Yasujiro Ozu Essay - Critical Essays

Ozu, Yasujiro


Yasujiro Ozu 1903–1963

Japanese director and scriptwriter.

Ozu, perhaps the foremost of traditional Japanese directors, was known for the spare cinematic style of his dramas of the Japanese middle class. His prolific career centered around films made in the shomin geki genre. These films study family relationships and reflect Ozu's pessimism about the endurance of the family as a cohesive unit. Typically devoid of plot, Ozu's films analyze characters rather than concentrating on action.

After studying at Waseda University, Ozu entered the film industry as an assistant to Tadamoto Okubo. Although Okubo was regarded as a director of little distinction, Ozu prospered from their association because of Okubo's willingness to let Ozu dominate production. At this time, Ozu met Kogo Noda, who became his screenwriter for most of Ozu's career. In 1927, Ozu directed The Swords of Penitence, his first feature. His prewar films were studies of external social conditions contributing to a family's disintegration. I Graduated, But … marks the emergence of Ozu's distinctive style, making the transition from light, simple comedy to more mature concerns. Ozu's first film to receive acclaim, I Was Born, But …, is regarded as a definitive shomin geki, faithfully depicting the rigidity of Japanese society through its tale of two young boys who will not eat to protest their father's ingratiating attitude towards his employer. Like others of its genre, it celebrates innocence while combining elements of comedy and drama.

Ozu's interest in the family was a primary concern, and he preferred to present it in simple terms. Until the mid-1930's Ozu did not utilize sound. He also disregarded cinematic devices such as fades and dissolves, and kept his camera at a uniformly low level. Ozu's last film before the outbreak of war, The Only Son, served as an example of the haha-mono genre, the films about mothers. Ozu made such films because they were lucrative and also because his own life was reflected in them: he lived with his mother all his life and never married.

Because his staff diminished after the war, Ozu found it necessary to modify his style. He had previously utilized a company of actors and cameramen, all attuned to his disciplined, strict manner, and with many of them gone, Ozu branched out into a new realm of cinema. His first work of the new period, Late Spring, is regarded as "one of the most perfect studies of character ever achieved in Japanese cinema." It also marked his renewed collaboration with Kogo Noda, and signalled an even greater simplicity of style. After this Ozu showed an increased disinterest in plot and action.

In 1952, Ozu made Tokyo Story, his best known film. Perhaps more than any other film, it combines the pervasive theme of a family's disintegration with Ozu's perceptive, simple style, culminating in the essence of an Ozu film: an analysis of life's spiritual makeup.

Increasingly, Ozu's films became more introverted, dealing with the inner motivations of familial unrest rather than the social situations that caused them. The final films were starker, allowing nothing extraneous. An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu's final work, is a culmination of Japanese transcendental style, reflecting the Zen tenet that less is more. More than anything, Ozu's work represents traditional Japanese thought and art. His stark style reflected Ozu's opinion of life: it is a simple process that humans should not be allowed to complicate.

John Gillett

Ozu's understanding and compassion for [his characters] is evident in every scene of [The Tokyo Story]. The relationship between the old and the young is not only explored with considerable psychological insight, but cuts deeply into the heart of human experience. There are no strictly good or bad people here; much of the characterisation possesses an oblique ambiguous quality akin to certain 19th century novelists (the beautiful daughter-in-law, for example, has a kind of enigmatic personality rarely encountered in the Western cinema). Although the tone of the piece is undeniably sad, there are moments when a gentle, resigned humour makes itself felt…. Elsewhere, the intensity of its emotion echoes the famous concept of de Sica and Zavattini: "Our puspose is to make people see and feel." And for pure eloquence of feeling I think it would be hard to find a recent European parallel to the film's final passages depicting the funeral ceremony, the alternately helpful, tactless and bitter reactions of the relatives, and the inner grief of the old man, symbolised in one marvellous shot of his tottering figure returning to the house and the mourners. (pp. 20-1)

With the exception of three brief tracking shots, the film is made up of several scores of completely static set-ups. The lack of camera movement (there is, of course, action within the frame) has the effect of concentrating attention entirely upon the people and their backgrounds—the sets, incidentally, are always apt and meticulously designed. This self-imposed restriction on the cinema's freedom of movement occasionally appears forced and unnatural, but such is the strength of the total conception that one is soon absorbed into the texture of the story itself.

It is easy, however, to understand how the film's slowly paced cutting and unfamiliar idiom could quickly alienate an unresponsive audience. Not unnaturally, its approach is totally different from that of the West, although if one looks beneath the surface (where nothing apparently happens) there is plenty to see and learn. What Ozu is saying is important to all of us, and here he speaks in a voice free from vulgarity or compromise. (p. 21)

John Gillett, "Reviews: 'The Tokyo Story'," in Film (reprinted by permission of British Federation of Film Societies), No. 13, September-October, 1957, pp. 20-1.

