Re-examining Yasujiro Ozu on film

On the 50th anniversary of Yasujiro Ozu's death, we examine the iconic director's own thoughts on the filmmaking process.

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Yasujiro Ozu once had a reputation for making films only other Japanese could understand.

His studio bosses believed overseas audiences wanted the exoticism of samurai and geisha, not Ozu’s quietly realistic dramas about contemporary middle-class families.

This explains the reluctance of Ozu’s studio, Shochiku, to export his films while he was at the height of his powers, despite the burgeoning outside interest in Japanese cinema sparked by the international success of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 period drama, “Rashomon.” Indeed, Ozu’s postwar classics only began to penetrate Western cinephile consciousness in the 1960s, with a retrospective of five films curated by critic Donald Richie for the 1963 Berlin Film Festival opening many eyes.

Now, 50 years after Ozu’s passing (He died on Dec. 12, 1963, 60 years to the day from his birth in Tokyo’s Koto Ward), not only pioneering critics such as Richie, Noel Burch and David Bordwell, but also generations of scholars, filmmakers and fans have examined, celebrated and canonized his films.

In a 2012 poll of leading directors and critics by Sight and Sound magazine to select the best films of all time, Ozu’s 1953 “Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story)” was voted No. 1 by directors and No. 3 by critics, after “Vertigo” and “Citizen Kane.” If this poll result is anything to go by, Ozu is obscure no longer.

What accounts for this amazing rise in recognition, if one too late for Ozu himself to enjoy? After directing his first film, a now-lost period drama, at the age of 24, Ozu made comedies, melodramas and even a gangster film, the 1933 “Hijosen no Onna (Dragnet Girl).” But as he entered his 30s, he began to develop and refine the style and themes for which he became internationally renowned.

Everyone from Richie to first-year film students has analyzed his work, although the focus is usually on his postwar films, which are considered the most “Ozu-esque.” These typically revolve around families in the throes of dissolution or disaffection, with a father scheming to marry off his adult daughter (“Banshun [Late Spring]“) or adult children who view visiting parents as a burden (“Tokyo Story”). However, the shouting, caterwauling and other melodramatics of the standard hōmu dorama (family drama) are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, strong emotions only briefly roil the calm surface of everyday life with a piercing word, glance or gesture.

In filming his families, Ozu preferred interiors, particularly in Japanese-style houses. He would shoot from a low position, with the camera typically set at the height of a person sitting on a tatami mat in order to give an impression of intimacy.

He also used the camera in ways that defied imported-from-Hollywood convention, such as shooting characters engaged in conversation in alternating frontal head-and-shoulder shots, instead of the more standard over-the-shoulder shots. But as strange as these shots might at first seem to the uninitiated, they gave audiences the feeling of looking directly into the hearts of the characters, past masks of politeness.

Ozu also disliked fades and dissolves. Instead, he preferred straight cuts to transition between scenes, using postcardlike shots of office buildings, alleyways and other mundane subjects that gave audiences a precise, layered introduction to the setting for the upcoming action.

In contrast to standard industry practice, Ozu refrained from underlining emotions with dramatic close-ups and surging background music. Instead, he typically shot such scenes from a distance and confined music to transitions, while using it to offset or contrast the mood of the characters. Thus, lively tunes followed sad scenes.

Ozu would similarly leave out what other directors considered to be obligatory dramatic highlights such as weddings and funerals. Rather than drain his story of drama, however, these omissions helped stir the imagination and kept the audience’s focus on what Ozu truly considered important.

In “Late Spring,” for example, he focused on, not the wedding ceremony of Noriko (Setsuko Hara), which is never shown, but instead the loneliness her aging father (Chishu Ryu) would feel in her absence.

How did Ozu himself think about filmmaking, including his own innovations (or, as unsympathetic contemporaries regarded them, eccentricities)? One often-quoted statement suggests that he viewed himself as a humble craftsman.

“I only know how to make tofu,” Ozu said. “I can make fried tofu, boiled tofu, stuffed tofu. Cutlets and other fancy stuff, that’s for other directors.”

He may have truly felt this, but he was also no cinematic naïf. Starting as a young assistant director at Shochiku, Ozu diligently studied films and enthusiastically discussed them with his peers. He also wrote his thoughts on cinema in journals (now published in an 800-page volume) as well as in essays for Kinema Junpo magazine and other publications. Translating a collection of these pieces for the University Press of Mississippi, I found a far more opinionated side of Ozu than the “tofu” comment suggests.

One fundamental view — stated and restated in countless essays — is that, unlike written language, films have nothing resembling a “grammar.”

Thomas Kurihara, a Hollywood-trained director who was active in the early 1920s, dogmatically believed directors should follow fixed “grammar rules” in every aspect of filmmaking.

Ozu couldn’t have disagreed more strongly.

