Ozu Yasujiro can be perceived as one of the most famous representatives of the Japanese cinematography of the twentieth century. He belongs to the classic Japanese “big three directors” together with Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, and his works are quite unordinary and quintessential. His 35-year career numbers a total of 54 movies that mostly include the postwar films. However, the peculiarity of his work is not just the plot that represents the historical events. The main topics of his works are family and the conflicts between society and an individual. The specific techniques and stylistic signatures are common for the majority of his films and include the focus on the particular instead of general, use of narrative ellipses and demand for attentiveness and further deeper reflections.
Biography and World View
One of the cinema’s “truly great filmmakers” was born in Tokyo in 1903 and preferred watching movies to school studies from his early age. The major events of his life are mostly qualified as muted climaxes in his films. Among such, Bordwell named a youthful stint being at a grade school; a job in the film industry; his father’s death in 1934; the further life with his mother till 1962; and some summons to serve in the army. In 1923, Ozu began his work with the cinema equipment as he worked for Shochiku Motion Picture Company as an assistant cameraman. At that time, he already started to experiment with idiosyncratic film style rather than followed the strict norms and rules. In such a way, the early techniques he used and experimented were dissolving, the fade, and the pan from his cinematic palette. Ozu shot only from a low camera angle and used a 50mm lens; visual aesthetics became his main focus. In such a way, his first movie that reflected these practices and experiments was The Sword of Penitence directed in 1927. The next manifestation of his creative ideas can be found in the touching comedy shot in 1932 called I Was Born, But. The film was considered as one of his best pre-war films that demonstrates his new signature film style. His further work during the World War II was rich in a few films like There Was a Father. However, the peak of his cinematographic work was reached in the post-war period, which was characterized with such films as Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953), and Late Autumn (1960). These movies are characterized as contemplative, simple and edged with nostalgia and sadness. During his career that lasted from 1927 to 1962, Ozu Yasujiro has narrowed his films scope to the bare essentials. He became focused mostly on the domestic dramas known as shomen-geki that were coherent from one film to the next. Although the peculiarities of the characters could differ, generally, they all enmeshed in the same quiet world. His heroes are ordinary people facing no great failures or wild successes. Instead, they live their ordinary life in the common society. Consequently, the director raises the problems that people meet in their everyday lives, namely conflicts between parents and children, husband and wife and in various other relations. In such a way, one can unearth his deep sensitivity to the state of humans and his nuanced perception of the rules of everyday life with their tremendous emotional power as the features that have secured Ozu’s reputation within and outside Japan. These characteristics are quite special and can be hardly or rarely met in Hollywood dramas. Afterward, Ozu was strongly criticized by the Japanese New Wave iconoclastic directors for making his films rigid or not addressing the social issues. However, his quiet and transcendent vision of life and humanity has survived throughout time and influenced such Western directors as Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, and Martin Scorsese. Some other critics consider Ozu to be one of the most quintessential filmmakers among the Japanese. His “religion” is mostly found in the esthetic form and structure of his movies. At the same time, exactly Zen tradition of Buddhism has a close connection with his filmmaking. However, this link is quite often understated and unexplored. In 1962, Ozu died of cancer; however, his movies and a unique style are still considered as classics of the Japanese cinematography. To summarize, the fact that Ozu lived in pre-, war and post-war times formed his world views as quite depressive and gloomy. Moreover, his life was complicated by home governing by a doting mother and lack of father. At the same time, the religious beliefs and mainly the Buddhist ideals were obviously influential for him and his works. Ozu believed that life is sad and people have to react to events with calm acceptance. In addition, things are transient, and life is impermanent, while the cycle of nature mirrors the cycle of life.
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Genres and Techniques
Unlike his contemporaries Mizoguchi, Shimazu and Naruse, Ozu has chosen his style and employed it during the latter career. His technical preferences can be followed with a naked eye by any spectator. The composition of the scenes, patterns of abjuration, retreat or progress, high angles, eliminating punctuation, camera movements, and other devices are emphasized by many critics as the main peculiarities of Ozu style. At the same time, the most visible differences lie between the pre- and postwar works. According to Kristin Thompson, a tripartite scheme can be used to characterize his style and techniques the most properly. In such a way, the early experiments in 1929-1933, the mature works in 1929-1949, and the late period during 1949-1963 are the three stages of his development as a classic Japanese director. She emphasizes the playfulness of the early films and the use of many devices such as dissolves-in-place, transitions by close-ups of hands, and optically subjective shots that appeared later.
