo Twilight (1957).  Many of Ozu's films use the seasons to convey an overall emotional mood (Late Spring, Early Summer, etc.).  Though it is called Tokyo Twilight, this film could just as easily be called The Dead of Winter.  Not only is it set in winter, but it is also the darkest and bleakest of Ozu's films.  Critics at the time didn't like its "sensationalist" and "melodramatic" plot (involving separation, abortion, and suicide), but calling any Ozu film "sensationalist" is a highly relative term, as Ozu is probably one of the least sensationalist filmmakers of all time.  The film still moves at the slow, deliberate pace of Ozu's other films, and continues the post-war Ozu themes of marriage problems and inter-generational conflict.  In the 1950s, Ozu began to shift his focus to the younger generation, and this film is a story of two sisters who discover their long-lost mother, who left their father when they were young, and now runs a gambling parlor.  The two sisters are thus forced to contend with their family's troubled past, while dealing with their own current relationship problems.  The story reminds me of a quote from Paul Thomas Anderson's film Magnolia: "We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us."  Also, perhaps to emphasize the tragic nature of this story, Tokyo Twilight has a recurring reference to The Great Gatsby--a billboard of large, bespectacled eyes.

18.) Equinox Flower (1958).  This was Ozu's first color film, and it is gorgeous to behold.  Ozu was famously late to adapt to changes in film technology.  He didn't make his first "talkie" until 1936, and he was also late to embrace color film.  While a master of composition and design, Ozu did not make films which relied on the latest technological wizardry.  And yet, when he embraced color with this film, it's a total revelation.  After so many black and white films, seeing Ozu in color feels like a whole new world opening up.  The use of color, and the embracing of new possibilities, is also important thematically to this film.  On the eve of the 1960s, this film deals with conflicts between parents (who have traditional ideas about marriage) and young people who want to decide their own romantic and individual fates.  These themes, while specific to Japan, are also quite universal.  The new world of color which Ozu explores also reflects the optimism and new possibilities that young people were beginning to realize at this time. 

19.) Good Morning (1959).  This film is a light-hearted critique of life in the suburbs.  It’s set in a neighborhood where people live in nearly identitcal-looking houses with literal white picket fences.  Women want washing machines and newfangled gadgets.  Kids are crazy about television.  Mass entertainment culture is making its way into peoples’ homes through television.  "Buy us a TV!" the children demand.  Wives gossip about their neighbors.   The film is about the birth of entertainment as a component of everyday life.  Real life is boring compared to TV, and the kids become addicted to TV, like junkies.  When their parents refuse to buy them a TV, two brothers take a vow of silence, which creates humorous problems for them at school and at home.  The boys’ father says to a friend, “Someone said TV will produce 100 million idiots" and "Too many conveniences are no good."  It’s about the beginning of consumer culture--buying things for convenience and status, rather than necessity.  The title comes from a reference to superficial sayings like “Good morning" which take the place of real communication between people.  "Important things are difficult to say,” one character says, “whereas meaningless things are easy to say."  It is suggested that life in the suburbs, convenient gadgets, and social conformity create a superficial society where people literally don’t know how to communicate with one another beyond cliches.

20.) Floating Weeds (1959). A gorgeous color remake of his 1934 film A Story of Floating Weeds, this is a "story of a raggle-taggle theater troupe giving its final performances in a small fishing village" (David Ehrenstein).  It's about the decline of traditional Japanese art forms after World War II, such as kabuki theater.  Critic Donald Ritchie writes, "His devotion to detailing everyday Japanese life, and his refusal to jazz things up with fancy camerawork and slick melodramatic formulas, made most distributors feel his work was unexportable—a quality that made the Japanese take Ozu to their hearts more than ever...Rather than rush to the heat of a “big” dramatic moment, Ozu concentrates on the warmth of “small” ones. In scene after scene the way the characters walk, sit, stand, and speak is scrupulously observed."  Nothing is “unimportant” in Ozu’s view.  As critic James Stoller has said, “If, to arrive at poetry in our time, we must sometimes go a long way, Ozu took us the longest way of all: back into the arms of a world we thought we had abandoned.” This abandoned world is nothing less than the one we inhabited as children—when each sight and sound was seen and appreciated by us as new. Ozu in Floating Weeds tells us a story, but at the same time he brings it to us through a child’s eyes. We cannot ask more of a film artist."

21.) Late Autumn (1960).  This film begins at a Buddhist temple service on the anniversary of a man's death, attended by his wife and daughter, where even the older generation grows impatient with the traditional religious service.  "They should keep it brief and only chant the most moving sutras," a man says.    Even at the "traditional" Japanese dinner table sit American/European products: Johnny Walker whiskey, Orange Crush soda, French's mustard, Tabasco hot sauce.  Western commercial interests invading Japan after the war.  The older generation tells the dead man's daughter that it's time to get married, but she wants to marry for love, not status or security.  Like other postwar Ozu films, this one explores the generational conflicts surrouding ideas of marriage, but also shows that even the older generation is adopting certain "modern" conveniences.

22.) The End of Summer (1961). Like other postwar Ozu films, this is a story of attempted arranged marriages vs. more modern/western ideas about marriage.  A young woman is dating an American man--a first in an Ozu film.  It's also about the decline of "mom and pop" businesses in Tokyo, and the rise of large corporations.  One character says, "Smaller companies can't compete these days."  A significant quote in this film is, "The world has changed so much around us...It's not much of a world anymore."  In this new modern Toyko, Coca-Cola, neon signs, and other aspects of western commercial culture dominate the landscape.  In one shot, an image of an old temple and a modern TV antennae are juxtaposed side by side. One neon sign significantly says "New Japan."    

23.) An Autumn Afternoon (1962).  "The last film by Yasujiro Ozu was also his final masterpiece, a gently heartbreaking story about a man’s dignifed resignation to life’s shifting currents and society’s modernization. Though the widower Shuhei (frequent Ozu leading man Chishu Ryu) has been living comfortably for years with his grown daughter, a series of events leads him to accept and encourage her marriage and departure from their home. As elegantly composed and achingly tender as any of the Japanese master’s films, An Autumn Afternoon is one of cinema’s fondest farewells" (The Criterion Collection).

Again, all of these films and more are available on Hulu.  Check them out!


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