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The changing seasons and family portraits of Yasujiro Ozu

by John Cochrane

October 27, 2010

Yasujiro Ozu may be the best director you’ve never heard of. Roger Ebert has compared him to Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson as one of the saints of the cinema – adding that if you truly love the art of film, you will eventually discover his work. Ozu’s career spanned 36 years and 54 films. He was a contemporary of great directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, helping to establish Japan as one of the best film industries in the world during the 1940s and 50s. He was considered that rare filmmaker who was both commercially and artistically successful. Yet at the time of his death from throat cancer at the age of 60, Ozu was little known outside of Japan.

While film audiences worldwide were first watching masterpieces like Kurosawa’s Rashoman (1950), The Seven Samurai (1954) and Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), Japanese distributors felt that Ozu’s films wouldn’t translate well outside of his native country. Even as little as ten years ago, it was difficult to see Ozu movies – only a handful were available on video in faded prints, or the occasional screening in art houses around the world. Thanks to an ambitious and attentive release schedule by the Criterion Collection over the last ten years, 17 of Ozu’s 37 surviving films can now be seen on DVD. Criterion’s latest Ozu releases are The Only Son (1936) and There Was A Father (1942) – two mid-period works that show a young artist quickly maturing into a master filmmaker.

Born in 1903, Ozu was educated in boarding schools and raised mostly by his mother in his family’s ancestral hometown of Matsuzaka while his father worked in Tokyo. This image of a sole, often widowed parent raising a child was a dominant theme throughout his career. In The Only Son, a poor silk factory worker named Otsune sends her son Ryosuke away to high school and college at great financial expense in order to give him a better life. When she can finally afford to visit him 13 years later in Tokyo, she finds he is not the success that they both had hoped, but living in a tenement with a young wife and son, teaching night school. In There Was A Father, a teacher named Horikawa resigns his post when a student accidentally drowns on a field trip. He then becomes obsessed with his own son Ryohei’s education and development into a model citizen, even though that means they are separated for most of their lives.

Both films display Ozu’s cinematic style – which was still being refined, but was uniquely his. Camera shots are usually two or three feet off the ground and stationary, similar to a person kneeling on a Tatami mat. Characters walk in and out of the frame as they are quietly observed interacting together – the shots often lingering to consider the action once it has ended. Panning, motion shots, and fast editing are almost non-existent – though both these early pictures have tracking shots from cars or trains, which Ozu would virtually exclude from his later films. And Ozu punctuates his scenes with “pillow shots” of unrelated objects or outside vistas, creating a pause before moving from one scene to the next. The pace is slow, and could seem mundane or banal to the inattentive viewer, but there is great emotional complexity and detail under the surface. Ozu doesn’t tell you what to think or how to feel, but he does engage you to actively decide for yourself how you feel about the story you are watching.

Ozu’s early silent films – 17 of which are believed to be lost – were lighter affairs, often focusing on collegial education or gangster motifs. But starting with The Only Son, one begins to see an older, more nostalgic Ozu contemplating the changing, dwindling role of the family as Japan continues to modernize in the 20th century. People go to school, choose to marry, or pass away. They try to be pleasant and accommodating, even if they secretly wish to rebel against society’s norms. Trying to save face, they often say one thing and feel another – unable to communicate to those around them. There are no villains in Ozu – only people who try to cheerfully persuade others to go along with what is customary, rather than forging a new path through individual desire or epiphany.

In The Only Son, Ryosuke is ashamed by his lack of achievement when his mother shows up unannounced to see him. Otsune is saddened by her son’s unhappiness and belief that he has failed her. In one moving scene, mother and son have a heart-to-heart talk, as they stroll and sit by a nearby garbage dump, where Otsune tries to reassure her son not to give up. In another scene the camera cuts to an extended shot of a blank wall within the house, as if it is unable to bear viewing the characters’ shame and anguish head on. (Martin Scorsese would use a similar technique in a famous shot from Taxi Driver (1976), in which the camera pans away and looks down an empty hallway, as Travis Bickle is romantically rejected during a telephone call.) But the mutual love between parent and child is unmistakable. By the film’s end, Otsune sees evidence that Ryosuke is a good man, and takes some comfort in that fact – even though their lives have been very hard.