Stylistic signature of Ozu Yasujiro is quite special and interesting. A low camera angle and a 50mm lens, formal closed framing, very little moving camera and the avoidance of over-the-shoulder shots are the main technical features of his films starting with his first movie in 1923. Bordwell noted that his camera was usually places about three feet above the floor. Such three-feet-high shot placed at the level of his seated characters has become his famous Tatami shot. At the same time, it usually registers the low-level viewpoint of seated Japanese. He has even got an award from the Emperor for his decision to shot the low-height scenes and aspects. Transition shots that were used by Ozu between scenes and served as punctuation and moments for contemplation were also quite distinguishing and peculiar only for this great director. Strong graphic compositions and elements of line, space, form, weight, and balance are chosen very carefully and attentively. Putting the filmmaker and his poetics in a social context, Bordwell reveals the dynamic systems and formal constructs of Ozu’s movies. In such a way, he shows that his works can impress the spectator on many levels, including the stylistic and narrative ones, in a fashion that is outstanding in the history of cinematography.
The genre of Ozu’s works is defined as gendai-geki. However, as the pre-war and post-war periods of his work were marked by different motives, the gendai-geki characterizes mostly his earlier one that was focused on contemporary life. These early films were nonsense comedies. However, he also directed such melodramas as Beauty’s Sorrows and That Night’s Wife. His pre-war works about lower-middle-class life called shoshimingeki works also deserve special attention for their reflection of the Japanese reality. A related genre was home drama focused on family problems. Moreover, by the end of the 1930s, Ozu was also working on the film of the bourgeoisie called the burujoa-eiga. Such films as Toda Family and What Did the Lady Forget? were marked by Ozu’s shift toward upper middle-class life in his home drama. The post-war genres of this director were also reverted to the shoshimin-geki. In such a way, Ozu’s works remained in the “salaryman” genre for the rest of his career.
With regard to his subject of interest during all of the career periods, family ties and life deserves special attention. However, the earlier works were distinguished by social forces influencing family life, its decline, the further dereliction and anxiety of the family members. In the later works, Ozu focused more on the inner dynamics of the interactions within the family. The conflicts that develop between personal desires and the societal demands of life are represented through the transitions that create them, namely growing up, marriage, and the evolving nature of ones place in the culture. More than 50 movies show the exploration of various situations and the emotional attachments, selfhood, dependencies of the characters. In her essay, Kathe Geist analyzed the role of marriage as represented in Ozu’s films. Defined as a “station on the life cycle’s journey”, the institution of marriage appears to be of a cosmic significance. Such exceptional importance of marriage is very brightly represented in the “season cycle” movies. Among them, five ended with marriage, the ending of the other was the marriage vows reaffirmation, and the other one ended with the intention to marry. In addition, it is important that the intention to marry as well as many other serious deeds represented in the films is made by a woman. Therefore, one can see that the female characters of Ozu Yasujiro are mostly strong, self-confident, know what they want and are ready to struggle.
Another interesting peculiarity of Ozu’s style was his emphasis on the particular instead of general. Such element reminds of the classic Japanese art and especially of haiku poetry. Even scholars like Le Pape paid attention particularly to Yasujiro Ozu’s movies in order to learn the differences in nonverbal communication between the Americans and Japanese. He reported that in Ozu’s movies, people usually sit side by side when they talk to each other; they rarely hold a mutual gaze. According to his conclusions, it is painful for a Japanese to feel a constant gaze while talking; therefore, the Japanese “gaze moderately”, and it can be easily observed in Ozu’s works (Hattori 111). If a Western person would keep on gazing constantly during a conversation, the Japanese is more likely to feel uncomfortable. Thus, the gestures of the characters and their peculiar representation in the films of the great Japanese filmmaker appear to be extremely important. The narrative ellipse also contributes to the uniqueness of Ozu’s films. Thus, not every aspect is represented and explained. The most significant occurrences in the characters’ lives are usually hidden. It is crucial for Ozu to underestimate the unique and infrequent life events in order to represent the slower and more ordinary and steady pace of everyday life. Finally, the techniques of Yasujiro Ozu can lead one to a conclusion that the smaller and secondary elements contribute a lot to the greater meaning of the whole work.
