Yasujirō Ozu: the ingenious simplicity of great cinema

The life of Yasujirō Ozu

Ozu was born in the Fukagawa district of Tokyo, the second child of 5 brothers and sisters. He regularly avoided school classes to see films like Quo Vadis or The Last Days of Pompeii. In 1917 he saw the film Civilization and decided he wanted to become a director. At the age of 17, he was thrown out of the dorm room after being accused of writing a love letter to a lower-class boy. 

Ozu was hired by the Shochiku Film Company, as an assistant in the film department, on August 1, 1923, against the wishes of his father. His home was destroyed in the 1923 earthquake, however no members of his family were injured. On December 12, 1924, Ozu began a year of military service. He completed his military service on November 30, 1925, starting as a corporal. In 1927 he was involved in a fight in which he punched another staff member at the studio bar. He was called to the studio director’s workplace, and Ozu took advantage of this to provide a film script he had written. In September 1927, he was promoted to director and directed his first film, Sword of Penitence, which has been lost. On September 25, he was called into military service until November, and the film had to be completed by another director.

The film Body Beautiful, launched on December 1, 1928, was Ozu’s first film to use a low camera position, which would become his hallmark. Her film Young Miss, with a stellar cast, was the first time she used the pseudonym James Maki, and it was also her first film to appear in Kinema Jumpo’s “Best Ten” film release in third position. In 1932, his I Was Born, But …, a hilarious film about youth, was hailed by film critics as the first truly worthy work of social criticism in Japanese cinema, giving Ozu a great honor. 

In 1935 Ozu made a short documentary with music called Kagami Jishi, in which Kikugoro VI performed a Kabuki dance of the same name as the title. Like the rest of the Japanese film market, Ozu was slow to switch to sound film production: his very first film with a soundtrack was The Only Son in 1936, 5 years after the very first Japanese sound film, The Heinosuke Gosho film The mine and the neighbor’s wife.

Ozu in wartime

ozu

On September 9, 1937, at a time when Shochiku was not reaping box office success with Ozu’s films, regardless of how well he received critical acclaim, 34-year-old Ozu was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. He invested 2 years in China in the second Sino-Japanese war. In 1939, Ozu was sent to Hankou, where he fought in the Battle of Nanchang and the Battle of the Xiushui River.

In 1939, he composed the first draft of the script for The Taste of Green Tea, but shelved it due to changes that were firmly insisted on by military censorship. The first film Ozu made on his return was Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, his first real success, in 1941.

In 1943, Ozu was re-enlisted in the army to make a propaganda film in Burma. During his time in Singapore, having little sympathy with that kind of work, he wasted a whole year reading, playing tennis and watching American films provided by the Army Intelligence Corps. At the end of World War II, in August 1945, Ozu damaged the script and all the filming of the film.

Ozu had a career spanning thirty-five years, from 1927 to his death in 1963, and he rarely made a bad movie. He was always known in Japan, but had a global following after his passing thanks to fans and critics such as Paul Schrader and David Bordwell. Today, his films are often hugely prominent in critical polls around the world, with Tokyo Story in particular being typically referred to as one of the best films ever made in film history.

Ozu made, like many other pure authors, the exact same film over and over again: peaceful, understated dramas that generally felt like variations on the same style, using his distinctive austere and detached gaze. His fans might perhaps agree with the rating, but they would equally point to the boundless subtlety and humanity in Ozu’s work that makes his films moving and delightful.

Yasujirô Ozu never shied away from telling the exact same kind of story twice, especially when that story included the bitterness of passing from one generation to the next. Subtle film-to-film variations take on new tones as the viewer delves into Ozu’s filmography.

Here are 5 of the must-see films, important entry points into the director’s imagination.

I Was Born But… (1932)

Ozu-I-Was-Born-But

Ozu’s early films, mostly comedies, were lost to the ravages of war. 1929’s Student Romance: Days Of Youth is the first to survive, while some made late have yet to be found. One of his latest silent films, stars Hideo Sugawara and Tomio Aoki (the latter of whom had starred in Ozu’s short film A Straightforward Boy a few years earlier) as Ryoichi and Keiji Yoshi, whose family has moved in the suburbs of Tokyo for the new job of his wage father (Tatsuo Saitō). The director vaguely remade the film at the end of his career under the title Good Morning, but there is a winning purity in the original version that has a loose, episodic comic tone for much of its runtime, almost like a Our Gang series of short films put together (although Ozu’s framing is as controlled and rigorous as it never would have been), and with Aoki and Sugawara acting as authentic and utterly charming protagonists.

