Ozu Yasujirō was one of the greatest film directors and after decades of obscurity outside Japan it is cause for celebration that at last BFI are doing him proud by releasing all 36 of his surviving films on both DVD and Blu-ray. The way the films are being released is also to be applauded. The earliest films have been offered in box sets, the Student Comedies and the Gangster Films making up two desirable items, while the late post-war masterpieces are offered in duel releases, the Blu-ray versions as supplements to the DVDs containing one `main' feature each coupled with one of his earlier sound films from the 30s/40s. In this way we get to see rare films which we ordinarily might pass over and realize that they are every bit as good as the main features they support.
Ozu's greatness is evidenced by a staggeringly high level of consistency throughout his output from the early silents to the final austere masterworks. Late Spring is one of his most revered films and it looks very beautiful here with very clear pictures and sound. Some reviewers say the Criterion region 1 version is even better, with improved picture resolution. The Criterion release also comes with a Richard Peña commentary and Wim Wenders' documentary Tokyo-Ga (1985), an Ozu homage which has interviews with Ryū Chishū and Yūharu Atsuta. That sounds tempting, but if you go for it you will miss out on the wonderful pre-war masterpiece The Only Son which BFI have coupled Late Spring with here. Not having a Blu-ray player I can't comment on the first disc which contains both films, but the DVD is certainly excellent. The Only Son has been chosen by BFI because it has the same theme of an only child growing up with a single parent. In this case a son insists that he gets an education from his mother who can't really afford it while Late Spring centers on a daughter being married off by her loving but over-reliant father. Taken together the films offer contrasting views of Japanese society. The earlier film documents the poverty of the working class in the 1930s. Ozu's pre-war style was on the whole much brighter and more cheerful than that of his later films, but The Only Son is an exception in being somber and deeply disquieting in it's depiction of a poor mother and her son caught in a poverty trap from which they are offered no apparent escape. In Late Spring Ozu turns his back on the working class (in a manner which upset a lot of people at the time) and concentrates on the educated bourgeoisie and the social transition following the end of World War II. The quality of the original transfer of The Only Son, alas, isn't top notch. There's a lot of surface noise and the images threaten to burn out in places, but overall the resolution is better than the one given to Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family which I reviewed recently. BFI have obviously done the best they can with the original source and for the most part the picture quality is decent. BFI have released the 2 discs with a good booklet carrying a useful article by James Bell, extracts from interviews with Ryū Chishū, Yoshikawa Mitsuko and Iida Choko, full cast details and a brief biography of Ozu by Tony Rayns. Some (especially Japanese people) rate Late Spring even higher than Tokyo Story and there's no doubting that it is a key film for understanding Ozu's late style. Coupled with The Only Son (another essential film), this is a mandatory purchase.
Before I turn to the films in more detail, as a long-term resident in Japan I'd like to offer a few insights into what makes Ozu special. He has been called `the most Japanese' of the great directors and of the `big three' I'd say this is true though Mizoguchi Kenji also has a strong claim. But where Mizoguchi's focus lies on `high' Japanese culture (folk tales, Kabuki theater, Nōh drama, etc) Ozu's subject is everyday family life. His films reflect culture and attitudes that are unique to Japan which foreigners (I'm thinking of myself when I first arrived here 20 years ago) find opaque and difficult to comprehend. There is no doubt that the family is the central unit of Japanese society and Ozu's films are full of the feeling of maintaining `wa' (harmony) between family members and friends. Society here is anything but straightforward. Nothing is said or done directly (for example, in the Japanese language there are no words for `yes' or `no' and opinion-giving is frowned upon) for fear of causing offence and it is the upholding of an agreeable `tatamae' (surface) which is the oil of Japanese social discourse. For this reason Ozu's films are full of (seemingly) mundane conversations about everyday things - the weather, basic greetings, conversation about superficial subjects and statements of the obvious. Family occasions and ceremonies assume central importance with funerals, weddings and commemoration rituals taking up so much of the narrative focus even if (through typical Ozu narrative ellipsis) they might not be shown.
