Poet of disappointment

When he died on his 60th birthday on Dec. 12, 1963, Yasujiro Ozu was one of the most popular and honored filmmakers in his native Japan. And yet he was an obscure figure in the West, where his films were rarely seen before the 1970s.

It was said that Ozu didn’t travel well, that he was simply “too Japanese” for export, and that his slow-paced and subtle family dramas would leave Western audiences mystified — or worse, bored. This seems like an odd justification since the West during the 1950s and 1960s had produced its own share of low-keyed and somewhat obscure dramas; if followers of foreign films could respond to the likes of Antonioni and Bresson then how much more challenging could Ozu be?

More likely, the Japanese wanted to keep Ozu, whose late-period specialty was the bittersweet family drama, for themselves. Perhaps they loved him too much to risk his rejection by barbarians — there is, after all, a certain mix of cultural caution and condescension in the assumption that foreigners would find a cherished body of work that focuses on average middle-class Japanese life uninteresting.

But during the past 30 years or so, the foreign film scene in this country has both narrowed and deepened. The films are not as widely shown as they used to be, but the emphasis is less Euro-centric. And for audiences who have been exposed to the austerity of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami or Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, or Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran’s The Scent of Green Papayas, Ozu is going to be easy.

It’s true that his film titles can be so similar to each other — Late Spring, Early Summer, Early Spring, Late Autumn, to name but four — that even devotees can get them confused. And during his late period he essentially told, with some variations and with the same principal cast, the same story over and over again. But the only real difficulty that Ozu’s films offer is their demand for patience and focus. Ritual intensifies experience, and after you’ve seen a few of his films you know the drill. You can also appreciate how he takes certain universal truths — the ephemeral quality of family life and life in general — and shifts the perspective slightly to see what else may be revealed.

Our general perceptions of Japanese films tend to be much different. They are shaped by Akira Kurosawa (especially his samurai pictures) and the more recent Japanese taboo-breakers, directors like Nagisa Oshima (In The Realm of the Senses and Gohatto), Shohei Immamura (Vengeance Is Mine and The Eel), and recent cult movie favorite Takashi Miike (Audition).

Ozu’s films don’t offer such easy hooks. There’s no action or suspense and certainly no bloodshed. What drama there is, is both muted and attenuated. But his stories have a universal quality and the slow accretion of emotional detail can be as compelling as any twisty plot.

The director himself summed up his approach this way: “Rather than tell a superficial story, I wanted to go deeper, to show the hidden undercurrents, the ever-changing uncertainties of life. So instead of constantly pushing dramatic action to the fore, I left empty spaces so viewers could have a pleasant aftertaste to savor.”

Ozu made 54 films from 1927 to 1963, 36 of which still exist. But when people refer to him, they generally have in mind the 13 movies he made from 1949 on, beginning with Late Spring. Watching these measured and sometimes dryly ironic films, it may be hard to believe that he first hit his stride as a director of light comedy.

Ozu said that as a youngster he preferred American films to Japanese ones and has cited Thomas Ince’s Civilization from 1916 as the film that made him want to become a director — a respectable, even weighty original inspiration. But he carried around with him a picture of Pearl White (of The Perils of Pauline fame) and had an abiding passion for the work of Ernst Lubitsch, whose films were the epitome of continental sophistication and wit.

So comedy was a natural genre for the young enthusiast and the most famous of his comedies — partly because it’s also the most available — is 1932’s I Was Born, But ..., which will be one of four Ozu films shown at the Detroit Film Theatre between Friday (the very day of the director’s centennial) and Monday (see below for schedule). The silent film tells the story of a couple with two young sons who move from the city to the countryside, a situation lifted from Ozu’s own life: His parents thought the city was no place to raise a child. The first part of the film is a leisurely look at the two boys, age 8 and 10, as they contend with their new environment and their new playmates, including the obligatory bully and his toadies. It’s like a Little Rascals scenario with more physical grace and more clever sight gags.

The two boys adore their father, even though they’re not above lying to him about their grades; the crunch comes when they see the old man humiliating himself in front of his boss. The kids are so aghast at his obsequious behavior that they go on a hunger strike, refusing to eat until Dad stands up to his superior. This being a comedy, things turn out more or less OK. As in his later dramas, there’s no happy ending but rather a compromise one can live with. Already, the worldview that Ozu would later explore in depth is present, a worldview not so much pessimistic as it is contemplative and accepting.

