Yasujiro Ozu Donald Richie

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Donald Richie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 most limited, controlled, and restricted. From early in his career, for example, Ozu used only one kind of shot: a shot taken from the level of a person seated in traditional fashion on the tatami….

This traditional view is the view in repose, commanding a very limited field of vision. It is the attitude for listening, for watching. It is the same as the position from which one watches the Noh or the rising moon, from which one par-takes of the tea ceremony or a cup of hot sake. It is the aesthetic attitude; it is the passive attitude. Less poetically, it also represents the viewpoint of a then-majority of Japanese. (p. xii)

Ozu's method, like all poetic methods, is oblique. He does not confront emotion, he surprises it. Precisely, he restricts his vision in order to see more; he limits his world in order to transcend these limitations. His cinema is formal and the formality is that of poetry, the creation of an ordered context that destroys habit and familiarity, returning to each word, to each image, its original freshness and urgency….

The unique art of Ozu is very evident, but so is his common humanity. The Ozu character is among the most lifelike in cinema. Since character for its own sake is always a major subject in the Ozu film and since it is but rarely that a character must work to forward the ends of the story the director is determined to tell us, we are often given that rare spectacle of a character existing for himself alone. This we observe with the delight that precise verisimilitude always brings, and with a heightened awareness of the beauty and fragility of human beings. (p. xiii)

A similar duality occurs with respect to the sense of time in the Ozu film. His pictures are longer than most and at the same time have less "story" than most. What story there is, moreover, often seems more anecdote (which is why a précis of an Ozu film fails even more completely than usual to convey what the picture is like as an experience). Since the story is presented over a long period of time, and since there is little overt action to sustain the time values, unsympathetic critics complain about a pace that to them seems slow. They would have real grounds for complaint if this pace existed by and for itself. Yet Ozu's films are not slow. They create their own time and for the audience, drawn into Ozu's world, into a realm of purely psychological time, clock time ceases to exist. And what at first seems a world of stillness, of total inaction, is revealed as appearance. (p. xiv)

[Just] as technique restricted comes to make us see more, so tempo slowed comes to make us feel more. The effect of both is the same: characters come alive in a manner rare in film. And both means are the same: the spectator is led into the film, is invited to infer and to deduce. He gives of himself and of his time, and in so doing he learns to appreciate. What remains after an Ozu film is the feeling that, if only for an hour or two, you have seen the goodness and beauty of everyday things and everyday people; you have had experiences you cannot describe because only film, not words, can describe them; you have seen a few small, unforgettable actions, beautiful because real. You are left with a feeling of sadness, too, because you will see them no more. They are already...

(The entire section is 4,376 words.)