The films Ozu made fall all in the category of home dramas (shoshimin eiga), which are of course Japanese in their details and sensibility, but (in his case) also universal in their meaning so that the whole world can enjoy them. And the very characteristic style Ozu forged during a lifetime of film making, is not so much "typically Japanese" as "typically Ozu" - also in Japan nobody else comes close to Ozu's style.
As in the case of other great directors, Ozu has been variously positioned both as a radical Modernist and as a conservative nationalist and even as a Zen poet (probably from the Western viewpoint that "simplicity is Zen") - but he transcends all these limiting qualifications.
What are the characteristics of Ozu's films?
1. The family as central subject ("home drama")
Ozu's forte was a detailed, sensitive portrayal of the daily lives of average people. His films fall in a genre that in Japanese is called shoshimin-eiga," "films about ordinary people" or "home drama," which includes the emergent middle class which also formed the public for these films.
Although set in a particular Japanese environment, and imbued with Japanese sentiments, these are problems human beings all over the world face in their lives: the struggle for self-definition, individual freedom, disappointed expectations, the impossibility of communication, separation and loss brought about by the inevitable passages of marriage and death.
Shoshimin-eiga was the brand of the Shochiku studio, which introduced it in the 1920s (inspired by American cinema of the 1910s and 1920s) and kept making such films after Ozu's death with director Yamada Yoji (on a very different level!). Other important shoshimin-eiga directors who were contemporaries of Ozu were for example Gosho Heinosuke, Shimazu Yasujiro, Shimizu Hiroshi and Naruse Mikio.
In their best prewar films these directors presented the family (mostly lower middle class and sometimes also blue collar) in a tense confrontation with society; after the war, this social criticism is lost and, like the whole of Japan, the families represented become more well off, rising to upper middle class.
Ironically, Ozu as Japan's iconic home drama director, never had a family himself - he never experienced college, office work or marital life.
2. Stoic acceptation of life's various stages
There is a secondary theme in Ozu's work, too, that of a "rite of passage:" life consists of several stages and we have to move on, even if that means leaving loved ones. Home drama is thus a genre about change - about the inevitability of life's changes, signified by birth, marriage and death, and of the tensions between generations, as well as the impact of modernity which threatens the stability of the home (in the Japanese case, the loss of authority of the father and consequent dissolution of the Meiji-period family system). Accepting life's changes is also a form of transcendence.
3. Distinctive "Ozu"-style
Ozu exerted total control over all aspects of every production. His films never are a haphazard presentation of Japanese customs, but through his superb cinematic technique they can be understood cross-culturally. Ozu's distinctive style was polished during his long career, and the following are the main features according to Japanese film critic Sato Tadao:
- The low-angle shot. Ozu positioned his camera just above the floor or ground (the cameraman had to lie flat on his belly). This has been compared to the view the Japanese have when sitting on tatami mats, but is in fact lower than that - it is not a cultural matter but an idiosyncrasy of Ozu.
- The stationary camera. Almost no crane shots or dolly shots.
- The arrangement of characters. When two or more charachters appear in the same shot, they are often facing the same direction and assuming the same pose.
- The avoidance of movement. Not only do Ozu's characters almost never show any aggression, their general movement is also restricted so that they almost never walk across a shot.
- The full-face shot of the speaker. Profile shots of characters delivering a line are very rare, for when a characters speaks, Ozu normally brings the camera around so that he or she faces it almost head on.
- The stability of the size of camera shots. Ozu never took close-ups and never used telescopic or wide-angle lenses.
- Linking by means of cutting alone. Except in some early films, no dissolves, fade-ins or fade-outs.
- Curtain shots. Ozu used to insert shots of inside or outside scenery between sequences.
- Tempo. Ozu matched tempo to the actual time it took characters to walk out of the room, go upstairs via a staircase, etc.
- Choreographic acting directions. Ozu's characters are always calm and deliver their lines at a measured rate. It is as if Ozu wanted to make perfect still-life pictures on film.
Finally, there is the well-known disregard for eye-line matches, but that is not typical of only Ozu's style, we also find it in other major Japanese directors of the same period, especially Naruse. This is a cultural trait, as in Japan it is considered uncomfortable to look at length into someone's eyes during a conversation.
