Yasujiro Ozu Essay About Myself

Ohayo (Good Morning, 1959).

DB here:

Ohayo (Good Morning, 1959) was the first Ozu film Criterion released on DVD, back in 2000. The DVD format, launched in 1997, really took off only after The Matrix disc was released in September 1999. So it’s not surprising to find the Ohayo edition quite sparse. No extras, no booklet, just a brief appreciation by Rick Prelinger (which can be read here). One note is charming: “To switch between the menus and the movie, use the menu key on your remote. Use the arrow keys to cycle through menu selections. Press enter/select to activate the selection.”

That early edition wasn’t bad, but now Criterion has given us a brand-new one. It’s derived from a 4K digital restoration and looks like a million bucks. Included with it is a pristine edition of I Was Born, But… (1932), Ozu’s first indisputable masterpiece (though I’d put Tokyo Chorus of 1931 very close), and what scraps remain of A Straightforward Boy (1929). So we have three of Ozu’s kid movies in one neat package, available in standard DVD or Blu-Ray.

The disc includes a shrewd and funny video essay by Shadowplay‘s David Cairns about Ozu’s humor. I’m there too, in an illustrated interview called “Ozuland.” The title derives from my suggestion that like Bresson, Tati, Mizoguchi, and a few other ambitious directors, Ozu created his own distinct artistic realm. That realm touches recognizable real life at many points, but it has been purified–maybe decanted would be a better word–by means of cinematic form and style.

My enjoyable talk with Elizabeth Pauker ranged on a lot of topics across two hours. We talked about the film’s themes, chiefly the role of language in easing day-to-day human interaction. We discussed Ozu’s distinctive camera positions (yes, there are more than one), his compass-point cutting (360-degree space, 180-degree reverse shots), and his use of adjacent spaces and rhyming compositions. We talked about his narrative strategies too, particularly his oscillation between nuclear-family plots like I Was Born, But… and extended-family ones like Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941, another masterpiece) and Tokyo Story (1953, ditto).

I emphasized both the film’s humor and its status as an unexpectedly experimental work; Ozu was setting himself new problems. How do you treat a neighborhood as an extended family? How do you shoot families living jammed together? How do you accentuate comic misunderstandings, and create gags through composition and color?

And how do you structure a film around a landscape, days of the week, and neighborhood routines? Ozu’s answer: Through echoic camera positions and compositions. Here’s an anatomy, showing the first four days’ scene openings.

Not all of our conversation could be included in the final cut, of course. For more on these and other matters, you can download my book Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. (The pattern shown above completes itself on p. 353.)

The title of that book resonates in a couple of ways. Most obviously it’s meant to show that a systematic approach to form, style, and theme (the stuff of a poetics of any artform) can illuminate what Ozu’s up to. The title also has personal meaning, because it was Ozu who taught me just how deeply cinematic patterning could penetrate the texture of a movie. Without sacrificing any emotional power, Ozu created films that are marvels of organization, from large-scale story construction to the smallest detail of image and sound.

I remember distinctly when I realized the grain of this work. One night back in the mid-’70s, Kristin, Ed Branigan, and I were watching Ohayo for the first time, on a 16mm New Yorker print. We came to a simple transitional passage and we all gasped. I dove back to the projector and ran the cut backward and forward again.

Apart from shifting us to a new space, as required by the plot, and apart from giving us two exquisite compositions, Ozu added a grace note: the red accent that appears in the same area of the two shots, linking shirt and lampshade. This discovery led Kristin and me to formulate the idea of the “graphic match,” a term for what happens when patterns of line or mass or color coincide from shot to shot.

Some directors, from Lubitsch to Brakhage, had employed graphic matches. Eisenstein had formulated the idea theoretically. But Ozu gave us a demo en passant, in the course of just “following his story.” His match isn’t necessary for the action, but like a rhyme in a narrative poem or a decorative trill in an operatic aria, it adds a sparkle to the moment.

