Often called the most "Japanese" of Japanese directors, Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) created films about middle-class Japanese life and familial relationships with simplicity and austerity. Known for keeping the camera three feet off the ground in order to view the traditional Japanese sitting on the floor, Ozu presented quiet observations of parents and children caught between obligation and the modern world. Ozu, who was an acclaimed director in Japan and whose body of work reached 54 films, first began to gain notoriety in the West late in his life.
Yasujiro Ozu was born in the Fukugawa district of Tokyo, on December 12, 1903, the son of a fertilizer salesman. Rarely seeing his father, he attended a remote school at the family's ancestral hometown where his doting mother primarily raised him. His unconventional childhood was reflected in many of his films, which invariably dealt with family life and relations between parents and their children.
An unruly youth who disliked school, Ozu favored watching the movies from Hollywood he loved so much, especially those from Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Rex Ingram. He worked for a few years as an assistant teacher in rural Japan and studied at Waseda University.
Ozu's break into filmmaking came in 1923 when he landed the job of assistant cameraman to director Tadamoto Okuba at Shochiku Motion Picture Company—the film company at which he would eventually spend most of his professional life. Okuba became Ozu's mentor who later influenced Ozu's own films, especially his comedies.
Directed Silent Films
Following a year of military service, Ozu returned in 1926 to become an assistant director at Shochiku. He attributed his desire to become a director to Thomas H. Ince's 1916 silent epic Civilization. Ozu made his first film in 1927, Zange no yaiba (Sword of Penitence), an uneven silent film that showed his lack of experience. Undaunted and armed with his interest in Hollywood films, he began to adopt an American studio approach to his filmmaking.
Ozu's first major film was one of the last great silent films. The 1932 comedy/drama Umarete wa mita keredo (I Was Born But …) met with critical and financial success and was named the best Japanese film of the year in the Kinema Jumpo poll. In the film, as seen through the eyes of children, the world of adults is both ridiculous and painful. For this film, Ozu employed the technique that would become his trademark—unobtrusive and static camera work.
During his career, Ozu would win many awards. His 1933 Dekigokoro (Passing Fancy) was another Kinema Jumpo winner. The 1934 silent film Ukigusa monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds) was one of only a few films Ozu did not make for Shochiku, but for Daiei film company. Based on an American silent film called The Barker, Floating Weeds, a film about the adventures of traveling players in the countryside, is considered a superior work. Still clinging to silent films, Ozu was one of the last directors to relinquish the style, wanting to explore all of the possibilities the medium had to offer, as well as waiting until sound technology was perfected. Sadly, more than half of Ozu's 30 silent films are lost.
Placed the Camera on the Floor
In the 1930s, Ozu rejected the conventions of both Japanese and Hollywood filmmaking to create his own style and themes. He experimented with camera angles, settling on a concept of simplicity. Describing his decision to limit the camera work, Ozu was quoted in Donald Richie's book Japanese Cinema, as having said: "For the first time, I consciously gave up the use of the fade-in and fade-out. Generally dissolves and fades are not a part of cinematic grammar. They are only attributes of the camera." The tactic worked, as Ozu became one of Japan's most popular and respected directors during the decade.
Ozu became known for his deceptively simple camera technique that used a stationary 50mm lens placed three feet off the ground. This low angle corresponded with the eye level of a person sitting on Japanese tatami mats on the floor of a traditional home. Consequently, sets on Ozu's films were built with ceilings. Observant but never intrusive, the camera contemplated and chronicled human behavior, presenting only the bare essentials.
Rejecting the more conventional camera direction through a 180-degree space to view action, Ozu focused instead on his characters and their interactions. He rarely resorted to devices such as fades, dissolves, pans, or tracking shots. Rather, through subtle, minimal camera work, simple cuts, and measured dialogue of everyday conversation, he presented scenes that were unhurried. He often textured his films with empty rooms and uninhabited landscapes.
Focused on the Family
The thematic thread linking Ozu's films was the exploration of the human condition, specifically the domestic problems of the contemporary Japanese middle-class family. Quiet and virtually plotless, his films chronicled human behavior in ordinary situations, evoking nostalgia, duty, and Japanese sensibilities. Not spurred by the actions of heroes or villains, conflict arose from the interaction of ordinary people, usually a parent and adult child, coping with everyday challenges. Home life contrasted with work life, tradition with modern society, parental responsibility with rebellious youth.
Ozu often used repetition in his films to evoke the familiar and the dependable. He would refer back to an outside shot of a building or a pond or leave the camera on a principal character. For example, in the 1956 film Soshun (Early Spring), he chaptered scenes with a repeated view of early morning in the suburbs. Many of the same actors returned again and again in Ozu's films to play similar characters. Ozu's favorite actor was Chishu Ryu, who most often played the father of an adult child he does not understand.
