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Two great films from the master of minimalism
on 15 November 2013
Ozu Yasujirô 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 his early silents to his final austere masterworks. None of his films are revered more than Tokyo Story and its release here is as good as it's ever likely to be. A fire destroyed the original negative and only second-rate copies stay in existence - hence the poor quality compared with other Ozu of this period. Still, the b/w images are crisp and the sound sharp. Not having a Blu-ray player I can't comment on the first disc, but the DVD is certainly very good. The support feature is The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family which has been chosen by BFI because it has the same theme of generation conflict and people being spurned within their own families. In Tokyo Story the grandparents are pushed from pillar to post, none of their unloving children wanting to take care of them. In Toda Family it is the grandmother and the unmarried daughter who get the treatment. The quality of the original transfer of Toda Family, alas, isn't top notch. There's a lot of surface noise, especially when reels are changed with volume drop outs and surface scratching. Even though BFI have obviously done the best they can with the original source the picture quality is blurry at best. That said it is still watchable and we can see that it's a wonderful film which in its own way is as good as Tokyo Story, in fact providing a very thought-provoking contrast. The earlier film reflects the optimism of pre-Pearl Harbor Japan when the war was still going their way, while the later masterpiece is pregnant with the air of defeat and post-war melancholy. BFI have released the 2 discs with a decent booklet carrying a useful article by Joan Mellen, a reaction to Tokyo Story by NFT programmer John Gillet, full cast details and a brief biography of Ozu by Tony Rayns. I have one slight caveat concerning the complete lack of extras. Tokyo Story consistently appears in experts' Top 10s and for a film of this stature surely a commentary (by someone informed about Ozu and Japanese culture) is in order. Nevertheless, this issue is strongly recommended - essential viewing in fact.
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 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 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 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.
BROTHERS AND SISTERS OF THE TODA FAMILY (Todake no kyôdai)
(Japan, 1941, 100 minutes, b/w, Japanese language - English subtitles, Original aspect ratio 1.33:1)
This was a landmark film for Ozu. His 38th feature, it was his first box office hit and together with the following hugely popular There was a Father (Chichi Ariki) (1942) it cemented the trust that Shochiku studio had in him following his return from fighting in China, paving the way for an extraordinarily fertile post-war period. Ozu wrote the story with his regular collaborator Ikeda Tadao, but this was the first time cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta and actors Saburi Shin and Takamine Mieko worked with him. All would be Ozu regulars from this film onwards.
The film charts the disintegration of the rich Toda family introduced at the beginning by a family photograph session taking place in their imposing back garden to celebrate the birthday of Mrs. Toda (Katsuragi Ayako). She and her husband Shintaro (Fujino Hideo) have five grown up children, two sons and three daughters. It takes time for the film to introduce these characters, and at the beginning it is only the second unmarried son, Shojiro (Saburi Shin) who stands out because of his bad manner. His tardiness for the photo and his immediate disappearance to go fishing would appear to mark him out as a bad egg, but actually in typical Ozu fashion he undergoes a redemption and turns out to be the only offspring/sibling worthy of the name. The evening of the photo session, the patriarch of the family has a heart attack and in a trademark ellipse we cut straight from sibling reaction to the otsuya (the ceremony performed on the eve of the funeral) shown with a camera shot of an array of the guests' bowler hats on a tatami floor, the ceremony taking place in the next room. Shojiro's tardiness is again emphasized. The siblings gather later to digest the news that their father has died leaving massive debts that must be paid by selling off family property and artifacts. This leaves the widowed matriarch and the youngest unmarried daughter, Setsuko (Takamine Mieko) in a state of penury and totally reliant on the charity of the older married siblings.