By rewarding minute attention, Ozu made me realize that even ordinary movies teem with pictorial possibilities. There’s potentially so much going on within any shot or cut that scrutiny is often worth your time. True, studying Ozu makes most filmmakers look wasteful. They miss opportunities to enrich all the dimensions of cinema they present, to load every rift with ore.

But if we want to know how films work and work on us, we need to make the effort of looking closely. You’ll almost always find something interesting. When I consulted several books on 1910s directors like DeMille and Taylor, I found that nobody talked about things that popped out at me. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

Just how cunning was this guy? The more I looked, the more I began to hallucinate that he had made his movies just for me. When he returned to a scene’s master shot, I found that he had cunningly shifted the framing a little, or rearranged tiny elements of the set (often a beer bottle). He must have known I’d take frame enlargements (in that analog age) to check one image against another. I’d notice that in what seemed a perfectly orthodox reverse-angle sequence, things in the background had been slightly shifted to create a variant composition. That red lamp in Ohayo appears teasingly in the distance, out of focus, when other things are going on. Then you have the fact that people in these films like to keep their drinks at the same level of fill, no matter how big the glasses are or how close they are to the camera. Color seems to have inspired him to try these tricks, as in his first color film Equinox Flower(1958):

As with the shirt and the lampshade, there seemed to be Easter Eggs designed not just for my “critical method” but for me, the obsessive analyst. Why? Why would a grown man put these in his movies?

For fun. This tendency isn’t the punishing pursuit of structure at all costs we find in, say, Peter Greenaway. It’s the realization that you can play with patterning cinematic techniques, using them to accessorize your plot, the way musical motifs deepen the dialogue of an opera. And so what if nobody much notices? As I tell my skeptical students: If you thought of it, you’d do it too, just to get away with it.

Ohayo has another of my favorite examples. Throughout the film, the power lines near the neighborhood become a pictorial motif. At one point, the elderly Mrs.Haraguchi seems to be praying to a tower in the distance.

The film starts with a long shot of the neighborhood, its rooftops and fence and washlines in the distance, all dominated by a tower. The film ends with a shot of wash on a line, paying off the gag of the boy who constantly shits his underwear. But the angle of the shot constitutes a reverse angle of the very first shot, since the towers are now in the distance.

Given Ozu’s penchant for 180-degree shifts, and the rigorous patterning of his transitional spaces in the film, I stubbornly, maybe foolishly, maintain that he found this a neat way to give spatial closure to his movie, independent of the underpants gag in the foreground.


Ozu provided me bonus materials in his movies. Some are perhaps visible only to someone as persnickety as he was. And maybe they don’t matter. Ozu gives us so much to enjoy that to ask for more would be churlish. Yet he gives us that more without our asking. His films are generous to their characters and to us, but also to the art of cinema. His absurdly “restricted” approach opened onto vistas of possibility that promise more enjoyment than we have a right to expect.

He had an engineer’s mind, a painter’s eye, and a novelist’s human empathy. And he accomplished it all within one of the most flagrantly capitalistic film industries, which populated Ozuland with stars and stories. Taken all in all, I bet he’s the greatest filmmaker who ever lived.

Thanks to Elizabeth Pauker, who produced “Ozuland,” and as ever Peter Becker and Kim Hendrickson. They have done themselves and Criterion proud with this wonderful package.

The fussbudget in me can’t resist correcting something that comes up in the promotional materials and in some reviews. Ohayo wasn’t filmed in Technicolor. Ozu used what was called “Agfa-Shochikucolor.” I believe that’s just Agfa film with Shochiku adding its brand name, the way “Metrocolor” was MGM’s Eastmancolor. Why Agfa? Ozu explains: “Red turns out magnificently on Agfa film.”

I supplied a feature-length commentary for another Criterion trip to Ozuland, An Autumn Afternoon (1962). If you decide to download Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, be patient. It’s a big file. Lots of pictures.

Ohayo (Good Morning).

P.S. 30 May: An extract from my interview, focusing of course on farts, is on Criterion’s YouTube channel.

