The Criterion Shelf: The Films of Yasujiro Ozu

That Shelf columnist Bil Antoniou explores the surviving oeuvre of his all-time favourite filmmaker

It’s tempting to see poetry in the fact that Yasujiro Ozu died on his birthday. However, it does threaten tastelessness to see something magical when one’s body is not the one being ravaged by throat cancer. Ozu, however, wasn’t one to dwell on the negative except as an experience to bring other people together. As Kazuo Inoue points out in his documentary on the filmmaker, I Lived But (1983), Ozu did believe that a film’s beginning is a film’s ending. Dying on his sixtieth birthday could easily be read as a continuation of that principle.

The first time I went to a Yasujiro Ozu film, I fell asleep twenty minutes in, and I only remember shots of train tracks. It was Late Spring (1949), and when I woke up, my friend was crying and the movie was over. Granted, my years at Cinematheque Ontario (at Jackman Hall) were a time of general sleep deprivation for me (full-time job, theatre rehearsals and university classes at the time; now sleep deprivation is just a matter of being too old to sleep properly). A year after this disastrous introduction to Ozu, Cinematheque hosted a retrospective of his work and I went to everything I could make it to. After a thrilling screening of Floating Weeds (1959), a night I still remember with clarity, I fell deeply in love.  I wonder, then, if some directors aren’t acquired tastes, or if modern audiences, with our attention spans in tatters thanks to technological devices, need preparation for the masters of slow cinema. Many years later, with Cinematheque moving its home to the (less charismatic, sorry) TIFF Lightbox, I took friends to see Late Spring and warned them: this is not gonna be an easy watch, prepare to really settle in. I stayed awake this time, and at the end, my friends told me, in tears, that they loved it. So maybe Ozu isn’t an acquired taste. Maybe I just need to get more sleep.

During his time, Ozu was something of a slow burn outside of Japan as well.  A few of his films played at international film festivals but, for the most part, Japanese distributors opted not to export his works with the same frequency as they sent Kurosawa or Mizoguchi to their glory because they declared his films to be “too Japanese” to be appreciated by outsiders. This is a staggering concept to a viewer who watches films about family dynamics, the vulnerabilities of parents loving and worrying about their children, or the struggles of young people to make connections with the generations above them. Just because I don’t sit on tatami mats or develop fevers from eating too many red bean buns (a favourite trope of mine from Ozu’s early films) doesn’t mean I can’t glean the universal human experience from his films. Eventually, Ozu made his breakthrough with Tokyo Story when it arrived in Europe in 1958, five years after it came out in Japan, although the film was not appreciated in the United States until it was screened in the seventies, prompting Paul Schrader to write a section of Transcendental Style in Film about him.  Ozu had been dead for a decade.

The short life that resulted in so much magnificent art began in Fukugawa, Japan, just over 120 years ago, in December of 1903. Criterion  celebrated the month of his birth and death with a collection of (almost) all his extant works. At the age of thirteen, the son of a disapproving merchant saw Thomas Ince’s Civilization and was inspired to become a filmmaker, hired in the cinematography department at Shochiku at the age of 20 and moving up to third assistant director three years later.  In 1927, at the age of 24, he directed his first (now lost) film, The Sword of Penitence. Shochiku would become more or less his home for the rest of his life and his co-writer on Penitence, while Kogo Noda, would remain a collaborator. Initially directing genre movies, Ozu first established himself as an artist with a voice through his comedy I Was Born, But in 1932, which is still among his most beloved works.

Military service would interrupt his career a few times, the second World War even more so. After serving in Nanjing in 1938, the battle of Nanchang, and the Battle of Xiushui River in 1939, Ozu was drafted into the army in 1943 to make propaganda films while stationed in Singapore, although nothing he shot was ever released.  When the war ended, he was detained as a civilian and worked in a rubber plantation before being repatriated and resuming his directing career.  It’s undeniable that his storytelling was forever changed by the war years:  American movie images pop up as decoration in almost every single one of his pre-war films, his love of Hollywood so strong that he expected us to believe that all traditional, lower-middle-class housewives decorated their homes with posters of Wallace Beery.  After the war, particularly during the American occupation of Japan that lasted until the early fifties, any references to American culture are minimal and often a bit sly. The Coca-Cola sign in Late Spring, his first commercial success, is a quiet reminder that the traces of the hardships of the war years were still around, and what to make of the piss-stained tatami mat that seems to have a pattern very much like the stars and stripes in Record of a Tenement Gentleman?

Ozu did not shirk from criticism of how repetitive his films were. Aside from a few remakes he often revisited the same plots with only minor elements changed (particularly the plot of Late Spring)He likened himself to a painter who had the same flower as a subject and kept painting it until he felt he got it right. For his fans, the familiar images are like old friends: men at bars, women sewing, children with ice bags propped on their foreheads to treat fevers. In his silent films, traditional women wear kimonos while bad girls sport marcel waves and flapper dresses, later western fashion is more often a symbol of progress and professionalism. There are also, of course, his noted tableaux, always remaining with the standard square frame ratio in which he compiled details of breathtaking density and accuracy. He shot from low angles, looking to represent the point of view from sitting on the floor, stating that his “films aren’t looking down on people who are looking up.” His stories impressively utilized ellipses in original yet effective ways and his establishing shots were unconventional in their subtle wisdom, often using interiors and objects rather than long shots of building exteriors.