Lindsay Anderson

[Tokyo Story] is a film of relationships, a film about time, and how it affects human beings (particularly parents and children), and how we must reconcile ourselves to its working. Apart from the great fact of death, the incidents are all slight, and there is no chiaroscuro either in characterisation or mood. The tempo is all the way calm, leisurely, inevitable. There is only one element in the style which might seem at first to jar: the sequences do not fade into each other or dissolve. Every transition is effected by a cut, to some view of the new setting, a rooftop, a wall, a harbour vista, which then cuts again directly to the scene where the characters are going on with their living. But this is not jarring: on the contrary it is a way of conveying the essential unity of existence, of matter and spirit, which is intrinsic to the film's philosophy. (p. 132)

[What] we have here is a work that expresses in every image, and in the precise growth (as opposed to force) of its movement, a whole attitude to living, an attitude that comprehends, in the sense both of understanding and embracing, the painful necessities as well as the joys of existence. From our point of view this philosophy can be called, at least partly, humanistic; but this is by no means its essence. And it is here, I think, that even a reviewer as appreciative as John Gillett [see excerpt above] is in danger of missing the point. For with all its understanding and compassion, Tokyo Story is not a simple humanistic protest against the transience of life and the bitterness of experience. Specifically, in the "marvellous shot" (which it is) "of the tottering figure returning to the house and the mourners" it is not the "inner grief" of the old man that is being symbolised, but rather his wisdom and acceptance. (pp. 132, 160)

Even more than its humane virtues (I know one ought not to attempt the differentiation), it is the directness and clarity with which Tokyo Story reflects a whole philosophy of living that makes it so memorable an experience. (p. 160)

Lindsay Anderson, "Two Inches Off the Ground," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1957 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 27, No. 3, Winter, 1957–58, pp. 131-32, 160.∗

Tom Milne

It is difficult, without literally re-telling [An Autumn Afternoon], to convey the manner in which each scene is dependent on every other scene for its meaning. Perhaps the most illuminating comparison is with music: each sequence comes like the entry of a new subject in a sonata, which is then developed and counterpointed with the other themes already introduced….

Each time the film moves from one locale to another, the new scene is introduced by its establishing shots, so that at any point in the film one knows not only where one is but where one is going to be….

But these shots seem to have another function over and above "establishing". They are always of inanimate objects—a corridor, a block of flats, chimneys, a pile of petrol drums, a neon sign—and the first shot in an establishing sequence never contains human figures (though subsequent shots may—someone passing across the far end of the corridor, for example). The idea of the transience of human life is basic to Buddhist thought: human existence is a mere drop in the ocean of time. And herein lies, perhaps, one of the secrets of the tranquillity, the deep reconciliation, which pervades Ozu's work. Each of his scenes is introduced by an object, durable and immovable; against it, his characters live out their lives, and long after their suffering has ended, the object will endure….

The application [of the principles of haiku] to Ozu's work is obvious, both in the relationship between establishing shot and subsequent scene, and in the relationship between the scenes themselves, which, like the images of the haiku, combine to create an interlinear meaning. At the same time, though, the haiku illustrates another facet of Japanese art which is particularly relevant to Ozu's method of mise en scène [tending toward the isolation of a single, significant, visual moment]. (p. 184)

In An Autumn Afternoon, for instance, there is a breathtakingly beautiful moment which, in the context of a European film, might well be a cliché of virtuosity. The daughter has just been told that she cannot marry the man she loves…. As the father leaves, a final shot observes the girl from behind, and after a moment she slowly raises a hand to tuck a stray lock of hair into place. The gesture, surely a "significant visual moment," vividly captures the girl's grief and helpless isolation. More particularly, however, it is worth noting that because there is no dissolve or fade, there is no tapering or artificial prolongation of the emotion: it is complete in itself. Moreover, because there is no pan from one character to the other, the shot of each of them retains its purity: energy (i.e. emotional content) is not drained from one to feed the other. And the cut comes at the very last moment, with Ozu holding the shot of the father until one feels that he must cut to the girl; a dynamic relationship is thus created between the shots which allows the emotional content of each to remain quite separate, held suspended as it were, shot against shot, scene against scene, awaiting their place in the pattern of the whole. (pp. 184-85)

Twenty-seven years later, Ozu remade, or rather reworked, the theme of I Was Born, But … in the 1959 Good Morning (Ohayo). Comparison between the two films is particularly interesting, as the later one...