Early Summer (1951)
Early Summer is a part of Ozu’s trilogy that belongs to the latest period of his career, when all his techniques and peculiar stylistic elements have become improved with all previous experience. Among the elements that link the trilogy together, a single woman Norika is the main one. Consequently, the strong female character that is peculiar to Ozu’s works can be found at once. Moreover, the motive of her relations that becomes the basis of the plot is another feature common for this great filmmaker. Being single and perceived by a society as someone “running out of time”, Norika put her efforts into choosing the right way in her life. The movie represents the family relations and their pressure on the woman in the post-war period. Although the main heroine is strong and tries to struggle against the norms that are imposed by the society and family, finally, the movie seems quite gloomy as she has to surrender. The spectators can also follow the interesting imagery in the film. For instance, Daibutsu is simultaneously a historical relic and a neighborhood setting for the family Sunday chat. Such imagery of the past is usual for Ozu and becomes the object of reflection. By such means, the filmmaker also introduces the peculiarities of Japanese culture, mainly the idea that “the present is evanescent”. Thus, Early Summer portrays the cycle of life rather than the action itself. Therefore, the compositional realism and playfulness of the tactics as well as the theme of the film is very typical for Ozu.
Tokyo Story (1953)
Tokyo Story is a great example of Yasujiro Ozu’s work, revealing his gift of a poet of a family life. The masterpiece is probably his most famous movie. It is focused on the story of an old couple and the generation gap that causes conflicts and misunderstandings with their children. One should also understand that the characters are the representatives of the middle class family that is common for the post-war works of the director. The sad mood of the movie is caused by the attitude of children towards their old parent that made them feel being a burden. As it is common for Ozu, the story is shot with a very little movement of the camera. However, the view of the scenes is even lower than usually, it is lower than a seated character, almost from the floor. Nevertheless, the general mood, the motives of the transitory nature of life, the family relations, the eccentric mannerism, the lines, and the empty interiors all contribute to unique techniques of the master. It is also interesting that his characters often speak straight into the camera that is quite unusual. However, in general, this triumphant movie emphasizes Ozu’s “Japaneseness” and “gentle quietism” predetermined by the religious motives. To summarize, the spectators can see that Tokyo Story represents the Zen traditions, Ozu’s minimalism, stylized units, as well as disenchanted and disillusioned life perception.
Late Spring (1949)
The humoristic atmosphere in the Late Spring is marked by bitter-sweet melancholy. The plot is focused on the relations between a widower, who was left alone in his house, and his daughter, who has left after she got married. The fate of the father is obviously sad, and Ozu represents the feelings of a man, pushing the spectators to reflections. His signature Japanese techniques can be followed in this movie; however, he uses not only the mood and the themes but also still camera, no sweeping pans, no fast tracking shots, and no great panoramic shots or tight close-ups. One can see a person stand up, go out and come back into the room all without a cut. His characters also speak straight to the camera in Late Spring. The events in the film are constantly gazed from the middle distance, with the low camera position. Consequently, like his other movies, this one is totally convincing and realistic. Buruma in his essay defined the film as a traditional Japanese drama. Although such genre was not the aim of Ozu, people feel his representations as real and emotional. The perfect composition together with the actors’ play, the camera angles and position makes this work so splendid.
Late Autumn (1960)
Late Autumn gives a great amount of examples of how uniquely Ozu’s style is manifested. The dialogues of the men in the movie are quite still as well as the camera motion and excess emotionality is removed. At the same time, in his book, Bordwell noted that Ozu put all efforts in order to “get rid of all the dramatics, show a sad character, make the audience feel the emotion” (Bordwell 85). Much effort was made to create a three-dimensional effect in the Japanese rooms. In this case, it is important to emphasize the significance of the small details and camera position. The “'picket-fence” let one reduce objects or people during the shooting, while the low height creates vivid middle grounds. The plot of the story also deals with family and marriage relations. Finally, the fate of the woman, who is pressured by the social norms, appears to be sad and creates a gloomy, traditional to Ozu, mood of the film.
With regard to the above-mentioned, one can make a conclusion that there are many reasons to consider Yasujiro Ozu to be an outstanding and splendid director not only among the Japanese but also among the world filmmakers. His unique style and special techniques contribute to the deeper submeaning of the elements. The focus on the details, gestures, and feelings makes the spectator submerge into the world of Ozu’s views and beliefs. The choice of the shot angles and height make his style distinguishing and provides the ability to estimate all the elements carefully and properly. All these combinations let the filmmaker represent the life in Japan and the human relations the way he saw it in a minimalistic, eccentric and realistic style. At the same time, the combination of all these techniques with the religious views, life perception as well as its connection with nature and its laws pushes the spectators to cogitate the life values, family and human relations that make an inherent part of life of any person.