News And Commentary – Happy Ozu Day!

The great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu was born on December 12 1903 and died on the very same day in 1963.  One of Mid Century Cinema’s favorites, we celebrate twelve-twelve as Ozu day. 

A prolific artist of the silent era, Ozu came to the talkies late and reluctantly, and did not live to see old age, so he left us only nineteen sound films. But what a legacy. Tokyo Story and Late Spring are his most famous and most revered contributions.  And they are great films—but neither would find a place in my top five Ozus.  Two of my favorites are Early Summer and An Autumn Afternoon, but it’s hard to go wrong—with the possible exception of The Munekata Sisters, there isn't an Ozu that I would not be happy to watch again (and, in most instances, again and again).  

Ozu worked on what can be called little themes: invariably family dramas—small scale stories about relationships between parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and lovers.  But “little themes” is not a diminutive.  As New Wave icon Claude Chabrol insisted, a film about a hero of the resistance has no more inherent wisdom or value than the story of an anonymous barmaid facing a personal crisis. In fact, he argued, there is likely to be more truth found in the latter, because it is free of the obligations imposed by taking on a “great” subject: “the smaller the theme is, the more one can give it a big treatment.” 

Little themes are also universal and timeless.  As a result, these quiet films from over a half-century ago (which Ozu himself thought “too Japanese” to be of interest to international audiences) continue to reach moviegoers, and influence filmmakers, from every possible walk of life.  Was Ozu a Japanese director, or a director from Japan?  Ask Wim Wenders (Germany), Jim Jarmusch (New York City via Akron Ohio), Claire Denis (France), or Abbas Kiarostami (Iran)—all of whom speak plainly of Ozu’s influence on their work.  (And maybe it’s just me, but I also find The Descendants, made in 2011 by Alexander Payne, a Greek-American from Nebraska, to be very Ozuian.) 

Little films can also make big points. Ozu was (obviously) not a political filmmaker, but he lived, as they say, in interesting times (which makes the absence of overt politics in his films even more remarkable, and implicitly assertive). But movies still invariably take place in distinct social-political contexts, and it is fascinating to see how the Great Depression, the Pacific War, defeat and occupation, and finally the Japanese economic miracle each provide the backdrop for these small stories.  And how Ozu’s own perspective shifted over time.  Some commentators see a (counterintuitive) evolution in his loyalties, from the older generation to the younger.  And am I the only one who thinks that the blanket repeatedly soiled by a young bed-wetter in Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) is suggestive of the American flag? If so, it is more remarkable still that Ozu has his alter-ego, Chishu Ryu, conclude fifteen years later, in An Autumn Afternoon (1962), that it was better to have lost the war. 

But these are small pleasures.  Most important, and more than anything, an Ozu film is . . . an Ozu film.  And as with the cinema of, say, Welles, or Rohmer, or more recently, of Altman or Assayas, it is a special thing to recognize, from the first frames, the distinct touches of the master’s style.  “They all sound the same,” a heckler once shouted at Neil Young.  “It’s all one song,” he replied.  Indeed.  And visiting Ozu’s films is like attending the exhibition of a great artist—each painting is different, but each one also clearly a product of the same hand.  Take the tour: I’ve offered my users guide to Ozu’s sound films after the screen-grabs below; also recommended are appreciations by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert, and, for still more, a fine website here.



There Was a Father



Record of a Tenement Gentleman



Tokyo Twilight


The Films of Yasujiro Ozu: A users guide to the talkies

An Autumn Afternoon (1962) ***

The End of Summer (1961) **

Late Autumn (1960) *

Floating Weeds (1959) *

Good Morning (1959)

Equinox Flower (1958) *

Tokyo Twilight (1957) **

Early Spring (1956) *

Tokyo Story (1953) * (Sight and Sound, 2012 critics poll of the greatest films ever made, #3)

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952)

Early Summer (1951) ***

The Munekata Sisters (1950) 

Late Spring (1949) **

A Hen in The Wind (1948) *

Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) ** 

There was a Father (1942) ***

The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941) **

What did the Lady Forget? (1937)

The Only Son (1936) **