Ozu's life and career can be divided as follows:
1. From Nonsense Comedy to Social Realism (1927-1937)
Ozu Yasujiro (1903-1963) was born in downtown Tokyo, but educated in Matsuzaka in Mie Prefecture and in Nagoya. He was a fiercely independent character, who never submitted to authority (unless they wanted him to do what he already wanted to do) and who found various ingenious ways to skip school and the military. When his family returned to Tokyo in 1923, he joined the recently founded Shochiku studios against the opposition of his father. He became assistant director and was, among others, trained in "nonsense" comedies, often not more than strung together gags. His debut was in 1927 with a period drama, but from 1928 on he became a comedy director (inspired, among others, by Hollywood's Ernst Lubitsch). The black humor satire I Was Born, But... from 1932 is considered his first masterpiece. In this period, Ozu made 37 films, of which 17 have been preserved. Except the last two, all films are silent ones.
2. The War Years and their Aftermath (1941-1948)
Because of the disruption by the war (Ozu himself had been drafted from September 1937 to July 1939, and lived again from 1943 to the end of the war in occupied Singapore), in this period Ozu only makes four films, two during the war, and two in the Occupation period. Due to censorship during the war, one of his scripts had to be discarded, and the other films, especially There Was a Father (Chichi ariki) bear the marks of wartime in an emphasis on patriarchal social order. In contrast, the two first postwar films depict the scars left by the war: war orphans in The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Nagaya shinshiroku) and the economical plight of women whose husbands take a long time to return after the war has ended (A Hen in the Wind / Kaze no naka no mendori).
3. The Great Mature Films (1949-1962)
In this period Ozu makes 13 films, about one per year. These are the great years of the collaboration with script writer Noda Kogo, as well as numerous great actors and actresses, educated in Japan's studio system. There are no really weak films in this period. From the first film in this period, Banshun, on, Ozu's subject is the loss of traditional family values, especially the care family members used to have for each other, and which used to be more important than personal gratification.
Although Tokyo Story from 1953 is now considered as one of the best films ever made in the world, Ozu as a director was late in breaking through outside Japan. During his life, his films were not even entered in international film festivals. Only when Tokyo Story was shown in New York in 1972, almost ten years after his death, it won the hearts of viewers. Instrumental in the breakthrough of Ozu was the unflagging advocacy by Donald Richie, whose detailed study on Ozu was published in 1974, finally convincing critics that this quiet filmmaker was one of cinema's finest artists.
Ozu died on his 60th birthday. His grave at Engakuji in Kamakura bears no name - just the character mu ("nothingness").
Here are Ozu's ten best films:
1. I Was Born, But... (Umarete wa mita kedo..., 1932)
The greatest film ever made about the hierarchies imposed by company life, which clash with other hierarchies. This was Ozu's 24th film, shot from November 1931 to early April 1932. Two small boys have to learn to live with the fact that their father (Saito Tatsuo) is not a great man, but simply a company employee ("salaryman"), who has to be obsequious to his boss (Sakamoto Takeshi). The worst moment comes when the boss gives a show for the neighborhood of a home movie he shot in which the father is shown clowning to please his superior. The boys ask why their father has to behave so silly, and why they can't beat up the boss' kid when they are stronger? In the end, of course, they have to learn something of the ways and compromises of the adult world. A serious comedy, funny and devastating at the same time, that teaches us to accept life as it is. Technically, in this film also Ozu's systematic low-angle frontality begins to appear. See my detailed post about this film.
2. The Only Son (Hitori musuko, 1936)
Ozu finally changes to sound in The Only Son, an example of Japanese "neo-realism" avant-la-date. This was Ozu's 36th film, shot from April to September 1936. A mother (Iida Choko) has slaved to send her son (Himori Shinichi) to college in Tokyo. After she has not heard anything from him for a long time, she unexpectedly visits him, using up all her savings. She finds him poor, a teacher at a night school, living in eye-sore suburbia, with wife and child (the existence of both also new to her!), and wholly disillusioned. The mother's hope that he would advance in his career has not been fulfilled. But he borrows money to entertain his mother and she returns to the countryside where she still pretends to her friends to be proud of him. A moving work about the disappointments of family life, and the essential loneliness of human beings. The first film in Ozu's fully established mature style. Interesting is the use of off-screen sound: when we are in the living room of the son's house, we constantly hear the clicking of the machinery of a nearby textile factory.