Ozu demonstrates the cold selfishness of the second generation over the events of the next year. With Shojiro working in China, at first the two ladies live with the eldest son, Shinichiro (Saito Tatsuo) and his self-obsessed wife Kazuko (Miyake Kumiko) who uses them as servants, getting rid of them when she receives guests and ordering them to go shopping for her. Unable to stand the humiliation, the two victims try their luck with the eldest sister Chizuru (Yoshikawa Mitsuko) who is even worse than Kazuko. A terrible snob, she forbids Setsuko to get a job for fear of embarrassing the family and attacks her own mother for conniving with her truant-playing son. The downward spiral reaches rock bottom when the two `exiles' visit the second sister, Ayako (Tsubouchi Yoshiko). In Japanese culture it is rude to ask for anything. You have to wait to be asked by the other person who hopefully is sensitive to your need. So when the pair tell Ayako they plan to move back into the dilapidated old family home the sister is supposed to recognize her responsibility and offer them her house. Instead, in crass violation of basic Japanese courtesy she seizes the chance to get rid of them by supporting their proposal.
Ozu's treatment of the story is typically simple and direct. There are no arguments, no histrionics, just quiet defiance and the spirit of `gaman' (toleration) shown by the victims. And yet their plight is rendered so terribly moving through subtle means - Setsuko complaining to her friend Tokiko (Kuwano Kayoko) in very mild terms, Mrs. Toda's resigned tolerance of Chizuru's selfish bullying of her, and in simple cutaways to the picture of the dead husband on the wall presiding over events and the caged bird symbolizing their owners' caged existence. The sadness of the film is leavened by the happy conclusion, Shojiro returning from China for the father's ishuki (first year death anniversary) to tick off his siblings. He sends them all packing and agrees to look after his mother and Setsuko by taking them back to China with him. He even agrees to an arranged marriage with Setsuko's dull friend Tokiko. The caged bird also gets to join in the fun. The idea of a Japanese family escaping to a country against which they had been fighting an aggressive war for over a decade might raise a few eye-brows in today's western audiences, but the film's concluding lightness and satirical touch is entirely typical of Ozu's pre-war style. As Tokyo Story reflects, things in Japan were about to take an altogether darker turn.
TOKYO STORY (Tôkyô Monogatari)
(Japan, 1953, 136 minutes, b/w, Japanese language - English subtitles, Original aspect ratio 1.33:1)
With so many glowing reviews and articles on the net celebrating this glorious film, it is difficult for me to know what else I could possibly add. It is one of my favorites and indeed it's difficult to imagine a more perfect film. As always with Ozu the subject is family, specifically the relationships between parents and children and the generation conflict that rages between them. This conflict is on one level entirely natural, but in his post-war films there is a second level of enforced melancholy imposed by Japan's defeat in World War II.
The film opens on a quiet coastal town scene (a place called Onomichi in southwest Japan) with images of transience and impending change - boats move in the harbor, a train is seen and a whistle is heard. Watch carefully here as the images are echoed right at the end giving the film a miraculous sense of balance. We cut to an old couple, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama (the wonderful Ryû Chishû and the no-less perfect Higashiyama Chieko) who are packing for an impending trip. The film's `drama', if it can be called that, revolves around their trip to Osaka and Tokyo to visit their four grown-up children, leaving the fifth unmarried youngest daughter Kyôko (Kagawa Kyôko) behind. Following the pattern of Toda Family they visit their offspring in descending order of age and find that each one of them is so involved in their own lives that they have no time to treat their parents properly. The oldest son Koichi (Yamamura So) is a pediatrician who with his wife spoil their two children rotten and fail to acknowledge their responsibilities. Feeling like intruders, the old couple move on to the eldest daughter, Shige (Sugimura Haruko). Shige runs a hairdressing salon and is reluctant to give over space and time to the couple. She and Koichi decide to get rid of the old couple, splitting the cost and booking them into a noisy inn at the seaside where they spend a very uncomfortable night - the scene where they are disturbed in bed by the noise with the camera simply pointing at their slippers outside their door is heart-breaking.