Even more familiar and beloved to Ozu’s fans are the actors who recur in his movies: the familiar faces of Takeshi Sakamoto, Haruko Sugimura, Choko Iida, among others.  Setsuko Hara is his best known and most celebrated leading lady, appearing as characters named Noriko in his major breakthrough film Late Spring, his masterpiece Tokyo Story, and his 1951 Early Summer. Chishu Ryu is the king of the mountain, however, having worked for Ozu pretty much from the beginning and remaining his stalwart performer until An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu’s last film in 1962. Only 59 when Ozu died, Ryu had played sons, brothers, fathers and grandfathers, experiencing all stages of life and representing them faithfully in each case. Ozu said he wrote his characters with actors in mind because otherwise it would be like a composing a symphony without knowing which instruments to use.  He often cared little for the logic of age, taking a brother and sister in one film and turning them into father and daughter in the next.

Ozu ended his life in Kamakura, the idyllic seaside town an hour south of Tokyo where a number of his films were set. His well known devotion to cigarettes and sake have been credited with bringing about the illness that took his life at the age of sixty. He and Noda famously worked on their scripts in seclusion and measured their accomplishments of the day by the number of empty bottles lining the floor. His dying so young meant that he did not have the glorious comeback in the eighties that many of his contemporaries enjoyed, successful directors of the fifties and sixties like Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa, who had been exiled in the wilds of Japan’s struggling film industry in the seventies and returned with the glories of Ran, Kagemusha, and The Makioka Sisters. As a result, Ozu’s films, with their carefully delineated behaviour and unique style of dialogue delivery, remain frozen in time, and it’s hard not to read too much poetry into that, too. Kamakura is where you can still visit his tomb, upon which is carved the symbol “mu,” which means something like “nothingness.”

In the many, many years since we lost him, Ozu has remained a titan of artistic achievement. Roger Ebert frequently referenced Floating Weeds as one of his all-time favourites, and Tokyo Story, which I believe is the greatest film ever made, was #3 on Sight & Sound‘s poll in 2012, and #4 in 2022. “When you are a child, sometimes you need to have a small night-light in your room, to know that the world is still there,” Claire Denis once said, describing the effect on her of the work of Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-Soo, but adding, “I had a similar experience with Ozu’s films when I was a very young woman.”

I come by my love of movies honestly. It was a passionate hobby in my father’s family and my grandmother, who lived to be almost one hundred years old, still remembered her favourite movie stars even in the depths of her late-life dementia. (They were Billie Dove and Anny Ondra, in case you’re wondering.) Her daughter, my Aunt Lela, was one of my best movie buddies and when she’d visit from Greece, she was the number one customer for appreciating my shelves of Criterion discs. Her favourites were old Japanese movies. I have great memories of enjoying Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp and Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs together, but these all fell to the side when I introduced her to Ozu, whom she had never experienced. First it was Floating Weeds, which was an immediate hit, then on the night before she was to fly home, I showed her Tokyo Story, to which she had a profound response. “Thank you,” she said to me in the car on the way to the airport, “for not letting me leave without seeing that.”  She referred to Tokyo Story and Ozu many times over the next few years when we’d speak on the phone, inspiring my friends to name her my “Ozu Aunt” from that point on.  Eventually, she too succumbed to the cognitive fog of old age and, following her passing last May at the impressive age of 93, leaves me to hold these memories of our movie watching on my own.  Spending the month watching rewatching Ozu’s entire oeuvre was spending time with her again, as his were the films that particularly ours to enjoy together, and to my Ozu Aunt I dedicate this column.

 

 

WHERE TO START

In Search of Ozu (Daniel Raim, 2018)

Criterion has wisely placed this 45-minute examination of Ozu’s life, career, and legacy at the beginning of this collection. Raim interviews surviving members of the great filmmaker’s world, including a producer on his final project An Autumn Afternoon and his nephew, but otherwise avoids the conventional route in his investigation of what makes this director special. Rather than simply going down the bullet points of biography, Raim looks at the philosophical significance of Ozu’s family-oriented plots and the delicate nature of his pictorial compositions. The centrepiece moments will be most thrilling to Ozu’s fans, however, as the Kamakura Museum of Literature unwraps props and scripts from Ozu’s films for a camera that is taking no end of pleasure in drinking them in. It’s a fitting tribute to the great artist that Raim will likely expand on his forthcoming World of Ozu documentary.

 

Late Spring (1949)

(Banshun)

Ozu’s breakthrough Jackson Pollock dribbling his paint cans moment was the film that he would be responding to for the rest of his career. For many cinephiles, it remains his masterpiece and it’s easy to see why. Much of its simplicity feels accidental and unforced. His future films would, for some, give the impression that he was trying to recapture lightning in a bottle. Whatever way you rank his career, this is an outstanding achievement and one of the essential films that anyone curious about his work should check out. It it, we see a culmination of elements he has been assembling up until this point. Powerful emotions held in delicate reserve, carefully constructed images, restrained performances, and a concentration on the beauty of domesticity and the terrible reality of its impermanence are all part of a tale of a young woman who is avoiding prospects of marriage because she worries about leaving her widower father to care for himself. He, upset at the thought that his daughter will not going on with the next stage of her life, pretends to be interested in his own marriage as a way to convince her to take up her aunt’s offer of a good match with a man she knows. This would not be the last time that Ozu would make a movie about marriage in which we don’t even meet the man. This wouldn’t even be the last time Chishu Ryu would be the father giving her away. (Setsuko Hara, who plays daughter Noriko, is recast as a mother in the same position in Late Autumn.) Mentions of the war are, typically, few, namely about Noriko’s recovery from illness in a labour camp, and the big Coca-Cola sign is a crafty reference to the American occupation of which we see no other evidence. At the centre of it, though, is a tender relationship between father and daughter that is heartbreaking and poignant, performed with masterful precision by actors who take blocking and dialogue that could easily be campy and finding the brittle, tender emotions that shine through.

