This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963), one of Japan’s finest and most influential film directors. Shochiku Co. Ltd., the company with whom he was affiliated, is honoring the centenary by holding showings of all 38 of the extant films at 16 theaters throughout Japan, and an opening retrospective at the National Film Center from Nov. 18 through Jan. 25.
In addition Shochiku has created a traveling exhibition of these films, all with English subtitles, which opened at the Berlin Film Festival, went on to the Hongkong Film Festival, and has just completed its showing at the New York Film Festival. From now on these prints may be seen at major festivals, museums and cinematheques throughout the world.
And now, here in Japan, Shochiku has just released the first DVDs of a series which will include all 38 films. This initial collection contains “Tokyo Story” (“Tokyo Monogatari,” 1953), “Equinox Flower” (“Higanbana,” 1958), “Good Morning” (“Ohayo,” 1959), “Late Autumn” (“Akibiyori,” 1960), and Ozu’s final film, “An Autumn Afternoon” (“Sama no Aji,” 1962). Further collections will contain the remaining pictures.
Though Ozu’s films invariably move and delight no matter where they are shown, it might be argued that they are at particular advantage on a smaller screen. The image itself is intimate, familiar, scaled down and its content is what the director himself called “home-drama.” This is home-drama, however, as Anton Chekhov is home-drama. The power of the Ozu film, its near tragic intensity, is a result — as in the Russian writer — of a minimum of means.
The famous invariable position of the camera, just up off the tatami, its refusal to chase after the actors (the dolly) or even turn its head (the pan); the well-known lack of punctuation (no fades or dissolves, just the straight cut); the invariable mosaic construction of the story; the refusal of plot in any melodramatic sense — all of these attributes create a world in which every image counts, all details contribute, whole sections of continuity can be elided, and the world we know can become so defamiliarized that every image vibrates with an integrity that it has always had but that we have, through habit, lost the ability to see.
Perhaps consequently a minimal viewing method works best for Ozu. He himself thought so. He said that he made only tofu — boiled or fried tofu but tofu nonetheless. Fancy chops and cutlets were for other directors. For him just plain tofu. Ozu’s films are, of course, artful and subtle to an amazing degree but one knows what he really meant — with the quotidian as his means he illuminated the ordinary for all of us.
To see his films on TV (which is what viewing a DVD amounts to) is something like gathering around the family fireplace or irori (traditional Japanese fireplace) — a drawing closer, a companionate experience where he offers his half of the bridge of communication and we eventually supply the other half. Though Ozu himself was scathing about big or oddly shaped screens (he called them “so many rolls of toilet paper”) he might, perhaps, have approved of these smaller scale DVD images.
Shochiku has expertly engineered the films onto disc and all the printing material is new. In addition, the sound tracks have been all Dolby-transfered and the packaging is particularly attractive. The boxes are bound in the beige burlap that Ozu liked for his title backgrounds and the colors used are red, white and black, those we associate with the Ozu cast and credit titles. In addition there is a full booklet giving much information on the films enclosed.
All of this is in Japanese. For those to whom this represents a challenge there is an alternative. The Criterion Collection*, one of the best DVD manufacturers, early released “Good Morning,” and has now just brought out a fine edition of “Tokyo Story.” From early next year it will be releasing “The Only Son” (“Hitori Musuko,” 1936) and, a double disc, “The Story of Floating Weeds” (“Ukigusa Monogatari,” 1934) and “Floating Weeds” (“Ukigusa,” 1959). These will all have English subtitles (new ones) and many extras.
With either collection (and Shochiku’s will be the more complete) you will have in your set the world of Ozu — detailed, compassionate, questioning, often so human it is funny, and often deeply tragic as well. Sublime home drama right in your own home.