At one point in I Was Born, But ... the parents are talking about the boys’ future. The father, who has seen his life reflected in his children’s appalled reaction, asks rhetorically, “Will they live the same kind of sorry lives that we have?” And the implied answer is, “It’s very likely.”

By the mid-’30s Ozu was already taking a more serious look at family life. (Though he would never marry or have children, family relations would become his great theme, even his obsession.) The turning point was The Only Son (1936), his first talkie, though it would be 13 years before he arrived at his definitive approach. The first of the mature Ozu films, Late Spring (also part of the DFT program), reunited him with a former collaborator, writer Koga Noda. All the films that Ozu made from then on were with Noda, and the two developed a working routine that involved weeks of nightly discussion before the actual writing, accompanied by the consumption of vast quantities of booze (which may explain why there are so many crucial drinking scenes in Ozu’s films).

This is the style which lifted Ozu from being an interesting Japanese director to a maker of masterpieces: The camera never moves. A typical scene begins with a few establishing shots, first outdoors, then in a house or building, finally coming to a room with people in it, first seen at the end of a hallway. Once we come inside the room the camera remains about three feet off the ground, which is roughly the eye level of someone sitting on a tatami mat. If two people are sitting next to each other, one will be sitting slightly forward so we can see both in profile (if they’re sitting at a bar the camera angle will create the double profile shot). This occurs in film after film, and the effect is to convey both comfort — the slow entry into domesticity, a specific place in a specific world — and the containment, through rigid visual control, of the “hidden undercurrents.”

Late Spring’s dilemma is typical Ozu. A widower (Chishu Ryu) wants his daughter (Setsuko Hara) to marry, but she’s so resistant to the idea that he has to pretend that he’s going to get married too, in order to persuade her that he’ll be taken care of. The catch is that her concern for his loneliness was partly a pretext, and once that’s gone she’s forced into an arranged marriage she doesn’t really want.

Hara and Ryu became Ozu regulars with this film. Hara plays the daughter as a woman whose smile seems a little too forced, making her virtually unreadable but also making her acquiescence to hard reality all the more affecting; when she learns that the man she really loves is already attached she suddenly becomes sullen and slow-moving as though narcotized by unhappiness.

Also showing at the DFT is Tokyo Story (1953), generally considered Ozu’s best film. In this one an elderly couple are visiting from the countryside, seeing their grown children for what they know is one last time. The children are respectful but don’t quite know what to do with the old folks; only their daughter-in-law (Hara again), the widow of their son killed in the war, shows them unconditional love and respect. But all is not as it seems, and when tragedy strikes, true feelings — mainly remorse — emerge. In a scene toward the end, when Hara is explaining to her younger sister-in-law that things rarely go the way you want, the younger woman says, “Isn’t life disappointing?” to which Hara responds, “Yes, it is.” Which is Ozu’s philosophy in a nutshell. (See a full review of Tokyo Story in the Cinema section.)

Since this is in many ways a typical Ozu film, why is it considered his best? Different people would probably give different answers, but for me a large part of it is Ryu’s amazing performance as the father — sage but all too human — and that the ending is somewhat more powerful than is usual for Ozu. Moreover, there isn’t an extraneous scene in the whole two-hour-plus film.

The director’s last film, 1962’s An Autumn Afternoon (the only color film in this Ozu celebration) is practically a remake of Late Spring. Ryu repeats his role as the widowed father who fears his daughter’s devotion to him is going to lead to her becoming a spinster. You would think that by this point Ozu and his co-writer Noda would have gotten a little stale, but both the humor and the pathos feel fresh, and the duo ring changes on their old themes like master musicians reworking a favorite song. And once again we’ve had access to a contemplative vision which tells us that life is so sad because it’s so good.

Read this week's film review of Tokyo Story.

Ozu at 100: A Celebration plays this weekend exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre. Tokyo Story shows Friday, Dec. 12; An Autumn Afternoon, Saturday, Dec. 13; Late Spring, Sunday, Dec. 14; and I Was Born, But ..., Monday Dec. 15. The Detroit Film Theatre is inside the DIA (5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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