Japanese people generally avoid direct statement of emotions and foreigners not used to the country might find this odd and cold, but beneath the (for foreigners) bland surface harmony there is an ocean of deep emotion which is evidenced only obliquely, subtly and with great restraint. It is this feeling that lies at the heart of Ozu's universe. For those with the equipment to register it (Japanese people and those foreigners who understand their mentality) his films are extraordinarily moving. For those without, even if the technical achievements can still be grasped, the films may appear to be about nothing at all. This is the barrier preventing many from appreciating Ozu.
International producers were scared to release films which seemed only to appeal to insular Japanese tastes. In the 1950s when both Ozu and Mizoguchi were arguably at their height it was perhaps their misfortune to fall under the shadow of Kurosawa Akira, their younger `rival' who propelled Japanese cinema onto the world stage in 1950 by triumphing at Cannes with Rashomon. This was the first Japanese film most Americans and Europeans had ever seen and audiences of the time can be forgiven for assuming that Kurosawa's cinema was emblematic of Japanese culture as a whole, but looked at objectively we can see that influences on Kurosawa (ranging from Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky and from John Ford to Carl Theodor Dreyer) were fundamentally western. In fact his films have never sat easily with some Japanese people because of their bold metaphysical speculation where images and script are always aiming to `make a statement'. It's important to realize that this is fundamentally a western aesthetic and that a number of people in Japan accused Kurosawa (some still do) of intellectual snobbery and arrogance. The fact that after he left Toho studio in 1965 he had difficulty finding funds, ending up going to Russia to make Dersu Uzala and then making Kagemusha, Dreams and Ran with foreign money, shows how much he was ill-trusted in his home country.
Contrast Kurosawa with Ozu. Ozu was a life-long Shochiku company `salaryman', making only 3 of his 53 films away from that studio. From the time of The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family onwards he was considered a model of reliability in that he made shōmin geki (domestic dramas) which made pots of money for Shochiku who were happy to let him use their best actors and technicians. Foreigners might see Ozu as an art house name, a director who made odd films of little interest to a wider audience. Actually, he was hugely popular in Japan, capturing great commercial success when he was alive. The artists that made up the Ozu family who always worked with him (writers Fushimi Akira, Ikeda Tadao and Noda Kōgo; cameramen Yuharu Atsuta and Mohara Hideo; composers Itō Senji and Saitō Kojun; actors Hara Setsuko, Iida Choko, Mitsui Koji, Miyake Kuniko, Sugimura Haruko, Ryū Chishū, Saburi Shin and others) all owe their careers to him and stay deeply loved by Japanese people to this day. Unlike Mizoguchi, Ozu showed indifference to whether he was accepted (or even distributed) overseas and was content to make films about his favorite subjects, adopting reactionary techniques which seemed to contradict the norm at the time, but consequently now seem so modern with his achievements surely set to last. Ozu's famous `minimalist' technique is rendered through his suppression of usual dramatic effect by the heavy usage of narrative ellipse, a camera that almost never moves, cutaway so-called `pillow shots' of buildings or nature which act as continuity links, precise `square' framing of images with a low camera looking up at characters (an aesthetic reflecting the interior design of Japanese houses and the screens and tatami straw mats which surround lives which take place mainly on the floor), and a tendency to shoot actors' faces full-on rather than using the over-the-shoulder, action-reaction approach of traditional Hollywood cinema. This puts the audience squarely in the film itself, a feeling alien to those weaned on the western norm.
The world of Ozu wasn't so different from the world of his Japanese audiences when his films were first released and the attendant themes involved (family conflict, social transition, a search for selflessness which is seldom found, the growing up process) reverberate strongly even in today's society in Japan. His films are simple, dedicated and reflect on the deepest of emotions in everyday life without resorting to intellectual bombast or camera trickery. Ozu's aesthetic is pure, subtle, refined and it is in this indirect appeal to our emotions that he shows his innate Japanese-ness. I have already said that Japanese people are not known for showing their emotions directly, but that does not mean they are not emotional. An Ozu film is a hugely emotional experience which is achieved as it were out of nothing. The biggest compliment you can give an actor, a writer or a director is where the mechanics of their craft disappear, and in an Ozu film everything seems effortless and completely natural. One would never know Ozu had prepared each scene meticulously at the script stage, had every camera set-up firmly in his head in advance and went on to demand absolute obedience to his complex preparations from everyone while shooting on set.
In the 50s when Europe was about to be hit by a French New Wave of vibrant self-reflexive film-making, the reactionary Ozu was going in the opposite direction, crafting out exquisite family dramas where ticks and tropes of style don't exist. We are moved in a profound and quietly devastating manner which is really quite unique to him, though echoes of his style are to be found today in the films of Hou Hsiao Hsien and Kore-eda Hirokazu. In fact in a world where the films of Theo Angelopoulos, Abbas Kiarostami and Béla Tarr (other masters of the narrative ellipse who are often accused of obscurity) have found sympathetic audiences around the world perhaps the climate is now right for Ozu to be recognized everywhere as the master he really was.
THE ONLY SON (Hitori musuko)
(Japan, 1936, 83 minutes, b/w, Japanese language - English subtitles, Original aspect ratio 1.33:1)
This 36th Ozu film is significant for a number of reasons. First of all, it was his first talkie. Shochiku had been pushing him to make talkies for years, but Ozu refused. He had made a private agreement with sound engineer Mohara Hideo (the husband of Iida Choko, the star of this film) that he wouldn't give in until a new sound system had been invented. The Only Son was the first film to be made with SMS (Super Mohara Sound) and Ozu was pleased with the results. Looking at it now though and it's obvious how long sections of the film play as if it were a silent feature. This is no fault however and Ozu later said: "Now I realize how useful my persistence in making silents was to my future development". The Only Son is the only Ozu film to be given distinct intertitle dates (1923, 1935, 1936) and the only one to base itself on a contrast between rural and urban life.
Based on a script written by `James Maki' (Ozu himself), Ikeda Tadao and Arata Masao, the story is simplicity itself. A single mother, Nonomiya Otsune (Iida Choko) works long hard hours in a silk factory in Shinshu (in rural Nagano Prefecture) to support her son, Ryosuke (Hayama Masao). The son has reached junior high school age and has ideas of getting himself an education. Encouraged by a teacher, Okubo sensei (a very young Ryū Chishū) the boy tricks his mother into sending him to school by lying to Okubo so that she cannot refuse. She doesn't have the money, but she gives in. We move forward 12 years to find the mother visiting her son (now Himori Shinichi) in Tokyo to see what his education has brought him. She is shocked to find him living in a slum on the outskirts of Tokyo with a wife, Sugiko (Tsubouchi Yoshiko) and a baby boy, both of whom she didn't know about. He has only been able to find work as a `night teacher' at a cram school and leads a precarious existence. He has to borrow money to make his mother feel at home and is obviously mired in shame. They visit Okubo `sensei' who has also come down in life. He too hasn't made it as a teacher. Weighed down with four children, he now runs a tonkatsu (pork cutlet) shop which nobody frequents. Over two important conversations Ryosuke is reprimanded by his mother for seeming to have given up on his life. She reveals that she herself has been left with nothing. She had to sell her house to put Ryosuke through education and now lives in the dormitory at her silk factory.
Up until this point the tone of the film has been harsh, but the mother-son relationship is touchingly redeemed in subtle Ozu-like fashion by Ryosuke helping out a neighbor, Otaka (Yoshikawa Mitsuko) by paying for a doctor to treat her son (Tokkan Kozo, a boy who appeared in many other Ozu films) after he's kicked by a horse. The mother returns to Shinshu saying that she's happy she has a boy to be proud of, but the film's conclusion leaves us in no doubt that despite the brave face she feels her life has been a complete waste. She lies to a colleague telling her Ryosuke is successful and the final images of the film has her looking at the factory gates closing, condemning her to a life sentence of inescapable poverty.