“There’s no one form you have to follow,” he wrote. “When an outstanding film appears, it creates its own special grammar. If you shoot a film just as you like, you can see that.”

This made Ozu an independently minded exception in the hierarchical, formula-driven domestic film industry, despite his image in later years as a conservative director resistant to innovation or change.

This defiant streak manifested itself early. In an autobiographical sketch published in 1950, Ozu reminisced about a tyrannical director who forced him and other assistants to toil away for long hours with few breaks.

“The work was so hard that I didn’t even have time to smoke and was always famished,” Ozu wrote. “My only pleasure was eating.”

Sitting in the studio cafeteria after a particularly grueling day, Ozu was anticipating a delicious plate of curry rice when the director strolled in, sat down and was served first. Outraged, Ozu shouted, “Wait your turn!” and nearly got into a fight with a heckler who mocked his presumption. Instead of being punished for his rude behavior, Ozu was rewarded by studio boss Shiro Kido with his first directing assignment. “Perhaps he thought I was an amusing character,” Ozu joked.

Kido continued to support this self-described “contrary” director, even when his films did not do so well at the box office. One reason is that Ozu’s family dramas exemplified the sort of humanistic cinema that Kido championed, though they may have lacked the uplifting content he preferred. Ozu responded with organizational loyalty — “I’m with Shochiku and Shochiku employees are all my friends, so I have to think of what’s good for Shochiku,” he later wrote — while going his own artistic way.

That often meant thinking afresh about methods that had become standard industry practice.

One example Ozu himself analyzes in great detail is the filming of two characters in conversation. In order for the audience to understand at a glance that both characters are talking to each other, convention dictates that the camera should first shoot one character so as to be looking left (or right) on the screen and then shoot the other character so as to be looking right (or left). In filming these two shots, the camera should not cross an invisible line that links the eyes of the characters.

Ozu, however, blatantly violated this “eyeline rule.” That is, he shot both characters so that they seemed to face the same way on the screen, while moving the camera across the eyeline.

When Ozu screened his first talkie, “Hitori Musuko (The Only Son),” his fellow directors at Shochiku criticized his approach.

One, Hiroshi Inagaki, found his unorthodox shooting style “strange only in the beginning,” Ozu wrote, “but later he paid it no mind. After that I did not encounter any objections to it.”

Ozu did admit, however, that “I am probably the only one in the world who films this way.”

Early on in his career, Ozu also discarded the then-common practice of using a fade in to signify the start of a scene and a fade out to mark the end of it. The fade in and fade out, he noted, were “nothing more than mechanical functions of the movie camera,” despite claims that they were proper film grammar.

“Inserting them into films,” Ozu wrote, “is like sticking extra sheets of paper into the pages of a book before starting to read the first chapter.”

While disregarding what he considered to be worthless “grammar rules,” Ozu was slow to adopt new technologies. He did not make his first talkie until 1936 (“The Only Son”), his first color film until 1958 (“Higanbana [Equinox Flower]“) and resisted studio pressure to shoot in the wide-screen format until the end. “Given the short time I have left on this Earth,” he wrote in 1963, “I don’t want to shoot a film as though I were peering out from a mailbox slot.”

This wasn’t to say, however, that he didn’t welcome fresh ideas, wherever they might have come from.

“When I happen to see a film by a newcomer from Mexico or Italy or by an amateur who has suddenly become a studio director, I feel a surprising freshness in their methods,” he wrote in 1958. He was also “happy about news from France about a new crop of filmmakers in their 20s shooting controversial films.”

The directors of French New Wave of the late ’50s and ’60s were soon to have their counterparts in a Shochiku-sponsored new generation of young lions such as Masahiro Shinoda, Kiju Yoshida and Nagisa Oshima, all of whom rebelled against Kido and Ozu’s brand of humanistic films focusing on the middle class. Instead they and other filmmakers of the postwar era — including Ozu’s former assistant director, Shohei Imamura — explored society’s margins, from the pathologically violent to the politically radical.

Ozu, however, continued to manufacture his own brand of “tofu” to the end.

“I believe that a good film leaves a good aftertaste,” he wrote for the Chunichi Shimbun in 1962.

“A lot of people now equate drama with sensational incident, such as someone getting killed. But that’s not drama; it’s a freak occurrence,” he wrote. “Instead I think drama is something without sensational incident, something you can’t easily put into words, with the characters saying everyday things like ‘Is that right?’ ‘Yes, it is,’ ‘So that’s what happened.’ ”

His genius was to transform everyday things into eternal truths, in ways immediately recognizable as utterly his own.

Mark Schilling is a Japanese film critic for The Japan Times.

  • mckavitt

    Yes, I agree with your assessment of Ozu, a longtime favourite of mine & look forward to reading his tome translated by Mark Schilling. Good analysis!