Wednesday | May 10, 2017 | Directors: Ozu Yasujiro, National cinemas: Japan | No Comments »

Still, this moment together in the park has a special grace. The sun shines, they bask in it, and the food they eat is wholesome and good.

"Koichi got married and has children," the husband says to his wife of his son. Then, of his daughter, he adds, "And now Noriko's marrying."

"We're happiest now," the wife replies. Somewhere, very softly, a few musicians are playing a curious, unresolved melody on stringed instruments.

"I don't think so," the husband says. "We can be happier." He pauses, then adds: "But we must not want too much. Oh, I really enjoyed today."

"Look!" says the wife, lifting her face to the sky. A single balloon floats upward, over her head and out of the park.

"A child must be crying," the husband says. "Remember how Koichi cried?"

The balloon sails farther away toward the empyrean, mottled with fluffy clouds.

This is a scene from the movie "Early Summer." Only one director in history could have made it: the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63). Ozu is now considered by some film enthusiasts worldwide to be the greatest director Japan ever produced and one of the greatest ever to work in the medium. Last year, in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the film maker's birth and the 30th of Ozu's death, the Tokyo Film Institute staged a retrospective of his 35 surviving films, and companion retrospectives were staged elsewhere.

In New York, the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center presented some of his best-known movies during January and February in a program called "Cinema's Sacred Treasure: The Films of Yasujiro Ozu." (The title refers to an honorific coined by Wim Wenders, an Ozu disciple.) And for eight Mondays from January to March, Film Forum in SoHo presented a series devoted to the director's early films, with special attention to his silent movies, a medium in which Ozu worked through the mid-1930's.

The current Ozu renaissance is also a cumulative result of periodic mini-rediscoveries that have taken place in Europe and in the United States since the late 50's, when his films first began to be shown outside Japan. A number of New York venues have been crucial to Ozu's growing prestige: the Museum of Modern Art, various revival houses (notably the old New Yorker Theater, now gone), the Japan Society and Film Forum. Movie theaters of one sort or another, not home video, have kept Ozu alive in this city, and continue to keep him alive. Although a handful of his films are available on video, all of them date from after World War II and give a limited perspective on his emotional range, his world of character types and, especially, his sly humor, in literary as well as visual terms. (Ozu co-wrote his own scripts.)

For an Ozu fan, poker-faced statements of fact, rife in his silent films of the 30's, are what his joke making is all about. (Two college students are playing hooky to go skiing. It's a long trip, a fact the audience learns when one young man asks the other, "How many more electric poles?" and the other answers, "A hundred and thirty six.")

Ozu fans don't explode with laughter over these lines. They smile. A smile in the world of Ozu is a big deal. When his characters smile broadly while speaking, it's often a clue that they're not truly happy at that moment but saying what they think ought to be said. It's the hard-won smiles that really count as smiles. Like the movie maker himself, his audiences adopt an aristocratic reserve. In 1994, this is not every moviegoer's cup of tea. In fact, it never was during Ozu's lifetime in Japan, where he was an undisputed critical success for the better part of his 40-year career but not frequently a box-office draw. The director knew his own measure.

"Someday, I'm sure, foreigners will understand my films," he once told his assistant Yuharu Atsuta. As Atsuta recalled, Ozu smiled modestly and added, "Then again, no. They will say, like everybody else, that my films aren't much of anything."

That is more or less what I said to myself earlier this winter, after having seen five Ozu films from various periods. My response didn't make me happy. Seated around me were silent, intently focused audiences, evidently enthralled. I wanted to understand what I couldn't be smitten by. I read David Bordwell's "Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema," which gives a detailed account of how Ozu went about movie making and of the human and technical resources available to him. I studied appreciative essays. I kept going to Ozu's movies, eventually running across one -- "Early Summer" (1951) -- that spoke to me on a more visceral level than that of cinematic influences and camera set-ups.

Why did it take me so long to warm to these films? What faculty was I missing, for I was definitely missing something? Down at Film Forum, you could have seen the director Louis Malle standing in line, and the playwright John Guare, the arts critic Annette Michelson and the performance artists Eiko and Koma, who brought their children. At these Ozu screenings, one had the sensation that nearly everybody in the audience was a somebody. So, in the spirit of a film maker whose movies are primarily taken up with people talking, I decided to get in touch with a few of them and listen to what they had to say.