3. Late Spring (Banshun, 1949)
A masterpiece on the peaceful life of a middle-class family, in which the most ordinary things happen in a moving way. This film (Ozu's 42nd, shot from May to September 1949, and the first of his long collaboration with scriptwriter Noda Kogo) that laid the groundwork for all other twelve films from Ozu's mature period. A daughter (Hara Setsuko) lives with her widowed father (Ryu Chishu). He wants her to get married and have a life of her own, she wants to stay at home and look after her father - I suspect her attitude stems more from amae (indulging herself) than from oya-koko (filial piety). In the end, the father pushes her into marriage by falsely pretending he himself is also getting married again (something the daughter considers as repulsive). After she has married, he sits alone in the now empty house, feeling sad. Interesting is that the wedding ceremony - which in a Hollywood film would have formed the grand finale - is entirely left out. We even never get to see the bridegroom! Set in a quiet residential area of Kamakura, this film which came out four years after the end of WWII, and is imbued with an iconography of "Japaneseness" (Zen gardens, Noh Drama, the tea ceremony) made audiences feel that peace indeed had come to Japan and that the worst chaos of the postwar years was over. Seasons are important in Japan, so this film literally takes place in late spring, a season of quiet before the rainy season starts with its violent rains; similarly, the film describes the daughter's quiet content of unmarried life with her father before the start of the stormier existence of a late marriage. See my detailed post about this film.
4. Early Summer (Bakushu, 1951, lit. "Wheat Harvest Season")
The 44th film, shot from June to September 1951 at the Shochiku Ofuna studio, Ozu's homebase. Chronicles three generations of the Kamakura-based Mamiya family, which is seeking a promising match for the eldest daughter, Noriko (Hara Setsuko). But Noriko has firm ideas about how and to whom she will give herself and surprises her family when she abruptly opts for a childhood friend, a poor doctor going to be posted in far-off northern Japan. Noriko fulfills her family's wishes, but also tears them (willfully?) apart by her perverse choice. For after she moves away, the extended family lacks her contribution to the household income and has to split up. The grandparents have to leave and move to the countryside of Nara - they are resigned to their own lonely fate. Although the story superficially resembles Banshun, and Hara Setsuko plays the lead in both films, this is a completely different film, with a much darker atmosphere. Noriko's brother Shoji, who was killed in the war, is something of an unseen presence. At the end of the film the grandparents view a field of wheat - the innumerable ears of wheat are like the souls of dead soldiers, waiting to transmigrate to new life. Read my detailed post about this film.
5. Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953)
The 46th film, shot from July to October 1953. An elderly couple (Ryu Chishu, Higashiyama Chieko) from Onomichi in western Japan visits their preoccupied children in Tokyo (the son has a busy medical clinic, the daughter a hairdressing salon), but they are clearly a burden and packed off to Atami. Like the mother in The Only Son, the parents are not satisfied with their children's life in Tokyo. But there is no dramatic tension, as the parents' attitude is one of resignation and tolerance. Back home, the mother dies, and now it is the turn of the children to visit the town where they were born. The only child genuinely affectionate is the widowed daughter-in-law (Hara Setsuko); she is also the only one who understands the feelings of the widowed father. She offers to stay with him now that he is alone, but he refuses - he accepts life as it comes. See my detailed post about this film.
6. Equinox Flower (Higanbana, 1958)
Equinox Flower is Ozu's 49th film (shot from May to August 1958) and his first color film. A daughter (Arima Taeko) wants to make her own choice of marriage partner; the despotic father (Saburi Shin) opposes, but the mother sympathizes and the father is finally won over. The film shows how later in his career Ozu became increasingly sympathetic with the younger generation. Also, with its satire, pure comedy and deep irony, this is a much lighter work than Ozu's previous films, which tended to become a bit darker. The film contains one of the best later roles by Tanaka Kinuyo, while also typical Japanese kimono beauty Yamamoto Fujiko makes an appearance. By the way, Ozu choose the more subdued Agfa color film (in contrast to the popular Eastman color film) - probably, he also liked the red color of Agfa.
