on 19 February 2015
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. Here we have three films released on DVD only, the early Woman of Tokyo (1933), his longest feature Early Spring (1956), and his darkest masterpiece Tokyo Twilight (1957). This last one is a personal favorite of mine and is reason enough to buy this set.
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, Nôh 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 this with Ozu. Ozu was a life-long Shochiku company `salaryman', making only 3 of his 54 films away from that studio. From the time of The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941) onwards he was considered a model of reliability in that he made shômin 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 Kôgo; cameramen Yuharu Atsuta and Mohara Hideo; composers Itô Senji and Saitô Kojun; actors Hara Setsuko, Iida Choko, Mitsui Koji, Miyake Kuniko, Sugimura Haruko, Ryû Chishû, 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 remained 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.
From Late Spring (1949) onwards Ozu largely turns away from the working class settings which had dominated his pre-war work and focuses on the more affluent middle class. This was a conscious, if controversial decision made with screenwriter Noda Kôgo to reflect the social transition taking place in post-war Japan. With it came an even more refined usage of the famous minimalist Ozu technique. This is rendered through the 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.
NB: Work in progress. I will come back later and comment on each film individually. Until then I post here the basic release details:
WOMAN OF TOKYO (Tokyo no Onna)
(Japan, 1933, 45 minutes, b/w, Mono, Japanese language - optional English subtitles, Original aspect ration 1.33:1)
EARLY SPRING (Sôshun)
(Japan, 1956, 145 minutes, b/w, Mono, Japanese language - optional English subtitles, Original aspect ratio 1.33:1)
This was the first film Ozu made after an unusual 3-year lay-off following Tokyo Story and is somewhat different from his usual shômingeki style. Gone are parental authority figures and generation gap tensions. Partly on Shochiku's insistence Ozu deploys young and very popular actors in his tale of marital infidelity. Ikebe Ryô plays Sugiyama Shôji, a disillusioned office worker whose marriage to Masako (Awashima Chikage) has subsided into the same boring routine of his workplace. He is attracted to a typist in his company named `Goldfish' (Keiko Kishi) who responds to his advances. Their affair leads to inevitable marital conflict. Possible soap opera is rescued here by a combination of terrific acting (by the fine principals and the starry support cast of Ryû Chishû, Sugimura Haruko and Miyake Kuniko no less) and quietly understated technique which depicts all characters sympathetically. Ozu's aim here was clearly to examine the salary-man culture that evolved after the war and the crushing effects of the endless grind of routine - a routine making everyone victims of the economic miracle which was transforming Japan supposedly for the better. Ozu said, "I wanted to portray what you might call the pathos of the white-collar life". Atsuta Yuharu's camera is impressively static throughout while his director focuses on the ennui of daily life, eschewing almost all dramatic incident in the process. This ellipsis is very typical - we see nothing of the affair which is merely hinted at, audiences expected to fill in the gaps for themselves. This is Ozu's longest picture, his penultimate b/w work, and it may seem unsparingly gray sat between the enormous emotional charge of Tokyo Story and the bleak tragedy of Tokyo Twilight. On the other hand, as a document of Japan in the mid `50s and as an involving drama in its own right, it breaks new ground for the director and counts as one of his best films.
TOKYO TWILIGHT (Tôkyô Boshoku)
(Japan, 1957, 141 minutes, b/w, Mono, Japanese language - optional English subtitles, Original aspect ratio 1.33:1)
This dark masterpiece shocked critics and audiences so much that few responded positively at the time to its release. It failed to reach the annual Kinema Junpo top ten list and performed badly at the box office - both unheard of for an Ozu feature. The director was reportedly dismayed at the reaction, but he would have been gratified to know that in recent years Tokyo Twilight has come into its own with more people correctly assessing the film's fine achievement even as it so radically departs from precedent. The only one to be set dead in winter, the film eschews quaint traditional Japan in favor of mahjong parlors, seedy bars, police desks, tacky izekaya and even an abortion clinic and instead of emphasis on family harmony, generational rift and the transience of all things, Ozu brazenly rubs our faces in mother-child neglect, marital hell, dysfunctional families, unwanted babies and finally just basic societal malfunction. Tokyo Twilight is still a shomingeki, but there is little harmony at home with patriarch Sugiyama Shukichi (Ryū Chishū) gamely trying to cope with his two daughters. The elder daughter Takako (Hara Setsuko) has been pushed by him into a loveless marriage with journalist Numata Yasuo (Shin Kinzo) and has brought her little child back to escape her husband's selfish anger. The second daughter Akiko (Arima Ineko) is coping with her unwanted pregnancy courtesy of wastrel student Kimura Kenji (Taura Masami) and suffers severe depression which neither her father nor her sister can understand. Into this woeful situation returns the absent mother Kimura Kisako (Yamada Isuzu) who had ran off with another man 20 years previously, deserting her family in the process. Described like this the film sounds like a soap opera, but as with Early Spring, it is anything but. Ozu's distanced and quietly understated style is the perfect counterpoint for the passions that rage through these characters to produce a masterpiece which is profound and shattering to the extreme. Small gestures lead to seismic emotional audience responses here. Watch the utter humiliation on the father's face when a colleague tells him in a pachinko parlor that Akiko has been borrowing money behind his back. Watch the desolation on Akiko's face when she returns from the clinic to be confronted by her sister's baby child. Watch how much profound desolation can be rendered simply by pointing the camera at the mother's bowed back after having been spurned by her daughter. And perhaps above all else watch how expertly Hara Setsuko can terrify with a stare. Watching this one can't help feeling that Ozu is here at last giving full voice to all the disgust that had been bottling up inside him for years. This film marked a rare instance of Ozu disagreeing with his trusted screenwriter Noda Kōgo who fought against the over-emphatic darkness which envelops everything, but the director wasn't to be deterred from stating his intentions in the strongest possible terms. Despite what you might read elsewhere this film is not only one of Ozu's very best, but it is one of the best ever made period.