 

Early Summer (1951)

(Bakushû, “Autumn”)

Late Spring was a breakthrough that affected the rest of Ozu’s career, from which point he would rarely veer from his concerns with domestic family life. The positive flipside to Late Spring‘s solemnity is this lighthearted comedy in which Setsuko Hara, in one of her Noriko roles, displays a great deal of strength hidden behind a character’s giddy personality. She’s the unmarried daughter of the house whose parents, brother and sister-in-law all hope to see her married off soon, but they dither too long in their plans to set her up with a prospect from out of town and she takes the matter into her own hands. There’s a great deal of eating in this one, a symbol of enjoying life at its fullest that is used as often as men drinking in bars is in other Ozu films. There’s also an emphasis on indulgent delights like shortcake and Ozu’s beloved red bean buns. All the merriment, however, indicates darker things to come as we move towards the poignant finale: a son missing in the war that Noriko’s mother believes could still come back any time soon, and a fracturing in a girlfriend group that divides single from married friends. By the end, great things are achieved but, as always, they take their toll, marriage means fracturing a happy family unit, and a job promotion means travelling far from loved ones. This is in the top tier of Ozu’s films. Its ensemble of  haracters drawn with expertise and incredible affection.

 

Tokyo Story (1953)

(Tôkyô monogatari)

The masterpiece in this collection, in Ozu’s career, and, for me, in cinema. Ozu’s command of subtle conflicts is best expressed in this heartbreaking story of an elderly couple traveling an impressive distance from Onomichi to Tokyo to visit their children. (Today, it’s a nine-hour drive by car.) Their youngest daughter lives with them, one son lives halfway in Osaka, and two older married children are in the capital, along with the widowed daughter in law whose husband, their son, died in the war. The grandparents are welcomed by loving but busy children, who quickly pass them off on each other and send them away on a disastrous spa trip before the travelers decide it’s time to go home. The way the main characters find themselves suddenly inconvenient to all around them, with one very touching exception, is incredible for how well it is underplayed by both the performers (including 49 year-old Chishu Ryu playing a 70 year-old man) and Ozu and Kogo Noda’s screenplay. To view the film without too deep or critical an eye is to feel like it’s simply dropping in on strangers, but to examine its storytelling structure closely, one notices how deftly Ozu moves us through a great deal of plot movement with his usual command of ellipses, allowing us to come to know these characters quite deeply by the time we reach the end. When we do, in a scene where Ryu sits down with Setsuko Hara (in yet another indelible Noriko role), the film explodes with emotion thanks to the kindness she shows him. Just as impressive as his narrative, however, is Ozu’s humane treatment of characters that he doesn’t allow us to judge (even if he allows youngest sister Kyoko to judge her “selfish” older siblings at the end). Sure, these kids could have been nicer to their senior parents, but they aren’t ignoring them to have fun at the pachinko parlour. They really are stressed out and busy with their own lives. Ozu drops enough hints about a turbulent home life in their childhood to suggest that everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve been given and from which they have learned.

 

Floating Weeds (1959)

(Ukigusa)

Ozu always promised his friend and fellow master Kenji Mizoguchi that he would make a movie at the latter’s Daiei Studios. He finally managed it three years after Mizoguchi’s death (who also, like Ozu, left us at too young an age). The Story of Floating Weeds is remade with its plot intact but expanded, with Ozu’s penchant for a widespread ensemble cast benefiting from a gorgeously shot, humorous, and characteristically poignant tale of a theatrical troupe traveling through a small town where their leader’s former mistress happens to also live. She has raised their son without telling him that the uncle who visits periodically is actually his fatherwho didn’t want the boy to know that he was sired by something as lowly as an actor. The situation explodes when the older man’s insecure girlfriend and leading actress (played by superstar Machiko Kyo, giving a remarkable performance) discovers his secret and decides to make trouble. Typically, Ozu doesn’t condemn anyone for having feelings but gives everyone the opportunity to learn from their own contribution to the mess. If you want to know if your friends can handle Ozu’s dense pace and rhythm, this one’s a great place to start.

 

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

(Sanma no aji, “The Taste of Saury”)

Ozu’s final film reconfigures Late Spring in a less dramatic, but not less poignant tone. Chishu Ryu is once again the father who seeks to marry off his daughter, although this time he does not pretend to be getting married himself. After a class reunion honouring a teacher from his youth, Ryu accompanies the old man home and witnesses a life of misery he is living with his spinster daughter, who gave up marriage to look after her old man (and is played by Haruko Sugimura, who often fills in the roles of nagging or bitter women in Ozu’s oeuvre). Fearful that his daughter may end up the same way, he encourages a marital prospect despite the fact that it only means sadness for him as he faces the prospect of losing her for good. It would have been interesting to see where Ozu could have gone from here had he not died so young: the film talks about sexual matters in a more open tone than usual (contraception as well as the old men talking about the “little pills” they use to make love to their wives), plus this many years after the end of the American occupation, there’s salty talk criticizing the country’s responsibility in losing the war. Most painfully, the last image we get in an Ozu film is that of an old, lonely man. He’s drunk and despondent in his kitchen late at night, feeling a depth of sorrow that perhaps the morning will soothe. As we the audience know, though, that morning will never come.

 

TOP TIER

 

Tokyo Chorus (1931)

(Tôkyô no kôrasu)

While Late Spring is considered his major breakthrough, adherents of Ozu’s often point to this earlier mashup of genres as evidence of his distinct style becoming so much more evident than it had before. Moving from the tradition of student comedy to the milieu of the workplace and closing with domestic drama, it tells of a formerly unruly pupil who is now married and working in an insurance office. Offended that his boss would fire his colleague for getting older, he argues about ethics with his superior and gets himself fired as well. He then struggles to find employment while getting increasingly worried about feeding his three children at home. Ozu offers humour, pathos, arrogance and sympathy, all rolled into one highly satisfying, beautifully acted affair.

