TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 May 2014
Ozu Yasujirô was one of the greatest film directors and after decades of obscurity outside Japan it is cause for celebration that so many of his films are now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Serious collectors will want to have all 36 of them, his greatness evidenced by a staggeringly high level of excellence throughout his output from his early silents to the final austere masterpieces. 5 of the latter are presented here in this region 1 Criterion box. As is customary with their Eclipse Series, the films are given a bare-bones presentation with no extras apart from short essays printed on the reverse of the covers included within each case. The prints are uniformly excellent and the mono sound good for the period. Some people have commented on how `flat' the color films look, but I can assure you that is how they are supposed to look - they look exactly the same as the prints shown on TV here in Japan and I doubt if the resolution can be improved upon. The lack of extras on the discs is offset by the cheap price making the box an obvious recommendation. Those wanting all of Ozu's films should note that the earlier works are only available on DVD courtesy of BFI who couple them with the very same films presented here by Criterion. Buy this box and you will have to duplicate titles to complete your collection. Just to clarify, here are the BFI releases which overlap with Criterion:
1. Late Autumn / A Mother Should be Loved (1934)
2. Equinox Flower / There was a Father (1942)
3. Tokyo Twilight / Early Spring / Woman of Tokyo (1933)
NB: The End of Summer is not listed by BFI and is only otherwise available through an expensive Artificial Eye disc. But BFI have said they will release all Ozu eventually, except for Floating Weeds (1959) which is already available on a wonderful print courtesy of Masters of Cinema.
If completeness is what you want (and you don't mind paying for it) I would recommend buying all the BFI discs and not going for this Criterion box. For those only interested in post-war Ozu however, this Criterion box is an essential purchase. The other key films from this period (Late Spring , Early Summer , Tokyo Story , Good Morning , Floating Weeds and An Autumn Afternoon ) are all available separately through BFI with outstanding couplings of earlier films. As a footnote I should say I bought my Criterion box when I was in the States, having already picked up all the earlier films in a box here in Japan - an option only for those who can understand Japanese as obviously there are no English subtitles on the latter.
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:
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.
EQUINOX FLOWER (Higanbana)
(Japan, 1958, 118 minutes, Color, Mono, Japanese language - optional English subtitles, Original aspect ratio 1.33:1)
Ozu lightened up for his next film, a gentle comedy and his first color feature. Ozu had always been reactionary in the way he adopted new technology and just as he made his first sound feature in 1936 (The Only Son) virtually as if it were a silent film, he makes a sizable portion of Equinox Flower here as if it were still in the world of b/w. Color is used ingeniously to mirror the development of our central character, rich family patriarch Hirayama Wataru (Saburi Shin). He starts off proposing a toast at a wedding ceremony (one of the very few ceremonies shown in any Ozu film) to the new fashion of marrying according to romance rather than the established omiai system where husbands are found by the bride's parents. The occasion is a happy one and after the somber tones of Tokyo Twilight the garish colors are quite shocking. The film ends in a similar eruption of color in the aftermath of another wedding (check out those awesome bright orange Fanta bottles!), but in between as Hirayama's hypocrisy is explored (he advises others to marry for love while refusing to let his own daughter Setsuko (Arima Ineko) choose her own way), all color is drained out of the film so that it looks like a b/w feature after all, a point underlined by a bar scene where everyone wears gray and an English advert for `Black and White' whisky is displayed prominently on the wall. Ozu's only concession to Shochiku studio (who had high expectations of selling their new starlet Yamamoto Fujiko through `the first Ozu color film') is the jokey inclusion of red in every single shot. A reference to the blooming of the 'red spider lily' of the title, from the most garish of scarlet obi (kimono belts) to the simplest of red dots on an Asahi beer bottle the color is omnipresent throughout. Most obvious of all is the red kettle in the Hirayama home which keeps popping up incongruously as if to say `so what, is it really necessary to see that I am red?' Beyond the truly radical usage of color, the film (like Late Autumn, a Noda/Ozu adaptation of a Satomi Ton novel) is one of the most revealing of all Ozu's films about the mores of Japanese society. Another shomingeki, it explores generation conflict, this time coming down strongly on the side of the young generation. Great fun is had watching the ganko jiji (stubborn old man) vainly trying to lay down the law in a domestic environment which is really controled by the women, in this case his wife (played by Mizoguchi regular Tanaka Kuniyo) who together with Setsuko's friend (Yamamoto Fujiko) push him into final acquiescence. As much as the young are given their way though, Ozu is very careful to include scenes of quiet melancholy to the older generation mourning a society which is changing too rapidly for their liking - a drinking party at a hot spring (which features Ryū Chishū singing!) is particularly touching as well as the scenes of trains (always Ozu's metaphor for `the transience of all things') which book-end the film. Having experienced the hypocrisy of men like Hirayama myself and at the moment living a life under the cosh of quiet domestic tyranny (!) I can assure you the world Ozu paints in this film is absolutely genuine and still pertinent 60 years after it was made. It's a wonderful polished little gem enlivened by a roster of fine performances (Saburi and Tanaka especially) and Ozu's knack of making magic from everyday domestic mundaneness.
LATE AUTUMN (Akibiyori)
(Japan, 1960, 129 minutes, Color, Mono, Japanese language - optional English subtitles, Original aspect ratio 1.33:1)
THE END OF SUMMER (Kohayakawake no aki)
(Japan, 1961, 103 minutes, Color, Mono, Japanese language - optional English subtitles, Original aspect ratio 1.33:1)