The next morning Tomi complains of a slight pain in her back. That's all we need in an Ozu film to know that tragedy is not far away. They return to Tokyo and don't know where to go. Both Koichi and Shige have shown little signs of welcome and they bide their time in Ueno Park (a place known in Japan as a place where derelicts hang out). The couple decide to split up, Tomi imposing on Noriko (Hara Setsuko), the widowed wife of their son Shoji who was killed in the war, and Shukichi going drinking with two old mates. These two scenes are very interesting, the first dwelling on Japan's loss in the war, the sacrifices Noriko has had to make and the feeling that she must stop dwelling on the past and think to the future by searching out a new husband. The second depicts the disappointment of the old generation in the lack of ambition of the new. Again, the transformation in Japanese society is subtly dealt with by the acknowledgment that children can never grow up to satisfy their parents enough. A very funny drunk scene (you would never guess Ryû Chishû is playing a character 20 years older than his real life age) where he and his friend crash in on Shige is followed by the next morning's brief farewell scene at Tokyo station. Ozu inserts one of his astonishing ellipses which omits the train ride, shows the couple briefly in their youngest son Keizo's (Osaka Shirô) apartment with a brief reference to Tomi's sickness on the train, and the next thing we know they are home in Onomichi and the siblings are making preparations to visit Tomi who is now critically ill.
The film's pulsing heart lies in the absolutely staggering performance of Hara Setsuko as Noriko (this film is part three of the so-called `Noriko Trilogy', the other two being Late Spring and Early Summer where Hara plays two other - unconnected - characters of the same name). She is the only one who displays love and consideration to her parents-in-law as she takes them sight-seeing around Tokyo and puts up Tomi, her dark dingy apartment demonstrating that though she has suffered greatly she gives much more to Tomi than any of her richer siblings in-law. In a sequence which says everything about the heart-breaking subtlety of Ozu's style, when everyone convenes in Onomichi it turns out that Noriko hasn't brought her mofuku (funeral kimono) with her. She has come only thinking her mother-in-law will live. Shige however arrives with her mofuku at the ready and after Tomi passes away she demands to take Tomi's kimono and obi (the kimono's belt) in a very cold fashion. One lady has come to Onomichi thinking about life and what she can do to help her mother-in-law while the other lady has come only thinking about death and how she can make something out of it.
And yet, the beauty of the film lies in Ozu's even-handed treatment of the characters. Even the worst characters are shown to be sympathetic as shown in the wonderful final dialog when Kyôko is leaving Noriko for the last time. She complains bitterly about how cold and selfish her siblings are, but the worldly wise Noriko advises that their behavior is simply normal. In the straightened condition of post-war Japan people really only have time to think about themselves and it is right to prioritize the concerns of their own offspring over their parents. As Noriko says, that is the nature of life. And really if we look closely at the behavior of the older siblings, both Koichi and Shige are trapped by their circumstances. Koichi can't take care of his parents because he has patients to tend while as despicable as Shige's behavior appears to be (especially to western eyes) when she breaks down into tears on hearing her mother is about to die, she is completely redeemed (we must remember that Sugimura Haruko was deeply beloved of Japanese audiences). Ozu is even careful not to make the old people completely `good'. There are references to Shukichi's past heavy drinking and his comment that he regrets not having been kinder to his wife while she was alive. The film is full of very real tangible emotion, but it never overflows into sentimental soap as the same story would in a Hollywood version. The ending of this film is the most moving ending in all of cinema and it's achieved with the most delicate restraint.
Tokyo Story is always singled out for huge praise, but this is because it was the only one of Ozu's films to be released overseas during this period. There are two reasons for this. The first is that it's slightly more melodramatic (and therefore `accessible') than usual for Ozu, while the second is that the story of an old couple being spurned by the younger generation is something western audiences can easily relate to, the film being less `Japanese' than other masterpieces from this period like Late Spring and Early Summer which carry cultural references which might seem opaque to foreigners. Lovers of Ozu will know though that a number of his films are indeed on the same exalted level as Tokyo Story. To ask which one is Ozu's best is rather like asking which Beethoven symphony (or should I say `Bach cantata'?) is the best. The question is redundant - all his films demand to be seen.