Those only familiar with Ozu's later work will find this film surprisingly tough and sharply melodramatic in the way Ozu depicts the social problems of the day. He finds no fault with any of the characters - all are portrayed as fragile human beings trapped by circumstances beyond their control. Instead, his beef is with the society of the time, making The Only Son the closest Ozu ever came to social protest. The late 1930s in Japan was a time of rampant militarism when the ruling zaibatsu only hired graduates from the top universities. For the rest, education went for nothing and they had to eke out their own living through self-employment. Grand foreign policy incursions into Manchuria at the time meant nothing to most Japanese people who were only concerned with basic daily survival. Ozu doesn't usually get political in his films (outside of the family politics of the shomingeki genre of course), but in this film we can't help noticing the presence of German posters in Ryosuke's house and, most tellingly of all, the movie which he takes his mother to see, Willi Forst's Unfinished Symphony, a biopic of Schubert with the images of an Aryan heroine running across a cornfield startling in the way they contrast with the static style that permeates Ryosuke's real life squalor. The joke is of course that the mother falls asleep during the film, emphasizing the film's irrelevance to the more pressing concerns of Japanese daily life. As Tony Rayns has pointed out, in a year which saw 270 Hollywood films released in Japan as compared with only 25 from Germany, Ozu would indeed appear to be casting doubt on Japan's relationship with Nazi Germany seeing it as an example of complacent authorities being more concerned with Japan's aggrandizement in the world's eyes than with the plight of the majority of the population, though of course his customary restraint stops him being specific in the way that, for example, Kurosawa Akira later was in No Regrets for our Youth (1946) and Drunken Angel (1948).
Ozu shoots everything with his customary poetic simplicity, static `pillow' shots of laundry hanging and shanty architecture making their point well. The closeness of Ryosuke's home to the garbage disposal factory with its incessant 24 hour noise links in with the noise of the looms in the mother's silk factory and the idea that Ryosuke and his family are nothing more than urban trash waiting to be disposed of. These poor people are truly trapped in their wretched industrial environment and are really given no hope beyond the odd show of common human decency. Iida Choko and Shinichi Himori both give incredibly moving, heart-rending performances. Sentimentality has no place here as Ozu simply confronts us with the world as he saw it in 1936 to quietly devastating effect.
LATE SPRING (Banshun)
(Japan, 1949, 108 minutes, b/w, Japanese language - English subtitles, Original aspect ratio 1.33:1)
With Late Spring we come to a key film in the whole of the Ozu oeuvre. After two uncharacteristic but (to my eyes and ears at least) outstanding films dealing with the immediate consequences of World War II - Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) and A Hen in the Wind (1948) Ozu sat down and re-assessed his art. Key to this transition was his reunion with screenwriter Noda Kōgo. They had made 12 films together, but their last had been An Innocent Maid back in 1935. Together they decided they would focus henceforward on the bourgeois rather than the working class milieu and from Late Spring right through to the final An Autumn Afternoon (1962) over a total of 13 films they would rework the same familiar themes of the shomingeki. These themes are laid out clearly from the beginning. Late Spring then can be seen as a blueprint anyone interested in Ozu's last period should see first.
Based on the short novel Father and Daughter by Hirotsu Kazuo the film's simple story can be summed up in a few sentences. The 27 year old only child Noriko (Hara Setsuko) enjoys a comfortable middle class existence living with her widowed university professor father Somiya Shukichi (Ryū Chishū). They are very close and enjoy a loving relationship, the daughter fulfilling in many ways the role of wife. One day, however, Noriko's aunt (her dead mother's sister, Taguchi Masa - Sugimura Haruko) points out that Noriko should get married. The father agrees and the film charts how they eventually persuade Noriko to marry through an omiai (an arranged marriage). Noriko doesn't want to disturb her domestic bliss and it's only when her father pretends he is interested in re-marrying to the attractive Miwa Akiko (Miyake Kuniko) that she agrees to do what the family expects of her. In the end the father is happy for his daughter, but is left alone.
