Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
”Yasujiro Ozu: A Retrospective”
At the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, the Freer Gallery of Art, and the National Gallery of Art to April 25
If you’ve seen one Yasujiro Ozu film, you haven’t seen them all. But you probably have been introduced to the austere style that marks his mature films, as well as such archetypal characters as the pair of defiant school-age brothers, the dutiful 24-year-old daughter who has never thought of marriage, and the upright but easygoing widower who suddenly realizes that his child must wed soon. (One outdated but not forgotten Japanese term for an unmarried woman is “Christmas cake”—no one wants it after the 25th.) The same faces, the same situations, the same camera position, the same sense of resignation, and even the same names are repeatedly reconfigured in Ozu’s postwar movies, which compose the better-known half of his 33 surviving features.
Although Ozu was originally a devotee of American cinema—he claimed to have seen only three Japanese films before he got his first movie-studio job in 1923—the director’s low-key domestic dramedies came to define a specifically Japanese cinematic sensibility. (So much so, in fact, that such Japanese New Wave directors as Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima rebelled against them.) Though acclaimed at home, Ozu’s movies were considered unexportable at the time they were made. Yet in the years since his 1963 death, Ozu’s work has become a major influence on non-Japanese directors as diverse as Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. All have emulated Ozu’s spare compositions, indirect exposition, and preference for depicting the everyday and ordinary.
Each of the three Japanese masters whose work astonished European film-festival audiences in the ’50s—Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi are the other two—is associated with a particular genre and mode. Yet all were products of a studio system much like Hollywood’s, demanding that directors make films quickly in a variety of genres. Delve into their early careers and you’ll find Kurosawa romantic comedies, Mizoguchi samurai epics, and Ozu crime flicks. Indeed, the centennial retrospective of all the last’s extant films that begins this weekend at three local venues includes such uncharacteristic entries as That Night’s Wife (April 3 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center), a 1930 noir featuring a taut robbery sequence, and 1933’s Dragnet Girl (March 26 at the Freer Gallery of Art), in which a gangster is attracted to two women, one naive and one not.
Most of these films will screen only once, but the AFI is giving one-week runs to three of Ozu’s postwar dramas, including the one most often deemed a masterpiece, Tokyo Story. It’s also highlighting I Was Born, But… (March 19 and 20), a 1932 silent comedy that introduces several Ozu motifs, including gastrointestinal humor and daily subsistence in rough-hewn new suburbs. Freshly arrived in an outer-Tokyo near-wasteland, two sour-faced siblings face the challenges of bullies and a new school. What really galls them, though, is the discovery that their father is a sycophantic employee, not a leader of men. By the standards of Ozu’s later films, I Was Born is simplistic, but it ends in the manner of many of the director’s more complex tales: with a grudging acceptance of life as it is.
Made just four years after World War II ended, Late Spring (March 5 to 11) introduces a motif Ozu reworked at least as often as Jane Austen did: the marriageable young woman and the machinations that envelop her. Set mostly in Kita-Kamakura, one of the more picturesque of the director’s exurban-Tokyo locations, the film stars Chishu Ryu (as a widowed professor) and Setsuko Hara (as his self-sacrificing daughter), two performers Ozu would use again and again. For the first of many times, Ryu plays a man who awakens to his responsibility to marry off his daughter, convincing her that happiness lies in accepting traditional roles—and thus knowingly sentences himself to loneliness. Ozu and co-scripter Kogo Noda, who collaborated on this and all the director’s subsequent films, cloak a tightly structured script in naturalistic detail.
The darkest of the AFI offerings, Tokyo Story (March 12 to 18) chronicles the trip of an older couple (including Ryu) from southwestern Japan to Osaka, where a son lives, and Tokyo, home to their two eldest children. The grown offspring (and the grandkids, another set of querulous brothers) don’t do an especially good job of hiding their indifference toward the visitors. Only their daughter-in-law—who was married to a son who disappeared in the war—is truly welcoming. This simple yet poignant 1953 tale is the source of much of Ozu’s reputation in the West. Like the director’s other postwar films, it forgoes pans and zooms in favor of an upward-gazing camera. (This has been widely described as the viewpoint of someone sitting on a tatami, although some Ozu buffs dispute that characterization.) Among the movie’s concluding exchanges is a remark that could be Ozu’s motto: “Isn’t life disappointing?”
The director’s final film, 1962’s An Autumn Afternoon (March 26 to April 1 at the AFI Silver), refashions Late Spring’s plot with a lighter touch. One important update is that the director’s last few movies were shot in color—and not coy, washed-out color, either. In a brighter, more affluent Tokyo, a factory manager (Ryu again) finally recognizes that his daughter should wed. Although a solitary existence is his inevitable fate, this movie has a considerably larger population than Late Spring. The father has three children, a daughter-in-law, and several close friends, and in the course of the story he encounters an old teacher and a man who served under him in the Imperial Navy. Several scenes are set in a lounge where war veterans ironically listen to an old naval march, suggesting that military surrender and postwar deprivation were by then losing their sting. Still, for the bride’s father, the wedding—which, like most Ozu nuptials, is not actually depicted—is a duty, not a joy. When it’s over, the formally attired patriarch heads to a bar, where he’s asked if he’s been to a funeral. “More or less,” he replies.
If there’s a comic rival to Tokyo Story in Ozu’s canon, it’s Good Morning (aka Ohayo; March 5 at the Freer). Perhaps because it contains flatulence and diarrhea jokes, this 1958 movie is seldom listed among the director’s best. Yet it features what may be Ozu and Noda’s most brilliantly structured screenplay. In an echo of I Was Born, But…, two impish brothers in a prefab Tokyo suburb begin a campaign against adults: They decide to stop talking to protest the banality of grown-up small talk—and also because Dad (yup, Ryu) won’t buy a TV. The jigsaw-puzzle-like plot encompasses dozens of characters, and each piece—including a potential marriage—fits impeccably, right down to the final demonstration of the significance of chitchat. Ozu analysts who describe his films as loose progressions of commonplace events should study this one a little more closely.
Although Ozu once joked that “I make nothing but tofu,” there is variety in his postwar films. The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (March 27 at the National Gallery of Art) is a social drama, albeit one touched by some of Ozu’s familiar themes. And Floating Weeds (April 25 at the Freer), a 1959 color remake of 1934’s The Story of Floating Weeds (March 21 at the Freer), is an outright melodrama from a filmmaker who supposedly didn’t depict acute emotions.
Ozu’s movies clearly express much of his outlook but little of his life. The filmmaker didn’t marry or have children, and thus never had to arrange a daughter’s engagement or contend with a pair of bratty sons. He lived with his mother until her death, which came only two years before his own. Yet in the family he found a microcosm of Japanese society, a place where dreams sometimes budded but reality always triumphed. The usual capsule biography explains Ozu as a young, American-influenced rebel who came to embrace Japanese traditions. But his disposition seems as universal as his humanism: His films seldom show people at their worst, and his sense of humor suggests that he didn’t find life all that disappointing. Maybe Ozu even shared the guardedly optimistic attitude of Tokyo Story’s amiable patriarch, who returns from visiting his aloof offspring and suggests to his wife, “Let’s think that they’re better than most.” CP