Yasujiro Ozu Tom Milne - Essay

Tom Milne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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