Casting around on the net we see that much has been written about this film, most of it to my way of thinking incorrect. The problem is the old one of native English speakers trying to evaluate a Japanese work of art through a western pair of glasses. For example, too many people conclude that the film amounts to an attack on the concept of marriage in that what happens to the two main characters is in effect a tragedy. The argument goes like this: The father and daughter are both completely happy with each other and want to spend their lives together, but social tradition says they can't do that. Noriko must break away and establish a new life and the father must accept his lot to be left alone, to re-marry or stay single as he wishes. What they do, they do out of obeisance to social rules rather than to what they really think or want inside themselves.
This reading makes sense from a western point of view, but it fails to understand Japanese society and how the characters really feel. Japan as I have said earlier depends on the maintainance of `wa' (harmony) and Japanese people feel a great need to belong to their own culture, by sacrificing their own personal desires for the common good with the knowledge that in the long run it's only when they conform and do as everyone else does that they can ever really fit in. If there is one thing Japanese people hate it is to stick out and look strange. In the film, if Noriko does stay with the father then they will be anomalous and can never be happy. The father realizes this and if the daughter doesn't it's only because mentally she's still a child. Rest assured other family members, friends, work colleagues, in fact everyone around them will screw up the pressure to such an extent that they will be forced to see the truth, ie; their actions are selfish and egocentric. Such individualism might be prized in western society, but in Japan this is just plain wrong as well as meaning social death. Marriage (and the resulting family it produces) is the basic unit of Japanese society and to say that Ozu attacks marriage in this film is the same as saying he is attacking Japanese society. For `the most Japanese of directors' who spent his life making films about family relationships in numerous shomingeki, a genre he made his own, this view seems incorrect. If anything Ozu suggests throughout all his films an affection (if not a fierce love) for Japanese tradition, arranged marriage included.
There are many things western commentators have failed to understand in Late Spring. For one thing, the film demonstrates the idea that omiai (arranged marriage) might be painful, but is a concept that has merit in a society like Japan where people are not encouraged to state their emotions directly. As Noriko's divorced friend Aya (Tsukioka Yumeji) tells her, she would never have the courage to propose to any man on her own. Without omiai I doubt many Japanese people in old times would have got married at all and it is significant that, contrary to what many have said, both the father and the daughter never register any anti-marriage sentiment throughout the film. When Masa suggests Noriko marry, Shukichi does not object - he simply agrees. When he asks Noriko about a possible marriage with his colleague Hattori (Asami Jun) he is genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect and seems disappointed to learn that Hattori is already engaged. Then there is the question of the lie that he has to tell Noriko that he is thinking of remarriage which he voices absolutely no regrets about - he even gets a kiss as a reward from Aya near the film's close. Most emphatic of all is the speech he gives Noriko as they are packing to return from their trip to Kyoto in which he spells out the essential truths of the nature of life and marriage which most Japanese people will agree with - this of all the scenes in the film is the one which moves Japanese audiences to tears the most.
Then there is the character of Noriko. It might seem she is anti-marriage by showing great anger and stress at being pushed into it, but we are dealing with a young girl here. All her emotions are those of an immature teenager who has no inkling of the world around her as yet. A western audience might find it unbelievable that a girl of 27 should behave like this and think that she is old enough to decide what she wants for her life by herself. Again, this is to misunderstand Japanese society. I have lived in Japan long enough to know that her character is completely believable here. Japanese families are very close and very protective. A 27 year old virgin who giggles at suggested romance (her father's questions about Hattori), who thinks her uncle Onodera (Mishima Masao) is `dirty' for re-marrying following his wife's death, who clings on to her father in a very dependent manner, who behaves in a very petulant way at what she sees as his romantic overtures to Ms. Miwa (especially during the important Nōh performance), and who states repeatedly that all she wants is to be with her father forever, is not unusual in this country even today. For 1949 I am tempted to suggest this is normal behaviour for a girl of her social milieu, especially one who has lost her mother and has suffered illness after the war, putting up with even greater over-protection as a consequence.