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Stanley Kauffmann

It is possibly risky to say, but the chief reward in Late Spring is not in its materials, gratifying though they are. The highest benefit—as in Tokyo Story, though less strong—is appreciation of the artist himself. One is moved by a great deal in the film, but the ultimate and most moving of responses is one's regard for Ozu. This is in no way due to exhibitionism; most certainly it's not because of virtuosity à la Fellini. It's because everything in an Ozu film derives from his utter subscription to a view of life as infinitely sacred and of art as the most sacred exercise in life. He serves, rather than making anything serve him. (p. 127)

The motion of this quiet-motion picture...

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Paul Schrader

The personal interpretation of Ozu's films has been encouraged by two misleading circumstances: one, that we simply happen to know much more about Ozu than we do about earlier traditional artists, and two, that Ozu, unlike a Zen poet or painter, must use living human beings as his raw material. The characters on screen are experiencing life…. But the characters who are emoting on screen may be no more or less representative of the film-maker than a nonhuman shot of a train or a building. The characters' individual feelings (sorrow, joy, introspection) are of passing importance: it is the surrounding form which gives them lasting value. (p. 26)

Much of Ozu's approach is derived from Japanese culture...

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Tom Allen

Early Spring seems paced with the director's own life pulse. The cutting is totally unobtrusive: the gaze uncluttered by lens refractions, the camera shots delicately held until the naturalistic poet has made his impression. It is the deceptive simplicity of the artist, working within the most primitive articulation, to make his human drama that much more accessible to the widest possible audience, of which he is the primary spectator. In Autumn Afternoon,… the editing could be felt like precise, cutting whiplashes in a contracting expression. Early Spring is one of Ozu's longest, most expansive works, encompassing a larger milieu and interweaving many side characters into the fabric of the...

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Donald Richie

[The tension in Ozu's films] derives from confrontations between men and women who are in different sections of the pattern, between, for example, parents who have returned to Japaneseness and children who are on their way out.

There is never any doubt where Ozu's essential sympathies lie in these confrontations, though as a moralist he is scrupulously fair, and for this reason some young Japanese have disliked his work, calling him old-fashioned, bourgeois, reactionary. And so he would appear, since he so continually celebrates those very qualities, the traditional virtues of their country, against which young Japanese must revolt….

Ozu's films are among the most restrained, the...

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Jonathan Rosenbaum

Devoted to both the profound necessity and the sublime silliness of gratuitous social interchange, Ohayo is a rather subtler and grander work than might appear at first. Commonly referred to as a remake of Ozu's silent masterpiece I Was Born, But …, it is as interesting for its differences as for its similarities…. [It] is the humiliations in the first film which provide much of the comedy, a subject assuming gravity only when it causes a rift between father and sons. But the more pervasive humour of Ohayo extends to the rebellion itself and all it engenders, as well as the various local intrigues surrounding it. Clearly one of Ozu's most commercially-minded movies—with its stately,...

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Derek Elley

In Ohayo the premise is [the same as in I Was Born, But …]: the young children are seen as free-thinking spirits, while the adults are portrayed as encumbered by gossip, status and meaningless small talk. The rebellion of Minoru and Isamu against their parents' apparent obsession with greetings like 'Good Morning', 'Good Evening', 'Hello', and the rest, takes the form of a refusal to talk to anyone; that this 'rebellion' is, in fact, motivated more by their desire to force their parents to buy a TV set so they can watch sumo wrestling than by any deep seated resentment or conviction provides the main comic base for the film—flimsy, insubstantial, but far from trivial in its own way. Ozu never...

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Ben Brewster

A great deal happens in [Early Spring], not much of it very remarkable. Of course, the cinema simply cannot avoid a level of detail unattainable in the most painstakingly naturalistic literature. However, the 'suspense' of the main plot of Early Spring, the marital and career problems of Sugiyama and his wife, is reduced not just by an accumulation of details but by the linking of these details across the text into a mass of minor chains of implication…. There is the same calculated casualness in the way important information about the characters, such as the death of the Sugiyamas' child, is introduced late and in fragments—even Masako's name is not mentioned until halfway through the film…....

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Don Willis

Late Autumn is character as jigsaw puzzle, with tantalising missing pieces—the characters' silences, the film's empty spaces.

Ozu's film concerns the mystery of the human essence, and much of it is devoted to the surmises, opinions, machinations and viewpoints of those around the mother and daughter, including Aya's friend Yuriko and three friends of her late father. As in Citizen Kane, each observation or comment presents the two women in a new, slightly different light. The goal is not so much truth or completeness as an appreciation of the elusiveness of truth. The most 'dramatic' scene—Akiko 'rhapsodising' about her late husband when it is suggested she should remarry—is not...

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