7. Floating Weeds (Ukikusa, 1959)
The 51st film, shot from September to November 1959, and made for the Daiei studio, with actors from Daiei. A remake of Ozu's 1934 silent film A Story of Floating Weeds, a film about the head of a traveling theater group who in a small village meets a former mistress and the - now grown-up - son who was the result of the casual affair of long ago. The title refers to ukikusa or duckweed, and thus metaphorically to the aimlessness of life's journey. The traveling entertainers are on the one hand homeless but on the other hand at home everywhere, as they move from theater to theater across the country. What they play is taishu kabuki, a kind of third-rate kabuki that is specific to modern Japan, an assemblage of song spectacle and samurai melodrama, along with comedy and dance routines, combined into a vaudeville-like sequence of acts. It was performed in rural theaters and small variety halls in urban entertainment districts. Taishu kabuki was especially popular in the 1930s when the original film was shot, but when Ozu made the present film it was disappearing, so the film is doubly nostalgic. This is also a story about the disintegration of parental authority, as the son refuses to accept the "floating weed" traveling actor as his father - especially when the father forbids the son to have a member of his troupe as his girlfriend and even slaps him. With Nakamura Ganjiro and Kyo Machiko as the theatrical couple, Sugimura Haruko as the former mistress, and Wakao Ayako as the girlfriend. Set in a port town in Wakayama instead the mountain location of the older version. Beautifully photographed by Daiei cameraman Miyagawa Kazuo.
8. Late Autumn (Akibiyori, 1960)
Ozu's 52nd film, shot from July to November 1960. Made again in the Ofuna studio, with an uptown Tokyo setting. Shows a mother-daughter instead of a father-daughter relationship as in Late Spring, but the story is similar. Three middle-aged men try to help the widow of a late friend to marry off her daughter. The daughter is less than happy at the proposals, mainly because of her reluctance to leave her mother alone. Hara Setsuko now plays the mother, Tsukasa Yoko the daughter (both borrowed from Toho by Shochiku). "Akibiyori" literally means "a clear autumn day," in Japan more an "Indian summer" than the dark and stormy impression that the term "late autumn" makes on my Northwest European sensibility. This film is a variation on the story of Late Spring, but the distinctive feature is the importance of the characters that appear around the central figures of mother and daughter (company directors, university teachers, and their families). The record of their friendship is interwoven with the plot of their late friend's daughter's marriage. This is a very stylish color film, with as main tones white and blue. See my detailed review of this film.
9. The End of Summer (Kohayagawa-ke no aki, 1961)
Ozu's 53rd film, shot from June to September 1961. As compensation for "borrowing" two Toho stars in his previous film, Ozu made this film for Toho affiliate Takarazuka Eiga. Nakamura Ganjiro delightfully plays the broad-minded patriarch of the Kohayagawa family, which runs a sake brewery in Kyoto's Fushimi ward. His family shockingly discovers that at his advanced age he is visiting a mistress from his youth. They become concerned about his health and money spending. Interwoven with this is a story about the daughter's marriage. Ozu makes the most of the delicious role played by Nakamura Ganjiro. Hara Setsuko, Aratama Michiyo and Tsukasa Yoko play his daughter-in-law and daughters. The ending of the film is rather dark: the patriarch has died and while smoke rises from the chimney of the crematory, ravens fly in the sky and a farmer washes radishes in the river; the daughters sit on the dyke and talk about transience without emotion. Title lit. "The Autumn of the Kohayagawa Family."
10. An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji, 1962)
The 54th and last film by Ozu Yasujiro, shot from August to November 1962, and again set in uptown Tokyo. A widower (Ryu Chishu) arranges the marriage of his daughter (Iwashita Shima) and is left with the realization that he is growing old. The greatest performance of Ryu Chishu's career, bringing out the loneliness of old age. The marriage story is again mixed with the friendship of some middle-aged men as in Late Autumn. But new elements are also introduced, such as the married son's contemporary life in a modern flat, and the former middle-school teacher's misery. The father also visits a cheap bar where the proprietress reminds him of his late wife. Note that the daughter is unable to marry the man of her choice, but goes ahead with a marriage proposal brought forward by her boss. This is for financial reasons, because she has to support the brother who lives in an apartment. It can be seen as a final statement about the failure of the father (and brother) to fulfill their responsibilities towards the family. A film with a rather bitter taste. Luminous color photography by Atsuta Yuharu. See my detailed review of this film.
About Ozu: Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton UP); Ozu: His Life and Films by Donald Richie (California UP); Currents in Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Kodansha).
References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Akira Kurosawa 7. Luchino Visconti 8. Mikio Naruse 9. Michelangelo Antonioni 10. Orson Welles (to be continued)
See also my posts A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance