A 110th Birthday Tribute to Yasujiro Ozu
“Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.”
-Title card (a quote from Ryunosuke Akutagawa) at the opening of The Only Son (1936)
There was a time—long before his films were lauded internationally by critics and audiences alike, before movies like FLOATING WEEDS, LATE SPRING and TOKYO STORY regularly appeared on lists of the best ever made—when Yasujiro Ozu was virtually unheard of outside of his native Japan. The reason for his anonymity? Distributors, in the wake of massive international successes like RASHOMON, UGETSU and THE SEVEN SAMURAI, were afraid to promote his films because they felt that they were “too Japanese.” As a result we Yanks caught on to him very late, with his films not even being distributed here until right before his death in 1963.
Yasujiro Ozu was born on December 12th, 1903 (the same date as his death: he lived to exactly 60) in Tokyo and grew up both there and in the provincial city of Matsuzaka, where, with his father working far away in Tokyo for long periods, he apparently was a rather spoiled child. Ironically, the director who would later be dubbed “too Japanese” for export, was an avid viewer of foreign films in his teens and 20s and particularly the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch and Harold Lloyd. In fact, it is said that when Ozu interviewed for his first job at the nascent Shochiku Studios he claimed that he could remember having seen only three Japanese films in his entire life to that point! The 1920s were a moment of wild change in Japanese society and Shochiku turned out to be the perfect place for a Hollywood-o-phile like Ozu to land as it was a studio founded on progressive principles and committed mainly to the production of gendaigeki (or “stories of contemporary life,” as opposed to jidaigeki, or “period films”).
At Shochiku, Ozu first met Kogo Noda, the screenwriter with whom he would later collaborate on the majority of his films—and virtually all of the major ones—and who is ultimately almost as responsible for “the Ozu style” as Ozu himself. Like the “salaryman” character common to Japanese film, Ozu became a lifer at Shochiku Studios, getting his start as an assistant cameraman in 1923 (his job being purely physical: to lug the camera from place to place on the set, but affording the avid young film lover the opportunity to learn first-hand through observation) and working his way up quickly, reaching the director’s chair by 1927.
Ozu’s output during the silent period (in Japan talkies were much to slower to develop, not becoming common until the mid-1930s) is widely disparate, but mainly consists of heart-warming comedies and dramas about salarymen, families, and lazy college students. Even during this early period it is apparent that, while Ozu is certainly channeling his interests and affections for the cake of Hollywood cinema and light and nonsensical gags, he is also pursuing a purer structure for storytelling, developing a new and different syntax which is uniquely his own. By late silent masterworks like I WAS BORN BUT… (1932) and THE STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS (1934) the mature Ozu style is essentially in place, really needing only sound for its completion.
With his first talkie, the heartbreaking THE ONLY SON (1936), about the strong bond between a single mother and the son who cannot seem to live up to her expectations, Ozu finally settled upon the “home-drama” genre, or story of family life, which he would make virtually his own over the next thirty years. He, like many other directors, continued production in the teeth of the war, making for example the beloved drama THERE WAS A FATHER (1942) about a schoolteacher and widower (Ozu regular Chishu Ryu) and his selfless commitment to his son’s future throughout the years, as well as the son’s efforts to live up to his father’s memory after his death.
Immediately after the war Ozu made a pair of searing dramas about the harshness of family life in the rubble of Japan’s cities before he made Late Spring (1949), the story of a father (Ryu) and daughter (Setsuko Hara, another Ozu regular) who are so inseparable that she refuses to marry. Eventually, the father must a fake an engagement of his own in order to force her hand. The final scene, where the father arrives home to a quiet, empty house after the wedding ceremony, is possibly one of the most heartbreaking in the history of movies.
With Late Spring Ozu really began to hit his stride and continued apace with EARLY SUMMER (1951) and then Tokyo Story (1953, a loose reworking of Leo McCarey’s marvelous 1937 tearjerker MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW), about an elderly man and a woman (Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama) who head off to the big city to visit their grown children and grandchildren but instead of welcome find themselves being shunted from one household to the next. Ironically, the only real warmth that they experience seems to come from Noriko (Hara), the widow of their son who died during the war, and who would seem to have the least connection to them of anyone. The film moves steadily and resolutely towards its beautiful, devastating conclusion with the scene towards the end where Noriko breaks down at the receipt of an unexpected gift nothing short of heartrending. From there Ozu continued on with EARLY SPRING (1956), TOKYO TWILIGHT (1957), EQUINOX FLOWER (1958), GOOD MORNING (1959, a remake of I Was Born But… wherein a couple of spoiled, rascally boys stop speaking when their parents refuse to buy them a TV!), Floating Weeds (also 1959, a sensational remake of his The Story of Floating Weeds), LATE AUTUMN (1960), THE END OF SUMMER (1961), and AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON (1962).
Much has been written about Ozu’s style: the static, non-moving camera set-ups just above the floor, as though from the point-of-view of someone seated in traditional Japanese style on tatami mats on the floor; his famous “ellipses” or edited sequences of smokestacks, rooftops, hanging laundry luffing in the breeze, trains moving in the distance and train platforms, children walking to school, etc. which open and close films and provide moments of contemplation between scenes of dialogue and action; and the seeming influence of Zen Buddhism on this perhaps the most ritualistic of all filmmakers, who found meaning (and perhaps bliss) in repetition, who seemingly remade the same kind of movie over and over again until his death. I will not add much here but to say that Ozu’s body of work is a treasure that should not be overlooked. If you have never before delved into the work of this master perhaps now is the time.