Films of Yasujiro Ozu

The Criterion Collection

Reviewed by Lyle Sylvander

(Spring 2005)

Despite his popularity in Japan, the filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu remained unknown in the West during his lifetime.  Unlike other directors
from Japan’s Golden Age, such as Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, Ozu, who was dubbed “the most Japanese of all filmmakers”,
was considered unfit for export.  His minamalist style and unconcern for plot turned off foreign distributors until the growth of the art
house movement in the 1960s made more formalist schools of filmmaking acceptable.  Ozu’s stature has grown among film students
and scholars and his influence can be seen in the work of such contemporary directors as Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch.  The
Criterion Collection has recently released three Ozu films on DVD that serve as a great introduction to his work: Early Summer
(Bakushu) ((1951), Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari) (1953) and Good Morning (Ohayo) (1959).  All three DVDs contain voice over
narration, which provides the necessary aesthetic and historical context needed to truly understand the films.

Stylistically, Ozu works against many of the conventions of popular cinema by reducing his craft to the bare minimum.  There is little to
no camera movement and absolutely no transition effects, such as fades, wipes, and dissolves; only straight cuts remain.  He also
disregards the “180 degree” rule, wherein the camera remains on one side of an imaginary axis drawn between two characters, and
replaces it with a technique in which actors speak directly to the camera.  Ozu also places the camera at a low angle, as if the viewer
were sitting crosslegged on a tatami mat.  This idiosyncratic style complements Ozu’s barebone narratives, which focus on the effects
of modernization on the traditional family structure in postwar Japan.

The earliest of the three films, Early Summer, meticulously observes the lives of some 19 characters who are poised between the
prewar years and the new world they now inhabit.  Compassionate and characteristically reserved, Ozu chronicles the disintegration
of the traditional extended family as a young woman rebels against the wishes of her family by choosing her own husband.  Ozu’s
signature camera strikes a delicate, harmonious balance in Early Summer, and echoes the dichotomy of contemporary Japan:
tradition versus modernization, selfishness versus altruism, respect for elders versus independence.  It is a theme that characterizes
Ozu’s work as a whole but is especially poignant in this early film.

Tokyo Story, considered to be Ozu’s masterpiece, is a sad, simple story of generational conflict where an elderly couple’s visit to their
busy, self-absorbed cosmopolitan offspring is met with indifference. This ingratitude only serves to reveal permanent emotional
differences, which the parents gracefully accept and then return home. The contrast between the elders, contemplative and at
leisure, and the younger generation, overworked and impatient, reflect the differing attitudes towards life and work among
generations.  Throughout the film, there are modern appurtenances, such as telephone wires and ticking clocks that disrupt the
symmetrically ordered Japanese homes.  The Tokyo landscape is littered with automobiles, steamboats and trains that obscure the
natural landscape.  The visual contrast between the traditionally clothed and out of place elder couple is heartbreaking to watch as
they eventually recognize the inability to coexist with modernity.

Good Morning differs from the other two films as it is in color, has a quirky comedic pacing to it, and is seen through the eyes of
children.  The plot concerns two brothers who take a vow of silence in protest of their parents’ unwillingness to buy them a television
set.  Through the children’s perspective, polite conversation becomes a meaningless exercise in civility and the importance of
owning material objects (or goods) is of utmost importance.  Ozu takes a whimsical and comic, yet socially astute, commentary on the
growing consumerism and suburbanization of Japan.

There is an overwhelming sensibility running through all of Ozu films that is hard to define.  Donald Richie, in his commentary on Early
Summer, refers to it as mono no aware –  “a point of view of sympathetic sadness”.  Mono no aware is the perspective of a “tired,
relaxed, even disappointed observer, perhaps someone sagely approaching death.”  Ozu captures this aesthetic concept as none of
his fellow filmmakers could.  As a result, Ozu’s  films sadly recognize the postwar dissolution of traditional cultural and familial values.

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