Returning to the scene where the father gives her the marriage talk in Kyoto, it is obvious Noriko believes and understands everything he says. Then when we see her in her wedding kimono she bows to the ground thanking him for taking care of her for so long we must believe this is totally sincere. By the end of the film Noriko is positive about the marriage and embraces her new life even though Ozu chooses to elide it focusing as he does on the father.
Westerners have pointed out the equation made in the film between marriage and death, especially with Onodera saying marriage is "life's graveyard". Again we should be careful here for Japanese people don't think of death as the end, they think of it as a new beginning. When Noriko thanks her father for the long happy years he has given her, she is seeing the death of an old way of life and the birth of a new one. Westerners will also point out the film's final images (the father peeling the apple, the peel dropping, his head dropping and then those midnight waves rolling in) show him mulling over his impending death. But again no - it is the death of the past and the birth of a new future that Ozu is referring to here. It should be remembered that Hirotsu's source novel has the character going on to remarry. That Ozu didn't show it was the source of later self-doubt for the great director, opting as he does for a more obviously cinematic final closure.
So what is Late Spring all about? For me, it is without doubt a profound statement on the cycle of life drawn with the most extraordinarily subtle and delicate nuances of light and shade in two of the greatest acting performances you'll ever see with stunning directorial control to match. The title Late Spring provides an obvious clue to the film's ultimate meaning, on one level referring to Noriko, a young woman whose shelf-life as a possible bride is coming to an end with spinsterhood looming. On another level it refers to the film's central sequence at the Nōh theater. The work being performed is called Kakitsubata ("The Water Iris"). The water iris in Japan is a plant that blooms in late spring, the bloom of which representing both the male and the female genitalia. The scene is shown deliberately to depict Noriko's jealousy when her father greets his `bride to be' Ms. Miwa with a bow across the theater and of course western commentators have pounced on it suggesting that it underlines Noriko's latent sexual feelings for her father (an Electra complex if you please!). However, we should correctly note the play's obviously sexual reference as referring both to the possible future bond between the father and Ms. Miwa and to Noriko's need to find a partner for herself, a subtle statement from Ozu that things must change in the lives of the father and daughter and that this change is completely natural (hence the use of the water iris). Noriko's petulant reaction is simply a realization of the childish jealousy mentioned earlier in the beach scene between her and Hattori - a jealousy she will grow out of by the film's end.
The Nōh scene is unusual for Ozu in that it depicts an occasion at length. Contrast this with the wedding (the event the film has been building up to all along) which is completely elided. Ozu doesn't even show us the groom. Why? Because we don't need to see him or the wedding. The film is about the relationship between a loving father and daughter who both have to make sacrifices as part of life's great wheel and Ozu includes absolutely nothing that doesn't pertain to his main theme. Gradually Noriko does see the light and the film's final sequences are among the greatest things cinema has to offer us. Western commentators will ponder on about the various implied meanings throughout the film (especially the `vase scene'), but unless they are prepared to put away the tools of their western critical craft, they will never approach the fundamentally Japanese heart of this staggering masterpiece. It's not for nothing that Ozu takes us on a grand tour of Japanese culture in this film from tea ceremony to Nōh theater and a survey of the most famous temples and gardens of Kyoto and Kamakura.
We should watch correctly for Ozu went on to make 4 more films which feature single parents - Tokyo Twilight, Late Autumn, The End of Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon, and 5 more where the marrying-off of a young daughter is the center of the narrative - Early Summer, Equinox Flower, Late Autumn, The End of Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon. Ryū Chishū and Hara Setsuko are central lynchpins of most of these films as well. If you see Late Spring first you may well be amazed at the rich insight into humanity that Ozu offers, but when you see these later films one's jaw just drops to the floor as the great wheel of life spins round and around in one finely-honed narrative after another. To say Ozu was great is an understatement.