 

I Was Born But (1932)

(Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo, “Picture books for adults to read – What I saw when I was born”)

One of Ozu’s funniest films is still among his most popular ones. The story is centered around a series of delightful gags involving highly precocious children. A family has recently moved into a new neighbourhood where the father has taken on a new job working a low-level position for a corporate executive, and his two sons struggle to stay out of trouble as they get settled in their new environment. School bullies are a bit of a problem, as are the terrors of a strict teacher, but nothing is more devastating than when the boys witness their dad among his peers and realize that he’s not actually the most important and successful man in the world. Some of the humour comes from the slapstick activity (particularly a death and resurrection game the boys play with each other as a form of one-upmanship, which became a favourite in my house), but there’s also a great deal of pleasure in seeing the children’s facial expressions as they react to the revelations that come with growing up. As always, Ozu depicts everything with a loving touch, the meaner kids are still just kids and the parents just doing their best to give their beloved children everything they can. Ozu would remake this film as Good Morning in 1959, adding colour and sound and the desire for a television in the house to the same plotline.

 

A Story of Floating Weeds (1934)

(Ukikusa monogatari)

The label “remake” is a murky one with Ozu, given how often he reused the same plots with details changed around, but there is no denying that this film and Floating Weeds see him directly recreate one of his earlier projects. For many critics, the original version is the superior and it’s easy to see why: there’s a simplicity to it that makes the conclusion land particularly hard, which isn’t quite the same in the full-colour glory of the 1959 version. (For me, the latter is superior, but its place in my experience discovering Ozu’s films also has a lot to do with it.) Takeshi Sakamoto is terrific as the lead actor of a group of travelling players who stop in a village where he looks up an old girlfriend who is raising their son in secret. The pain of their troubled relationship is offset both by the kindness and understanding they have for each other’s circumstances, as well as the jealousy that this set-up creates in his co-star and mistress. Ozu is fully dedicated to his richly beautiful style of low-angled shots and carefully composed images, and here applies them to the magic of the theatre world.

 

The Only Son (1936)

(Hitori musuko)

Ozu’s first sound film remains one of his best and most moving, not at all far from his usual narrative concerns, but it’s told with a level of emotion that show his confidence with technological advancements. A poor widow decides that whatever sacrifices she needs to make are worth it to continue her son’s education, and years later when he is graduated and living in Tokyo, she drops in on him for a surprise visit. What she finds challenges her idea of the value of her efforts, her son married with a new baby and struggling to keep his head above water as a night school teacher. As always, the great director pulls no punches in describing the realities of life’s disappointments but, without manipulating our sentiments, he also gives us a deeply moving conclusion that preaches the value of generosity.

 

Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941)

(Toda-ke no kyôdai)

Military service kept Ozu from making a film for three years, but when he returned to directing, he broke through to a new level of skill in his first multi-character examination of the ins and outs of family dynamics. The road to Tokyo Story is paved with films like this one, a masterful display of actors assembled to portray an upper class family who are rocked both emotionally and financially by the sudden death of their patriarch. With his death, the three daughters, two sons and two children in-law learn that their father’s honest, somewhat naive manner of handling finances has left them in great debt and, in order to get out of it, they must sell their large family house and a great many of its antiques. This means that the deceased’s widow and one unmarried daughter will need a place to stay, and so they go live with one brother until brittle relations with his wife make it impossible to stay, but going to another daughter’s home doesn’t do much better. The women decide to go live in their dilapidated country home, happier on their own diminished terms than with relatives who treat them like inconvenient servants, but their handsome bachelor brother comes back from business in China and straightens things out good and proper. Scenes set at funeral memorials would become familiar in Ozu’s world, and he would deepen his sympathy for inhospitable children as well, but at this stage in the game, the Toda family makes for one of his sharpest and most affecting works.

 

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952)

(Ochazuke no aji)

When I first started reading criticism of Ozu, this film was written up by many commentators as an artistic failure, but I attended a screening of it during that Jackman Hall retrospective and I was thrilled by it, and still am. It’s a reworking of What Did the Lady Forget, once again set in the home of a well-to-do married couple and includes the influence of a visiting niece, although this time the wife isn’t such a nag and the niece isn’t quite as rebellious. The couple in question are at odds with each other as he, despite his financial success, misses the simple things in life (like his favourite snack of the title) while she enjoys luxurious indulgence. Ozu sets their conflict in relief against the story of the younger woman who is being set up for an arranged marriage that she is not interested in. Travelling outside the domestic sphere as he often does in his society comedies, Ozu takes these characters to spas, live shows and restaurants, and keeps things in a humorous, lighthearted tone but still manages to find something poignant and special to celebrate in the film’s conclusion. Himself never married, Ozu’s presentation of marriage is always practical without ever coming across as bitter or romantic, rather one more fact of life that is either heaven or hell depending on how much we push ourselves to be our best.

 

Equinox Flower (1958)

(Higanbana, “Cluster Amaryllis”)

Ozu’s first colour film, a work of beauty whose bright hues perfectly accentuate his delicate presentation of family dynamics. A traditional father is prepared to arrange a marriage for his dutiful daughter and is incensed when she announces that she wants to pick her own life partner. This causes him concern that she might end up a scarlet woman like the daughter of a friend who has opted, heaven forfend, to live unmarried with her boyfriend. As he reached the end of the fifties, Ozu took a break from tearjerkers about parents loving their children and made funnier, but still powerfully wise, examinations of characters dealing with societal change. In this film and The End of Summer he suggests that the older Japanese generation, who were dealing with rapid adaptations to western influence after the war, were not wrong to be concerned but need not react with panic either.

