To his actors: “You’re not supposed to feel; you’re supposed to do.”
Yasujiro Ozu accomplished what cinema is perfect for, but rarely used for: he said a lot while seeming to say very little. The cliche goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but a single Ozu image really does speak volumes — about life and death, about relationships, and about the ever-modernizing Japan where he lived and worked. Known for his gentle family dramas, Ozu famously used a restrained, contemplative style that favored static shots and low camera placements, to represent the perspective of somebody kneeling on the floor, as was Japanese custom. During dialogue scenes, he would place the camera between the characters, neglecting conventional shot-reverse-shot grammar, and ask that the actors say their lines into it, as if they were speaking directly to the viewers themselves. His scene changes were groundbreaking, in that he neglected Hollywood’s dissolves and wipes, instead using poetic transitions with music and simple yet elegant establishing photography to bridge scenes in a way that encouraged deep reflection. Ozu was born in Tokyo in 1903, and knew early on that he wanted to be a director. As a young man, he failed his college entrance exams, so instead found work as an assistant at Shochiku Films, the studio that would produce his entire filmography. Once promoted to director, he made many historical and comedic shorts that are now lost. During the silent era, he specialized in stories about college students and young professionals (Passing Fancy, I Graduate, But…, and Where Now Are The Dreams Of Youth?) as well as moralistic films about small-time criminals (Walk Cheerfully and That Night’s Wife). The most impressive of his silent films is I Was Born, But…, about two bratty sons who are horrified to learn that their father is a sycophantic employee. His early work was often about the sacrifices parents make so their children might one day achieve greatness. His first sound film, The Only Son, starring his frequent collaborator Chishu Ryu, says it best. Ozu would explore class stratification in Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family and, in Record of a Tenement Gentleman, the plight of orphans post-WWII. His most celebrated films were made in the last decade or so of his life, between 1949 and 1963. All deal, to varying degrees, with the contemporary Japanese family, its struggles with cultural pressures, the conflicts between generations, and its ultimate dissolution. Viewed back-to-back, films like Late Spring, Early Summer, Equinox Flower and Late Autumn can seem repetitive, since all dramatize the marrying off of daughters. However, each in its way deepens and expands upon that scenario. Late Spring was the first with the beautiful Setsuko Hara, and shows how marital conformity can be tragic for both daughter and father. Whereas Early Summer suggests that marriage can signify the end or beginning of familial eras. Late Autumn cannily recasts Hara, only this time as the parent, to intimate the ironic role-shifts of aging. Ozu’s best still seems to be Tokyo Story, a tragedy of generational discord about parents from the country who visit their grown children in Tokyo, where none, save for their war-widow daughter-in-law (Hara again), can find time for them. Somehow, it distills Ozu’s cinema perfectly into one picture — his unique style, his recurring themes, his philosophy that existence, full of tumultuous dichotomies (old vs young, country vs city, past vs present), demands the wistful acceptance of change, the passing of seasons, the phases of life, the inevitability of death. Late on, his form grew more rigid and his use of color gave his ideas enriched vitality. Ozu died before his work reached western audiences, and long before he started to be included regularly amongst cinema’s masters. Some younger Japanese filmmakers rejected his “boring” style, while critics argued over his unwillingness to match eye-lines during dialogue scenes. Regardless, Ozu was simply one of the greatest ever, for he found the transcendent beauty in the everyday and led us to the universal truths hidden therein.
Before you take that trip to the big movie-theater in the sky, watch: The Only Son, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, Record of a Tenement Gentleman, Late Spring and Tokyo Story.