Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Yasujiro Ozu

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2008)

I first read about Yasujiro Ozu long before I had any hope of seeing his films. I liked the director Paul Schrader, and I was aware that Schrader had written a book called Transcendental Style In Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. I haven’t read the book to this day, and I don’t think it’s very highly regarded now, but I found it fascinating that Taxi Driver and American Gigolo could spring from the same mind that venerated a Japanese “transcendental style.” But this was in a pre-DVD age, and the films were completely inaccessible to me.

Forgetting Late Spring

I haven’t gone back through my notes to recall when I finally saw my first Ozu film, but something interesting happened a few years ago – I went to see Late Spring for the first time at the Cinematheque, enjoyed and admired it but not overwhelming so, but only towards the very end started to experience a strong feeling of déjà vu. I consulted my records and found out I’d seen it before, and most astonishingly, only a few years before (also at the Cinematheque). This is very unusual for me – usually I’d have remembered the fact of having seen it even if I hadn’t retained any of the substance. Late Spring must surely be the best film I’ve ever forgotten all about.

Well, after that I started watching Ozu’s films fairly regularly, and by now I might even say I would rather watch one of his on a given night than anyone else’s. One of my great movie joys is in now having fourteen of them on DVD, which I believe is everything that’s available without getting into the multi-region player thing. But I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned him in this column, other than in passing, whereas I’ve mentioned Schrader, to use the same example, probably a dozen times (even leaving aside actually reviewing his films). Because, when you come down to it, I’m not that elevated a thinker. Now, as it happens, most of what I’m writing about isn’t that elevated an art either. So like anyone else, I evolve my quirks and reference points and just hope it means something to someone. But it would be facetious to use Ozu as a reference point for all but a tiny portion of contemporary cinema.

That statement, though, risks perpetuating the continuing myth that Ozu is “difficult.” The truth is, “transcendental style” increasingly seems to me if not a wrong label, certainly not a helpful one, and I now think the mystification of Ozu helped crush my initial sense of him, thus contributing to my inability to process Late Spring. I’m sure other potential devotees remain equally misled. If you’ve heard anything about him at all, it’s probably something like this: he made small-scale family dramas, often using the same themes if not the same plots, the same actors, and virtually the same titles (Early Spring, Late Spring, Early Summer, etc.); he almost never moved the camera, which he generally kept close to the ground. Only one or two of his movies fails to contain at least one shot of a train. He regularly connects one scene to the next through the most mundane sights, such as clothes hanging outside to dry.

Changing Times

I have no space here (and insufficient ability) to even start on an explanation of why these unprepossessing raw elements constitute one of the most enchanting, overwhelming and instructive bodies of work in cinema. For that I might best refer you to Robin Wood’s essay in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film. But even more than that to the films themselves – and really, all I want to do this week is to persuade you -any one of you would justify the effort – to rent or buy or borrow one of Ozu’s films (the most famous, and indeed perhaps the easiest point of entry, is Tokyo Story, increasingly commonly cited as one of the best films ever made.)

Ozu’s career goes back to the silent era, but his richest period, encompassing the most readily available films, starts in the late 40’s and stretches through the next decade (he died in 1962). World War Two and the bombing of Hiroshima are seldom mentioned in the films, but inevitably lurk in the background. The society is ordered and steeped in tradition. The men go off to work, mostly in anonymous offices; the women mainly stay at home. However, times are changing: Western and traditional dress intermingle, stars like Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn are mentioned from time to time. Transcendental or not, Ozu’s films could hardly be more precisely grounded, and the consistency of his themes means you can virtually chart the changing society from one film to the next.

In particular, he continuously reexamines the shifting expectations of the sexes for themselves and each other and the world around them. Marriage is the most common theme, as an institution that keeps reasserting itself and trapping successive generations, even as all involved sense its limitations. In the most famous example, Late Spring, a father essentially manipulates his stay-at-home daughter into a marriage, even though it only renders him lonely and her unhappy. Ozu’s most scintillating recurring character, embodied by actress Setsuko Hara, is a woman (often a widow) who chooses to resist this momentum. In Early Summer, in a neat reversal, she mystifies everyone (including the future groom) by suddenly deciding to marry someone who’s never even courted her, perhaps the subtlest (and of course self-defeating) of protests. Often, the woman disappears from the film after the wedding takes place, as if nothing more could be said about her.

Equinox Flower

These are wonderful stories, especially once you get to know Ozu a little. His films feel very even, non-judgmental, which is not the same as being passive. He exposes through sorrow rather than anger. But they’re also wonderfully funny at times. In the one I rewatched most recently, Equinox Flower (his first in colour), a father who publicly espouses romantic self-determination and a progressive view of female choice is much less able to apply those standards to his own daughter. It’s not Ozu’s best – it doesn’t flow and cohere as naturally as some others – but there’s a wonderful deadpan comedy to the father’s escalating powerlessness (actually, “deadpan” is a term that takes on a whole new meaning when considered relative to Ozu).

As in all his works, it’s all the richer for its proximity to tragedy. The gains of some generations confirm the losses of those that went before; people register small victories at the cost of much loneliness, repetition, distance. It’s tempting to see this as less wrenching in Japan than here – so much time, it appears, spent transcendentally meditating – but Ozu’s restraint shouldn’t be taken as a denial of real pain. His work is extremely specific, but – once you throw off your misconceptions – moving and comprehensible and, above all, continuingly relevant. Discover him tonight.

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