 

Good Morning (1959)

(Ohayô)

At the same time that Godard was castigating post-war French society for its increased obsession with consumerism as a salve to forget the horrors of the previous era, Ozu was also doing so in a much gentler manner. Reconfiguring his silent classic I Was Born But, he repeats the tale of two boys rebelling against their parents. This time, they’re not rejecting their father because he turns out not to be a superhero but they instead take a vow of silence when he refuses to buy them a television set. Committed to their goal, the children are actually a lot more consistent and mature than their gossipy adult neighbours, who turn every mundane detail about their daily lives into cannon fodder that they use against each other carelessly. Off to the side, a sweet romantic subplot sees the boys’ aunt fall in love with their handsome tutor. One of the best examples of Ozu’s mastery with colour, this gorgeous film is also among his funniest.

 

I Lived But (Kazuo Inoue, 1983)

(Ikite wa mita keredo – Ozu Yasujirô den, “I tried to live, but…the story of Yasujiro Ozu”)

The perfect capsule to end all your screenings of Ozu’s films, Inoue’s documentary explores the filmmaker’s personal biography, analyzes his films, and interviews colleagues and family members on the twentieth anniversary of the master’s death. If you have watched all his movies and gotten to know the collective of actors who frequently appear in them, you will be thrilled to see a number of stars reminiscing on their experiences of working on them. Most notably present are Chishu Ryu and Haruko Sugimura, who provides the film’s tender moment: Ozu, it seems, had an affect on people as indelible and poignant as his films have had on enthralled audiences ever since.

 

THE REST

 

I Graduated But (1929)

(Daigaku wa detakeredo)

Ozu’s earliest works have suffered the fate of numerous silent films from the earlier days of the artform (in Japan’s case the war likely has a lot to do with it). Many are lost without hope of recovery, although in a few cases, like this one, fragments remain. The ten minute section that survives is actually a whole beat unto itself and indicates the consistency of Ozu’s style and concerns. It’s a gentle and humorous look at a character shaping their understanding of life through a relatable experience. A college graduate lies to his mother about being employed when she comes to visit him in the big city, while in reality he is struggling to find employment because he cannot find anything worthy of his educational accomplishments. Pounding the pavement, however, eventually teaches him to let his sense of entitlement go.

 

A Straight-forward Boy (1929)

(Tokkan kozô)

This is another surviving fragment from a lost feature, fourteen minutes of one of many projects that show off Ozu’s penchant for humorous tales involving children whose cuteness never feels forced. A little boy is snatched by a nefarious kidnapper, who brings him back to his lair where his partner in crime at first approves the acquisition before the boy’s antics drive him crazy and he orders him sent away. The action threatens to turn dark but never really does, and the conclusion is quite funny.

 

I Flunked But (1930)

(Rakudai wa shitakeredo)

Before he fully committed to family dramas set primarily within the domestic sphere, Ozu’s earliest films frequently revolved around the antics of children or the follies of students, a charming example of the latter being this campus comedy about a cheating plan gone awry. A group of boys who room together decide to write the answers to an upcoming exam on one of their shirts, the young man who agrees to do it copying the answers on his clothing while the rest study. Their housemistress accidentally takes the shirt to be laundered before he gets a chance to wear it to the exam and flunks, while the rest of the boys pass, which causes him a great deal of shame. The sorrow fades, however, when he gets to continue enjoying campus life as he finishes his studies while the rest of his friends with their degrees in hand must contend with unemployment. Told with Ozu’s familiar shrewd but gentle humour and blessed with effortless performances, this is one of the gems of his early career.

 

That Night’s Wife (1930)

(Sono yo no tsuma)

It’s a real trip for those of us most familiar with Ozu’s later classics to go back to his early silent career and discover him taking on genre tales, although still with his familiar delicate touch. After a masked man commits armed robbery, he goes home to his wife and sick child whose medical care, it turns out, he was stealing the money to pay for. A cop zeroes in on him but the robber’s wife gets her conveniently hidden pistol from under the mattress and holds him at gunpoint. She tells him that she won’t let her husband give himself up until the morning when the doctor comes to see if their little girl made it through the night. It’s a touching, not in any way provocative, morality tale that shows off the director’s ability to find nuanced humanity in even the simplest of tales.

 

Walk Cheerfully (1930)

(Hogaraka ni ayume)

Criminals often walk off in handcuffs at the end of Ozu’s films, but not because of the Crime Doesn’t Pay guilt of Hollywood, but rather the inspiration to seek a higher calling in life. In this case, a hoodlum who runs a merry band of thieves lifting men’s wallets in parks meets a beautiful, traditional office clerk and falls in love with her. Leaving behind his sexy moll, he makes a concerted effort to finish his life of crime. He gets a lowly job as a window washer, but it is not long before his past comes to find him and demand he pay for his misdeeds. As always the characters are rendered with fine-tuned performances and a loving touch by the director, although he spreads what could have been a sixty-minute plot over 95 and doesn’t quite find enough to keep the momentum going.

 

The Lady and the Beard (1931)

(Shukujo to hige)

Ozu’s early love for American culture is most evident in this delightful comedy, as he includes not only his usual décor of Hollywood movie posters, but features a main character whose admiration for Abraham Lincoln inspires him to keep a thick and lustrous beard. An old-fashioned college student who dresses like a swordsman of earlier centuries, Okajima is a throwback who is derided by most of his peers until he saves a young woman from being mugged by a gangster’s moll and she, in turn, points out that he would have an easier time getting a job if he shaved. He does and suddenly finds himself not only employed but pursued by multiple ladies, making a deep bond with the sweet heroine who made the suggestion in the first place but still showing mercy when the bad girl crosses his path a second time. Arranged around a series of lighthearted gags, this one’s silly humour is enriched by Ozu’s humanity. He presents the main couple finding not only love but a genuine bond with each other, and insists on giving hope and purpose to even the least worthy people around them.