Several people to whom Ozu meant the most linked him to their cultural experience of New York City, where they were living when they saw their first Ozu film, which, in all cases, turned out to be "Tokyo Story" (1953), another movie about Ozu's recurring theme of parents, their grown children and the dissolution of the family. Their discovery of Ozu was part of the story of what made them New Yorkers.

FOR ROBERT CORNFIELD, a literary agent, the identification of Ozu with the New York art scene was especially intense. At the time he first saw "Tokyo Story," in the early 60's, he was working with the poet Frank O'Hara at the Museum of Modern Art, and he felt very much part of a crowd of serious New York filmgoers at a time when momentarily, it seemed, great films were being made by people like Godard and Antonioni, who were telling stories in entirely new ways.

"In an Antonioni movie, you watched around things," Mr. Cornfield said. And his crowd belonged to the audience for whom these new visions were being produced. Their responses mattered as part of a larger international exchange of views, and they couldn't wait to react.

"We were breathless waiting for 'Breathless,' " he said. "It was a very different way from now of going to the movies." Ozu's films were seen by this crowd as "a new kind of movie making," Mr. Cornfield explained.

"His films were emotionally thrilling. You had to do a little more work for them, relax yourself, but once you picked that up they were like nothing you'd ever seen before. They built into a catharsis, a big sock in the head, where the terrible consequences of everything are made clear to you like that. Like Antonioni, Ozu forced you to see in a different way. Ozu was part of a forefront of change. Today there isn't that kind of audience for films in New York -- so hungry."

Bruce Handy, a senior editor for Time magazine and former movie reviewer for The Village Voice, is a generation younger. He said: "I can't think of anything in my filmgoing generation that would be comparable. The movie I can remember waiting most breathlessly to see was the sequel to 'The Road Warrior.' "

In discussing New York's initial reception of Ozu, Mr. Cornfield stressed the director's own profound enchantment since childhood with Western movie making. As Mr. Bordwell and others have chronicled, Ozu, who has been called "the most Japanese of movie makers," learned how to make movies about Japan by studying movies by Americans about America, including the work of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and D. W. Griffith.

"There's an American quality of deceptiveness in Ozu's movies," Mr. Cornfield said. "He picks a light subject and makes it deep. The odd thing in his work that we think is so Japanese -- the sensibility -- is probably American."

Mr. Cornfield, however, has never visited Japan. The fans I spoke to who had been there said they see a distinctly Japanese quality in Ozu's use of time. David Vaughan, the dance archivist and critic, and Valda Setterfield, the actress and dancer, liken this quality to the sensibility of the choreographer Merce Cunningham, who is notably fond of Japanese culture. Mr. Bordwell, in fact, describes a technique of timing camera shots -- he calls it metric editing -- employed by Ozu that sounds quite similar to the way Mr. Cunningham has used predetermined timings, arbitrarily arrived at through chance procedure, to set the lengths of some of his dances.

Susan Sontag, the novelist and essayist, cautions against stereotyping Ozu's work, however.

"I was interested to see his silent films from the 1930's," she said. "Some of them I was seeing for the first time. His film language in them, the way he made and shot film and directed actors, was not so organized and formal as it was to become, and it was more open to American influences. The action of the bodies in these films seems American. People touch each other more freely. There's even an element of slapstick."

Of course Ozu's work is Japanese. The question is, what kind of Japanese?

"Obviously, there are conventions of Japanese reticence and expressiveness represented in his films," Ms. Sontag said. "He uses discretion and ellipsis. He builds emotion by leaving things out. Yet as a Japanese film maker -- and Ozu seems very Japanese to me -- he is also very eccentric."

She sees the films of Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima as very different from Ozu's. "It's like comparing Emily Dickinson and Whitman, both Americans," she said. "Ozu is a supreme artist because he gives you all the pleasures of formal or abstract art and evokes profound emotions and sympathies. Does that make him universal? No. That makes him accessible."