In There Was A Father, which was made at the height of Japanese censorship during World War II, money and finding a good job are never the goal; rather, the film emphasizes doing your best every day to contribute to society at large. The film works as an oblique piece of propaganda for nationalism. But Ozu, who seemed largely apolitical in his work, secretly prefers to focus on the emotional dynamic of a widower so traumatized by the death of one of his students that he separates himself from his only child who cannot understand why he can’t be with his father. In a telling scene, Horikawa confides to a fellow teacher about the awesome fear of being responsible for other people’s children, and how he cannot forgive himself for not preventing his student’s accidental death. It’s not difficult to see how this affects his loving, but perpetually long-distance relationship with his son. Ryohei is sometimes resentful or defiant, but comes to understand Horikawa’s point of view as he ventures into adulthood – espousing many of his father’s ideas to his own students during his own teaching career, while concealing his own personal loneliness.

Criterion presents The Only Son and There Was A Father in one package, with illuminating interviews with film scholars David Bordwell, Kristen Thompson and Tadao Sato, along with multiple essays about both films. Also included is a piece on Ozu actor Chishu Ryu who stars as Horikawa in There Was A Father, and appears in The Only Son as Ryosuke’s teacher Ookubo, who also travels a similar path of career disappointment. The prints themselves have been meticulously restored from deteriorating elements – and while there’s still a good amount of visual wear and muffled noise in the two movies, they are very watchable. The Only Son is an early Ozu masterpiece, and There Was A Father is at minimum a very good film. Considering that Ozu’s other 1936 film College Is A Nice Place no longer exists, it is wonderful to have these motion pictures at all.

After the war, Ozu would turn out a string of great movies, and if you’re new to Ozu, these are probably the place to start. In Late Spring (1949), a widower gently persuades his spinster daughter to forsake their close relationship and marry, so that she won’t be alone after he’s gone. In Early Summer (1951), a young woman bucks tradition and chooses her own husband, jeopardizing her family’s unity and financial future. In Tokyo Story (1953), an elderly couple journey to Tokyo to visit their adult offspring and subtly realize that their children don’t have time for them in their busy lives. Though it wasn’t widely seen outside of Japan until 20 years after its making, Tokyo Story is considered by many people to be Ozu’s best film, as well as one of the greatest movies ever made – cracking the critics’ top five in Sight and Sound’s Film Polls of 1992 and 2002.

By the time of his later pictures, Ozu had gained his reputation as a quiet, confident perfectionist, requiring many takes from his actors and giving very specific movements and line readings to achieve his desired effect – akin to a gardener pruning plants in a particular way. His movies centered on variations of similar themes, using many of the same actors and crew. In Wim Wenders’ fascinating Ozu tribute Tokyo-Ga (1985), lifetime collaborators Chishu Ryu and cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta speak of him reverently – emphasizing that Ozu got more out of their cinematic abilities than they ever thought possible. While his detractors might argue this sameness and extreme control limit the creativity and diversity of his films, they actually have the opposite effect – achieving a beautiful state of meditation, and an unvarying consistency of quality unmatched by most filmmakers.

Some film artists like Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, and Pedro Almodovar are known as great women’s directors. Ozu is a great humanist director. You always feels a large sense of empathy from Ozu for his characters, and an acute awareness of human nature. Ozu may have been profoundly Japanese, but there is nothing more universal than the family dynamics of parent/child relationships, marriage and death. Roger Ebert recently called Ozu one of the three or four greatest directors who ever lived. David Bordwell thinks he is the best of all time. Whether or not you agree, one thing is certain: there is no one else in film quite like Yasujiro Ozu. He is a perfect example of discipline, artistic focus, and how less can be infinitely more.
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Arts editor: Jeff Jackson

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