There was a father (1942)

There-was-a-father-ozu

Widower Shuhei Horikawa, an instructor, has a hard time raising his son, Ryohei, particularly after stopping his assignment: one of his students dies in an accident on a class trip and Shuhei is blamed. Ozu cleverly watches the time to reveal the great Ryohei, also an instructor, who has moved away from Tokyo and still eager to see his father. In chilling shades like Shuhei’s silent pain, his stiff deference to authority, his happy anticipation of Ryohei’s military service, Ozu exposes a society that blindly heads into emptiness and ruins its future in the name of the past. There Was a Father is among the 2 films made by Yasujirô Ozu during Japan’s efforts in World War II and, as such, is a film that has been influenced by the Japanese federal government’s increased control over all elements of the film market national. Under the surveillance of the powers of judgment, the films have been motivated to promote a kind of propaganda message to please authority, that of the father who best understands and teaches how to do one’s job to the fullest, with a discourse on the pursuit of responsibility.

Late Spring (1948)

Late-Spring-ozu

These two films are still somewhat neglected, quite unfairly. In particular, but it is perhaps understandable given that they were quickly followed by Late Spring, the film that marked the last act of the director’s career and which is almost indisputably counted among his finest masterpieces (the most recent Sight & Sound called it the 15th largest film ever made). It might, from the premise alone, sound like a comedy of good manners, and possibly a movie that Ozu may have made early in his career. The film saw Ozu embrace the shomin-geki genre (a word made up to describe this sort of social realism drama about ordinary people’s lives) more fully and then never let it go – it sets the tone for all the movies. subsequent.

Early summer (1951)

early-summer-ozu

Noriko Mamiya (Setsuko Hara) lives with her mother and father, brother, sister-in-law and troubled grandchildren in her family’s Tokyo home. Though initially indifferent to the idea of her, Noriko quickly finds herself considering an organized engagement, a proposal her family prompts her to think about. A moving and intimate portrait of an intergenerational family in postwar Japan, Early summer is another excellent film by master Yasujiro Ozu. A melancholy tale about the inevitability of change in one’s life, the story is tinged with a pleasant lightheartedness. The director’s extraordinary ability to use universal sensations makes the film an immortal classic that can be enjoyed by all.

The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952)

The-Flavor-of-Green-Tea-over-Rice-ozu

The flavor is that of ochazuke, green tea placed on rice: it is a timeless taste for the newlyweds in Yasujiro Ozu’s drama. This is the taste of the conjugal relationship itself, a taste of superb humility and simplicity. The resoluteness of the protagonists cannot be understood without looking at the enigmatic final scene, in which the young couple, having evidently discovered love, still appears to be linked to conflicts. Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) is a middle-aged woman, disappointed in her boring husband, Mokichi. They have no children and now Taeko has a close relationship with her granddaughter, Setsuko. She even suggests Setsuko false health problems so that, under the pretext of visiting her, they can all spend a weekend between women without their husbands present. As always in Ozu, there is the stylization of the cinematic shot, as if the actors were posing for a photo. A sublime and penetrating film about a marital relationship that is silently destroyed. Tricks and tricks put a strain on the relationship between a childless middle-aged couple in a provincial town as a total generational change takes place. Complexity of family life told with an ironic and tender humor and a resilient expansiveness that moves the action from the home to the baseball arenas, pachinko salons and ramen shops of postwar Tokyo.

Tokyo Story (1953)

Tokyo-story

It is in many ways the perfect entry point to get to know Ozu, to understand what is so special about his work, especially in the almost untouchable third act of his career. The themes are the same as in the first films in the trilogy (and much of Ozu’s work); old age, the responsibility of children towards their parents, the gap that can exist between generations, the loss that comes from change. Journey to Tokyo sees Ozu both angry and calm – Yamamura and Sugimura’s selfishness generates a fury in the viewer that is rare for the director. Yasujiro Ozu made one of the greatest films of all time, without nostalgia and artificial feelings, a film that can help us take small actions against our flaws. A film that talks about our families, our nature, our defects and our clumsy search for love and meaning. It’s not that our lives make us too busy for our families. It is that we have organized them to safeguard ourselves from having to deal with enormous worries of love, death and work.

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Early spring (1956)

Early-spring

Not often ranked high among Ozu’s films, the film is less involved in the family dynamics of the elderly and more about infidelity in a marriage between two young people. Abandoning his usual themes of the difference between generations and family politics at the behest of his studio, which felt they had gone out of style and wanted him to choose younger actors, Ozu nonetheless tells an atypical story in his career with his usual understated style and delicate, skipping what minor filmmakers would consider key scenes and letting the audience fill in the blanks (or keep guessing whether or not they occurred). As often perceived his films, both traditional and ahead of their time, is one of the best films ever made on the theme of infidelity and marriage.

Floating weeds (1959)

Floating-weeds

The original, a 1934 silent film, had been one of Ozu’s most successful films, and the director had often talked about a remake. He eventually got a chance to shoot it when he had a small window of time between his films for the Shochiku studio to make one with a rival company, Daiei, who used a pre-existing story to save time. Arguably more intriguing than most of Ozu’s later works (thanks to the use of a plot from 25 years earlier), however it looks quite different from the original, despite sharing figurative compositions at times – it’s a film made by a man who he is approaching his sixties rather than a barely thirty, one who knows the absolute minimum he needs to tell the story, and to do so he uses every syllable and every frame. It is a film that supports the idea that every great director should revisit one of his masterpieces years later.

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