At the Japan Society, Kyoko Hirano, the director of the film program there, has attended and overseen several Ozu retrospectives since the mid-80's, all of them so popular that hundreds of people had to be turned away from many showings. I asked her to compare his audiences in New York and in Tokyo.

"Ozu is definitely a fashion now in academia," she said. "Especially here. In Japan, one sees a reaction against this canonization. The critics charge that other Japanese directors are not taken with the same kind of seriousness."

When she was younger, said Ms. Hirano, she considered Mizoguchi "more profound and interesting" than Ozu. Then, in the early 1980's, she attended a film series that showed one Ozu film and one Mizoguchi film every day.

"It was an opportunity to compare two great directors," she said. "I was surprised to discover that I preferred Ozu. He is very simple, but he has a universal message that can travel across time and borders. I can go back 10 or 20 times to his movies, and it's always a pleasure to rediscover him. That's not true of every film maker."

I asked Ms. Hirano what she thought people meant when they called Ozu "the most Japanese of film directors."

"That claim has been criticized by both Americans and Japanese," she said. "What it meant in the 1950's and 60's was that his films were about Japanese families, specifically about daughters getting married. But the Chinese make similar films, and so do Italian-Americans. As far as subject matter goes, the claim is not true. Stylistically, Ozu's films are very simple; that point might be described as Japanese. But it's also widely known that Ozu was very much influenced by Americans."

One aspect of Ozu that is rarely discussed is his character. Biographical information about him in English is scarce, and I wondered aloud to Ms. Hirano if more information was available in untranslated Japanese literature.

"A bit more," she said. "As you probably know, he was very close to his mother. He never married. His assistant director Takahashi wrote a novel about Ozu, but people take its biographical information to be factual." In the novel, she said, Ozu had a platonic relationship with his favorite leading actress, Setsuko Hara.

"Some people think he was gay, but no one is sure," she continued. "He was expelled from his high school for sending a love letter to another male student, but it was an all-boys' high school, and we don't know whether it was a serious letter or just a joke." What is known, she said, is that Ozu was "a very moralistic person."

"He loved making jokes, but he was very polite and respected an ethical way of living -- not religious but ethical," she said. "He hated people who took advantage of others."

At the end of World War II, she said, he was captured by the British and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore. "There is a story about him there that shows what he meant by ethics," she said. "When the war ended, the Japanese prisoners were to be sent home, but the British couldn't afford to send everyone home at once. So the prisoners themselves made a lottery to decide who would go home when.

"Ozu was lucky. His number put him in the first batch of men to return. But he looked around and saw that one of his friends, who had a family, wasn't selected to go home early and was very disappointed. Ozu said to him, 'I don't have a family. You go first.' The friend said no, but Ozu insisted. Ozu himself was one of the last to return."

She paused, then added: "I believe that was Ozu's personality, the personality you find in his films. I believe that Ozu kept his pure heart." MARRYING DAUGHTERS

Six of Yasujiro Ozu's 35 surviving films are available on video in the United States. Some can be bought from Facets Video in Chicago, (800) 331-6197. Some can be rented from large outlets like Tower Video. Most are available for rental or purchase from Evergreen Video, at 228 West Houston Street in Manhattan, which maintains a large inventory of Japanese films.

* "An Autumn Afternoon" (1962). Ozu's last completed film. A widower's daughter marries, resignedly. $69.95.

* "Early Summer" (1951). A beloved daughter marries, breaking her family apart. (Available for rental only.)

* "Equinox Flower" (1958). A daughter marries despite her father's objections. $69.95.

* "Floating Weeds" (1959). Ozu's own remake of his 1934 silent film "The Story of Floating Weeds." A traveling actor meets his grown son. $29.95.

* "Late Spring" (1949). A father, concerned about his daughter's future, tricks her into marrying. $79.95.

* "Tokyo Story" (1953). Ozu's best-known film in the United States. Elderly parents visit their preoccupied grown children. $69.95.

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