 

Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth (1932)

(Seishun no yume ima izuko)

Ozu often mined student life for comedy. His last film in this vein is a droll tale of four friends navigating their way through graduate examinations. One of them is a perpetual cheater who drops out of school when he learns that his father has died and he is tasked with taking over his role as president of a successful company. His friends graduate a year later and ask him to hire them, continuing their habits of cheating their way through the employment exam (with his help) before then finding themselves mired in the heavy realities of adult life. It begins with a series of amusing gags and the kind of plot that would star Adam Sandler if it were remade today, but it moves towards a different, deeper finale involving a love triangle and a challenge to their emotional intelligence.

 

Dragnet Girl (1933)

Hijôsen no onna, “Woman In The Cordon”)

The plot of Walk Cheerfully is reworked and improved in this similar melodrama, about a tough hoodlum who is inspired to leave his fancy moll (in the modern western garments) after the boxer he is mentoring introduces him to his demure (kimono-wearing) sister. Ozu actually gives a great deal of focus to the abandoned woman in this one and finds sympathy with her experience, a woman who has been surviving as best as she can and is then discarded for choices she felt compelled to make. Even more exciting is the film’s visual style, with Ozu upping the ante for violence and flashy settings.

 

Passing Fancy (1933)

(Dekigokoro, “Unreliable”)

Takeshi Sakamoto played a character named Kihachi in a number of Ozu’s films, debuting the itinerant single father in this deeply pleasant comedy. As he spends his days getting drunk and avoiding employment, Kihachi leaves his son to run wild until the boy’s view of him inspires him to reach for something better. As always, innocuous, pleasant and low-key domestic situations are developed into something deeply touching by the final reel, with Ozu continuing to formalize his notable visual style that is particularly marked by his expert framing

 

Woman of Tokyo (1933)

(Tôkyô no onna)

The low-angled “pillow” shots that would come to define Ozu’s pictorial style are further developed in this short but poignant tale, in which a university student learns that his office worker sister is moonlighting as a sex worker to pay his tuition. It takes place over only a handful of scenes, mainly people’s reactions to bad news, but within its limited confines Ozu finds, what else, great reserves of sympathies for his characters. Without judging a woman who is getting by with the means available to her, Ozu also makes room for the emotional experience of people who have bought into their culture’s unbending stratification of morality and women’s place of worth within this, moving to a melodramatic finale without ever letting us forget the human beings at the heart of his tale.

 

A Mother Should Be Loved (1934)

(Haha wo kowazuya, “My mother is strong”)

The first and last reels are missing in this film but even without the title cards filling you in on what you’re not seeing, you’ll still have no trouble digging into its emotional pathos. A woman raises her two boys after her husband dies, her elder learning that she’s actually his stepmother, his biological mother died when he was an infant before his father remarried. The definition of family is tested by people who feel too strongly about blood relation and labels, but kindness wins out in the end. All of Ozu’s films feature a tender examination of human connection but this one is particularly focused on sympathy.

 

An Inn in Tokyo (1935)

(Tôkyô no yado)

Ozu’s melodramatic plots sometimes veered more towards dark realities than usual, but in doing so he still never fully lost touch with the ability to connect to an optimistic view of human connection. In this one, the always ne’er-do-weller Kihachi is unemployed and unable to take care of his two sons, some nights so broke that they cannot have both a place to sleep and food to eat, they have to choose between the two. Luck puts him in the way of an old friend who helps him get a job, but the newfound equilibrium that sees him housing and feeding his kids is not long for this world when he meets a beautiful single mother who inspires jealousy in his old girlfriend, and sees him risk the law to help her out. Ozu’s grasp of the high wire that people must walk to achieve basic human dignity has a sense of both Dickensian complexity and future neorealist integrity.  It’s his last silent film before switching to sound the following year.

 

What Did the Lady Forget (1937)

(Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka)

The lady in question is a question to consider, as there are two who could be said to fit the bill: the young woman who has come to stay with her aunt in Tokyo and has fun getting drunk with her successful doctor uncle (no funny business, don’t worry) responds with insolence when upbraided for her behaviour, clearly forgetting her duties as a proper and well brought-up girl. Her aunt, however, who doles out criticism to all and sundry around her could also be said to be forgetting to be kind, both for her own mental sanity as well as would be required of a bourgeois wife. Most of Ozu’s films until now have been concentrated on people who struggle and strive, but here he shows just as deft a touch for high society, concentrating on humour rather than pathos. However, in showing a marriage on the verge of disintegration, he displays an ability to have characters meet in the middle of the road without it feeling like sentimental hogwash.

 

There Was a Father (1942)

(Chichi ariki)

It feels redundant at this point to say that this one is a highlight in Ozu’s career of deeply touching stories, but when a filmmaker hits his humane points with such consistency, what is one to do in response but repeat the same price. Fans of Chishu Ryu’s work will be particularly amazed by this experience as it sums up his career in the director’s oeuvre. He was not yet sixty when Ozu died and yet was cast as sons, fathers and grandfathers (and not in that particular order) throughout the years they worked together. Here he plays a widowed junior high teacher who is so devastated by a student’s death on a field trip that he gives up teaching, moving back to his hometown and placing his son in a boarding school. He realizes he’ll need to move back to Tokyo to pay for his son’s education and does so, planning at some point to be able to live with his adoring child again, but the years pass, the obligations mount. Next thing they know, the boy is a man who is pursuing his own career in a faraway place and only seeing his father on the rare occasion. Ozu frequently examined the realities that interrupted the harmony of family life and, while never straying too far from familiar melodramatic tragedies such as illness and accidents, he found bittersweet irony in the way that good things (such as job promotions and marriages) were equally responsible for dividing people who were so deeply connected to each other.

