Yasujiro Ozu Paul Schrader

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Paul Schrader

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 itself, and it is the traditional elements which make him the "most Japanese of all directors." The most appropriate analogy for the cultural elements in Ozu's films is Zen art. Zen is not an organized religion with physical and political concerns like Shintoism or Christianity, but a way of living which has permeated the fabric of Japanese culture….

Perhaps the basic principle of Zen art is the first koan of Zen, mu, the concept of negation, emptiness, and void. Emptiness, silence, and stillness are positive elements in Zen art, and represent presence rather than the absence of something…. Mu is the character used to refer to the spaces between the branches of a flower arrangement; the emptiness is an integral part of the form. (p. 27)

Like the traditional Zen artist, Ozu directs silences and voids. Silence and emptiness are active ingredients in Ozu's films; characters respond to them as if they were audible sounds and tangible objects. Although such responses are usually quite subtle, a rather obvious use of active silence occurs in Early Summer: Setsuko Hara has just told her parents of her intention to marry, a decision which displeases them. After a polite argument the parents, despondent, go upstairs. In the next shot the father is staring into the camera while in the background the mother does some busywork and speaks to him. She makes a trivial remark, and he replies, "Ah." She makes another remark, he again replies, "Ah." The mother leaves the room and Hara walks noiselessly through the background. The father again says, "Ah." The silence has become electric, much more meaningful than anything the mother could have said. (p. 28)

But most of all, mu is expressed in Ozu's "codas." His films are structured between action and emptiness, between indoors and outdoors, between scene and coda. The conflicts are always explicated in indoors, usually in long dispassionate conversations. The settings may vary (home, office, bar, restaurant), but the story is rarely forwarded by anything but indoor conversations (and the one or two exceptions in each film are thematically crucial). These indoor discussions are set off by "codas": still-life scenes of outdoor Japanese life, empty streets and alleys, a passing train or boat, a distant mountain or lake…. Each of the codas sets off an Ozu "paragraph."… There are no chapters, only paragraphs and codas…. In Western art one would naturally assume that the codas are inserted to give weight to the paragraphs, but for Ozu, as for Zen, it is precisely the opposite: the dialogue gives meaning to the silence, the action to the still life. (p. 29)

"Nostalgia" in Ozu's films, such as the scene when the father in An Autumn Afternoon revisits the bar where the barmaid resembles his dead wife, is not so much a longing for the past in Western terms but is more likely an "expansion" of the present so familiar to Zen art. When Ozu focuses on a wall clock, watching the seconds tick futilely away, it is partially to contrast film time and psychological time,… but it is also to create the mood of total timelessness integral to Zen art….

Ozu achieves the "eternal now" in the same manner as cha-no-yu , [the Zenta ritual] through ritual. Each possible event in an Ozu film can be reduced to a predetermined, limited...

(The entire section is 1,885 words.)