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An unserious look at the work of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu

by David Cozy

NORIKO SMILING, by Adam Mars-Jones. Notting Hill Editions, 2011, 239 pp., £12.00 (hardcover).

“I can hardly be accused of being an expert on Japanese film,” Adam Mars-Jones assures us early in “Noriko Smiling,” his monograph on Yasujiro Ozu’s “Late Spring.” Such protestations at the beginning of a work are not, in an age that distrusts expertise and celebrates ignorance, unusual. In most cases, though, a writer who makes this move goes on to demonstrate, however obliquely, that he or she is not, in fact, ignorant at all. Mars-Jones takes a different approach.

Having asserted his ignorance in the second paragraph of his book, he then devotes the remainder to offering evidence in support of his claim, and it has to be said: The case he builds is airtight.

What better way for a nonexpert to make a flamboyant entry into a field than to take on an expert — perhaps the expert — in this case the eminent film scholar Donald Richie? This is the tactic Mars-Jones employs. The problem is, if you’re going to attack an expert, you must read the expert thoroughly, and this Mars-Jones appears not to have done. He seems to believe, for example, that “The Japanese Film,” a book Richie wrote (with Joseph L. Anderson) more than half-a-century ago is Richie’s final statement on the field to which he has devoted his life.

In fact, while “The Japanese Film” remains important — Mars-Jones draws heavily on it for background information — it is not Richie’s final summation, but his first: He went on to publish, in 2001, for example, the authoritative and essential “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film,” a book Mars-Jones never mentions.

More damaging, given his topic, is that he seems not to have read Richie’s monograph on Ozu. One feels certain that this is the case when he writes, for example, about Noriko’s father’s habit of rubbing his nose with his cigarette holder. Mars-Jones first affects not to know what the cigarette holder is — “a Zen cure for blackheads?” he guesses in a sadly typical attempt at wit — and never does figure out why Noriko’s father engages in this “perverse act.” If he’d bothered to open Richie’s Ozu he would have learned that “it is a familiar gesture: Rubbing fine-grained burr pipes or holders against the noses is the Japanese way of oiling their finish.”

Mars-Jones gets about 30 pages out of his tussle with Richie, but only manages to squeeze a page or so out of the cigarette holder — his constant effort to fatten his slight book is palpable. Some of the most egregious padding comes with his extreme consternation over the scene in which the housemaid and her husband, the gardener, first appear.

“It’s a disorienting little scene altogether,” Mars-Jones writes, “with these retainers apparently grown at short notice like a crop of cress on damp blotting-paper … ” The source of Mars-Jones’ disorientation is that in his world, apparently, it is unheard of for household help not to live in. He assumes, therefore, that the help in Ozu’s film do, and this delusion gives rise to all sorts of perplexities.

Why, for example, if the maid is always on the premises as Mars-Jones assumes, would Noriko warm her father’s sake for him? That the maid might have gone home is, of course, unimaginable; that a daughter who clearly loves her father would enjoy performing this small kindness is, for Mars-Jones, inconceivable.

The second perplexity he cites in support of his delusion about the help is his belief that Noriko’s father has heated the bath on his own. In fact, what Noriko’s father says to her when she returns home is: “Ofuro wakashite moratta yo,” making it clear that the bath was heated for him — presumably by the maid who, so mysteriously, so inexplicably, is present sometimes, but not others.

Granted, it is probably too much to expect that someone who is going to write a book about Japanese film should have a basic command of Japanese. One would think, however, that if a critic is going to build a substantial argument around something — he devotes about five pages to the hired help — he would be wise to check the details with someone who can go beyond the subtitles.

The book is rich in further absurdities. Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” our nonexpert tells us, is “an exoticized version of [a Western] approach to cinema;” “Japanese culture,” he is certain, “prefers red apples;” the characters sometimes wear on their feet something: “neither quite clog nor quite sandal and looking like miniature coffee tables.”

Mars-Jones apparently does not know that these miniature coffee tables are “geta,” a word that can be found in standard English dictionaries.

These chuckles, unfortunately, are the best the book has to offer. For a serious consideration of Ozu’s work one will have to look elsewhere. Donald Richie’s “Ozu” is the best place to start.