 

Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947)

(Nagaya shinshiroku, “Record of a Nagaya Gentleman”)

After years of films in which every character from college students to modest housewives decorated their homes with Hollywood movie posters, Ozu’s attitude to American culture shows a sudden shift in his first film made after the war. The plot is a precursor to Cassavetes’ Gloria (or Walter Salles’ Central Station), about a widow who is forced to take care of an orphaned boy who follows her neighbour home after being abandoned by his father. She tries to find his relatives and feeds and houses him reluctantly, then grows curious about his quiet, steady demeanor and soon turns to affection before the devastating finale. Tragedy is not something Ozu overindulges in, engendering a deep feeling from something that could easily have turned to mawkish melodrama but, as always, in his hands is executed with masterful control. One of the most touching aspects of the film is its awareness of the change in interpersonal relationships since the war which Ozu is careful not to mention outright: characters talk about “before” without specifying what they mean (and audiences in 1947 would have had no trouble understanding what it was referring to). From here on, references to American culture (and the occupation) would be mild and subtle. In the case of this film,  Ozu teases controversy with a urine-stained futon whose pattern looks suspiciously like the United States flag.

 

A Hen in the Wind (1948)

(Kaze no naka no mendori)

This is about as dark as it gets in this collection. The only other film to get as close is possibly Tokyo Twilight nine years later, and a film that deals as openly with the devastation of the war years as any that Ozu made. A woman waits for news of her husband, whose not having returned from battle in two years requires her to live meagerly with her small son. When the boy takes seriously ill, she doesn’t have the money to pay for his hospitalization and turns, briefly, to sex work to cover his medical bills. Her husband returns not long after and she, unable to hold back the truth, reveals all to him. He is incensed with this betrayal until he goes on a sojourn to the brothel where she worked and finds that moral high grounds are for people who can afford them. Hollywood movie posters disappeared from Ozu’s decor after the thirties and make a rare return appearance here, and it can’t be an accident that when they show up it’s in the room where the woman who draws our heroine into prostitution resides. The American occupation is not referred to outright but is certainly responsible for the state of affairs that Japanese citizens (women in particular) found themselves vulnerable to in their efforts to survive so terrible a period in their country’s history. Ozu, unsurprisingly, folds this societal concern into a deeply sympathetic tale of hearts broken and mended. It’s acted, as always, to perfection by a top-tier cast.

 

The Munekata Sisters (1950)

(Munekata kyôdai)

Don Quixote is referenced in a quote posted above a bar, not for the first time in a Ozu film, but it’s Jane Austen (specifically Sense and Sensibility) to whom he pays deference (possibly not on purpose) in this charming comedy about sisters who could not be more different. Older Setsuko dresses traditionally and tows a modest line, while younger Mariko is impetuous, spirited, modern in her fashion and unchecked in her verbal expressions. As the spectre of their ill father’s impending death hangs over them, they deal with their complicated lives as Setsuko runs a bar while her unemployed husband stays home and increases in his rage and misery. Hiroshi, an old friend who was once Setsuko’s sweetheart, is back in the picture after living in France and Mariko sets about to rekindle her sister’s relationship with him, but her provocations cause more trouble than she at first realizes. Another film in which the war is referenced in only the most obscure of terms (we understand what it means that one sister was born before and the other after it), this one is lighter in tone but still not without its moments of pathos. Plus it has been beautifully restored and the sharp, gorgeous images pay tribute to Ozu’s now established mastery of form.

 

Early Spring (1956)

(Sôshun)

The nuanced examination of multiple family members that highlights Tokyo Story is again attempted with a married couple in his follow-up. This story has moments of great depth and poignancy but, overall, not nearly the same level of sharp and captivating narrative. A salary man enjoying the relatively peaceful prosperity of Japan’s post-war economy has become numb to life’s pleasures thanks to clipped, passive aggressive commentary from his wife and the routine of his office duties. Two elements offer notable changes, one bad, one deliciously bad: a male co-worker is very ill and the prospects are not looking good, while flirtation with a delightful female co-worker turns into late nights out together that perk up his spirits but cause gossip at work and misery at home. Ozu doesn’t punish anyone in this love triangle for their misdeeds, everyone involved has forgotten to keep their eyes on the road and need to be reminded to live better lives. The subplot about the dying friend really is also very moving, but it’s hard to see why Ozu’s longest surviving film needs 144 minutes to tell us all about it.

 

Tokyo Twilight (1957)

(Tôkyô boshoku)

A character mentions cold weather in the opening scene of this film, and we already know we’re in Ozu’s darkest territory: a body of work that usually takes place in the sweet months of spring or summer is now situated in the dark nights of winter. Ozu was perfectly incapable of making a bad movie but this one comes dangerously close: it’s too long and heavy and Japanese audiences at the time reacted with indifference, resulting in the biggest financial failure of his post-war career. Setsuko Hara returns as the elder of two daughters to a widower who is worried that his youngest is going astray. She stays out late, she is taciturn and is getting in some minor trouble with the law, and what he doesn’t know is that she is pregnant and despondent about what to do about it thanks to her boyfriend not exactly stepping up to the plate. Add to that the return of the girls’ mother, who abandoned house and home for another man when her children were very small, and you have a potential powder keg, but the fuse never gets lit. Ozu allows us to feel sympathy for all characters, as always, giving as much tender understanding to the resentful daughters as he does their regretful mother, but his usual understanding of the complexities of the human heart don’t help move things along here. Even at its most accomplished, it’s just not that interesting.