A writer as well as a director, Ozu perpetuated his fondness for repetition, as evidenced in his series of films titled with the seasons. Early Spring, 1956; Banshun (Late Spring), 1949; Bakushu (Early Summer), 1951; Kohayagawa-ke no aki (Autumn for the Kohayagawa Family), 1961; and Akibiyori (Late Autumn), 1960, suggest a circular round of life as well as the figurative spring or autumn of his characters' lives. He also directed the series Daigaku wa deta keredo (I Graduated But …), 1929; Rakudai wa shita keredo (I Flunked But …), 1930; and I Was Born But…, 1932.
Attained Success after the War
At first, Ozu did not fare well with talking pictures. His first two films Hitori musuko (The Only Son), 1936, a story about maternal love, and Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka (What Did the Lady Forget?) 1937, about a bossy wife, were described as dull and badly paced.
When World War II loomed, Ozu was drafted and sent to China, and in 1945 he was confined for six months in a British POW camp. He made only two films between 1937 and 1948, continuing to focus on his usual humanist values rather than addressing the war. The 1941 film Todake no kyodai (The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Clan), about a mother and daughter, was Ozu's first box-office hit garnering critical acclaim. The film was made in collaboration with Yuharu Atsuta, who would become Ozu's regular cameraman. The other film, Chichi ariki (There Was a Father), 1942, concerned the obligatory conflict between parents and children and virtually ignored the war.
After World War II, Ozu reached the pinnacle of his talent making what many critics propound as some of his finest films. Roger Greenspun of the New York Times called Ozu's 1949 film Late Spring the most beautiful Ozu movie he knew. The study of a widowed father and his adult daughter both considering marriage was also one of the director's own favorite films.
Directed the Masterpiece Tokyo Story
Ozu's most acclaimed film was the 1953 masterpiece Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story) about an elderly couple from a small town who visit their married children in Tokyo. With their children too caught up in the frenzy of modern life to pay them appropriate attention, the couple is packed off to one house after another. They receive kindness only from the widow of their dead son. Soon after the elderly couple returns home, the wife dies. Tokyo Story appeared in the top 10 films of all time in Sight and Sound's poll of international film critics.
In his trademark style, Ozu left the camera a few feet off the ground, unmoving. This technique limited the field of vision, yet allowed the camera to observe the interaction of the characters. No actor was to dominate a scene; the camera commanded the attention of all. With regular actor Chishu Ryu playing the father, the film condemned none of the characters. While the children are not portrayed as evil, they are uncaring and unresponsive to anything but their own desires. The movie advocated a certain resigned sadness to the way things have become.
Ozu, as well as his characters, adopted this gentle resignation and acceptance which culminated in the face of the corrupting influence of postwar society on family traditions. This mono no aware outlook on life is a belief that the world will go on despite the uncertainty surrounding you. Live in the present, acknowledge that the past is gone, sympathize but don't complain, face your life with serenity and calm.
The scope of Ozu's films were black comedies, satires, social criticism, melodramas, and even a gangster film, the 1933 Hijosen no onna ("Dragnet Girl"). The last film Ozu made in black and white was the 1957 Tokyo boshoku (Twilight in Tokyo), perhaps his darkest and most pessimistic portrayal of the disintegration of the family. Embracing color for the 1958 Higanbana (Equinox Flower), Ozu employed a newly developed Japanese color-film process to tell the story of the younger generation, this time with Shin Saburi as the father reconciling with his errant daughter.
Late in Ozu's career, the new wave of Japanese artists criticized him for his rigid style and refusal to address current social issues. Undeterred, he made Sanma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon), 1962, which would be his last film. A story about loneliness, the movie was influenced by the death, during filming, of his mother. Chishu Ryu returned as a widower who had married off his only daughter and occupied the rest of his days drinking.
Influenced Filmmakers Around the World
Ozu, who lived with his mother until her death in 1962, died of cancer on December 11, 1963, just shy of his 60th birthday.
The West was slow to embrace Ozu's films, which did not appear in foreign theaters or film festivals until the 1960s, shortly before his death. Japanese distributors feared that his work was too subtle for Western audiences who were more familiar with the adventures from Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, who were winning awards abroad. Nevertheless, Ozu's simplicity of presentation fortunately gave his films international appeal and a universal desire for family, affection, and security.
Ozu himself has been an influence on such diverse Western directors as Jim Jarmusch, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese. He inspired a documentary by Wim Wenders and was frequently the subject of books by Donald Richie, a scholar of Japanese cinema.
In 1983, Ozu's devoted assistant Kazuo Inoue produced a documentary profile of the director, called I Lived But … The Life and Works of Yasujiro Ozu that featured interviews with Ozu's production crew and recurring actors, plus excerpts from newsreels, home movies, and clips from two dozen of Ozu's films. Ozu's cameraman Yuharu Atsuta shot the film, and his long-time production company Shochiku produced it.
On December 12, 2003, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Ozu's birth, the Berlin International Film Festival, in collaboration with Shochiku Co. Ltd., will present a retrospective on the Japanese director. The retrospective will go on to screen at festivals in Hong Kong and New York.
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