 

Late Autumn (1960)

(Akibiyori, “Autumn weather”)

Late Spring is revisited with changes in plot and tone. It makes for one of Ozu’s lighter efforts, smart and complex without going to the depths of melodrama thanks to his increased desire to identify with the younger generation and his almost sacred love of dramatic simplicity. This time, it’s a mother-daughter relationship that is focused on, with Setsuko Hara taking the opposite role as a widow who is concerned that her daughter is staying single to look after her (in his usual free-form idea of casting, Yoko Tsukasa, who plays the daughter, would play Hara’s sister in Ozu’s next film). Mom entertains the proposal of her late husband’s good friend, while her daughter resists her attraction to a handsome suitor with whom she has been set up when the idea of her mother’s remarriage upsets her. What was streamlined and direct in Late Spring is spread out over Ozu’s later penchant for larger ensemble casts, here adding the humorous interference of a Greek chorus of meddlesome, middle-aged businessmen trying to arrange the love lives of the women around them. It’s not a full revisiting of the original film and it’s not meant to be (An Autumn Afternoon attempts this more sincerely), much more a commentary on Late Spring that reaches its finest moments when it captures the complexity of feelings between the two women, trying against their better judgment, to each do what’s best for the other.

 

The End of Summer (1961)

(Kohayagawa-ke no aki, “Autumn at the Kobayakawa family”)

Just as it’s problematic to find something poetic about Ozu’s perfectly tidy birthday and death, it’s also far too tempting to read into the themes of his films as we reach the end of his filmography. In his penultimate film, a gently comedic family drama, deeper poignancy is left behind for a concerned examination of what the future could hold, and it’s hard not to assume that Ozu knew he would not be around for it. A family’s financial worries about their failing brewery operation is brought to the fore when their aging patriarch begins to behave erratically, reigniting an affair with a mistress from years past with whom, it’s possible, he had an illegitimate daughter. More focus is spent on his children and their own private lives, particularly two daughters being set up for marriage, before the ending that leaves us wondering if traditions being washed away by change will be altered or lost forever. Ozu’s observations of Japan under increased western influence has a few jagged edges, particularly the young woman who only goes out with American men, but for the most part, he maintains his usual skeptical but never bitter stance. While this film isn’t one of his most touching (and never means to be), it’s one of his most beautiful to look at.

 

Tokyo Ga (Wim Wenders, 1985)

It’s hard to decide if Wenders’ journey to Tokyo chasing the inspiration of Ozu’s films is successful: it’s not intentionally a biographical documentary about the filmmaker and cannot be faulted for having little to do, directly, with his oeuvre, but it doesn’t necessarily hold on to the thesis that it means to set up of seeing the city through Ozu’s eyes, either. Wenders introduces himself as a fan of Tokyo Story, bookending his film with scenes from that film, then ventures to the Japanese capital where he goes in search of the answer to a question that I often have when watching Ozu’s films, about whether or not his presentation of traditional life is faithful to the country’s traditions, or is fully invented from his imagination. Given that he is going there in the mid-80s, when the modernity that Ozu approached with hesitation but no fear or dread is mostly vanished by decades of progress, it’s not really possible to know either way. Wenders interviews the great Chishu Ryu, here seen at the actual age of many of the roles he played prematurely decades earlier, and who accompanies him to Kamakura to visit Ozu’s grave. Wenders also speaks to cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta about Ozu’s famous low angles, ventures into the director’s beloved pachinko parlours, and takes footage of Tokyo that pursues the reality of Ozu’s many famously constructed tableaux of street scenes or carefully arranged buildings. Once he starts exploring men playing golf, kids dressing up in American rockabilly styles in the park, or a strangely lengthy investigation of the creation of plastic food in restaurants, the connections he is making between his original aim for his trip and his love for the late filmmaker feels tentative at best.

 

Talking With Ozu (Kogi Tanaka, 1993)

Made by Shochiku to mark the 90th anniversary of Ozu’s birth (and 30th anniversary of his death), this forty-minute documentary travels the world in search of the great filmmaker’s mark on the artists who followed him. Stanley Kwan speaks from Hong Kong, Aki Kaurismaki from Helsinki, Claire Denis from Paris, Lindsay Anderson in London, Paul Schrader in New York, Wim Wenders in Berlin, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien in Taipei. They all relate their experiences discovering Ozu and the influence his work has had on their lives. For some, his films had an immediate, overwhelming impact, for others it took a bit of time to appreciate his magnificence. What’s most significant is how personal their reminiscences of his work are, and how quickly they veer into their own biographies thanks to Ozu’s making films that speak so immediately to our common humanity.

 

Ozu’s Films from Behind the Scenes (2003)

In 2003, to celebrate the centenary of Ozu’s birth, three of his colleagues, two crew members, and one producer gather to discuss their memories of working with him. Their recollections are vivid and generous, painting the portrait of a man who put his finest qualities into his work but was no pushover: a number of their stories detail, in a very complementary manner, Ozu’s exacting precision with the perfect image, as well as his unwavering devotion to things being done exactly to his manner (such as contradicting the studio’s requests for casting). Newcomers who are watching Ozu’s work in this collection for the first time won’t get much out of this one. It doesn’t necessarily provide insight to understand his world if you don’t already, but devoted fans will be thrilled to hear the stories that are related.



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