Family ties: the films of Yasujiro Ozu

Yasujiro OzuYasujiro Ozu is a figure whose films move me deeply. The impression I take away after viewing one of his films is often of him. There seems to emanate from the film not just a story or point of view, but the impression of a personality: gentle, perceptive, suffering, hopeful, tender, humorous, ironic, melancholy, unfulfilled. Whatever it is, it is the sense of an integrated personality, one who has pursued his own failings and longings and examined them unmercifully so as to be able to treat with compassion the feelings and behaviors of others. This may be merely fancy: I feel it strongly nevertheless.

Ozu was quite privileged as a filmmaker. Working mainly for the same studio he made 54 films, and was popular and well thought of enough to remain largely free of interference. He built up a company of actors and crew who were very loyal to him and very fond of him. Starting in the late 20s, by 1936 Ozu had learnt his craft both as writer and director, and by the late 40s was emerging as one of the world’s most accomplished filmmakers, though little known outside of Japan.

There are 19 sound films made by Ozu (for me silent films are relatively inaccessible, and I cannot talk about them). They all exhibit certain characteristic themes and some of them seem at first to be very similar in subject matter. Perhaps the most overall of Ozu’s concerns is the passing of time, the way all our hopes and fears and loves disappear irrevocably into the past. He tries constantly to transmute the grief of this passing into the treasures of memory and the wealth of experience. “We are all getting older”, says a character in Higan-Bana (Equinox Flower) “yet we carry the dreams of our youth with us all our lives.” Another constant theme is the value of family and community, our emotional nurturing ground, constantly eroded by the innovations of modern technologically oriented society. A third theme, which struck a chord with Japanese audiences, is the introduction of western ideas such as more independence for women and how this impacted on traditional values. What goes on in many of Ozu’s films was actually occurring in thousands of Japanese families and the films were immensely relevant to a great many people. Ozu’s subject was the one most important to us, human nature. He showed great artistry in excluding anything that would obscure this subject.

Tokyo Story
The film by which Ozu is best known is Tokyo Monogatori (Tokyo Story, 1953) and it is his best film, surely one of the best made in the last 100 years. Story, scene construction, editing, pacing, music and acting all come together: the result is a great work of art. I’ve no idea how to define what that is, save that you know it unmistakably when you see it. It is the story of the distance between generations; of how we are fated, despite all our good qualities, to be forgotten; of how a new society calls for different values, but also of how easily we get immersed in immediate details of our lives and can neglect more important values. Here it is irrelevant to say Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama and Setsuko Hara are great actors, or that Yasujiro Ozu is a great director. For a couple of hours they and the other cast and crew members don’t matter. A door opens and we are watching as profound an observation of our lives and nature as anyone has ever made.

Kohayagawa-ke no aki (The End of Summer )
Kohayagawa-ke no Aki (The Autumn of the Kohayagawa Family, 1961 and known as The End of Summer) for me most approaches Tokyo Story in impact. The four daughters of the family (one illegitimate) attempt to come to terms with their changed status as the family business slowly begins to fail, while the patriarch of the family is more interested in rekindling an affair with a former mistress. The film is a masterpiece of humorous, insightful character study. The issues are real: what to do when the revered head of the house starts acting irresponsibly; how to make one’s own choice of a marriage partner when that causes conflict within the family; what people feel when the bonds of family are broken. Ozu can make you feel the bond between people by the way he shows them moving together, as he did with Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama in Tokyo Story. In that film the actors moved as an elderly couple, each familiar with the other’s presence. In this film the sisters played by Setsuko Hara and Yoko Tsukasa, one in western, one in traditional dress, move, sit, turn in unison, a movement of great formal beauty showing the harmony between them. Ozu uses color in a wonderful way, focusing a scene, creating a theme that links scenes and linking the beauty of scene construction with the overall observation: choices must be made, something is uncertainly gained, something irrevocably lost – yet not if we continue to love.

Equinox Flower
Ozu’s first color film, Higan-Bana (Equinox Flower, 1958), again speaking personally, approaches the first two films mentioned in impact. Shin Saburi plays Wataru Hirayama, a husband and father who is uncomfortably aware of the changing values of the younger generation, but aware also of his responsibility to care for his children. He is one of a group of men, old school friends, who compare notes on family matters. Hirayama is liberal in theory but disconcerted and offended in practice when he finds his daughter and her boyfriend making their plans to marry without consulting him. You love them and rear them, says one of his friends, speaking of children, and at some point you have to let go. When, and how, are the questions discussed in the film. Is giving your child a free choice a sign of respect, or of neglect? When a child makes their own way, and fails, to what extent can or should you help them?

Late Spring
One of Ozu’s most celebrated films is Banshun (Late Spring, 1949). Here the great Japanese actress Setsuko Hara gives her best performance, playing Noriko, the daughter of Shukichi Somiya (played by Chishu Ryu). She loves him and loves the security of living with him. He loves her and appreciates her. Both are an enormous part of each other’s lives. Yet circumstances force Shukichi to reflect on the fate of his daughter when he becomes old and dies, and he determines, over her objections, that she marry. Not a sign of grief does he show, even inventing a woman he might consider marrying himself, and so she masters her own grief and shows her father the respect she deeply feels for him by submitting to his desire and getting married. Only at the end, alone in his room, does Shukichi let down the mask and show the enormous loss he has sustained. The film is a wonderful tribute to generosity of spirit and has two of the best performances given in a film by Ozu.

An Autumn Afternoon
Samma no Aji (The Taste of Mackerel, 1962, known as An Autumn Afternoon) was Ozu’s last film (he died of cancer, after suffering much pain, on his birthday, 12 December 1963). Superficially it is similar to Banshun, as a widowed father slowly faces the fact that he should ask his daughter to get married and make her own home. Here the focus is much more on the state of loneliness, on the extent that people need the nourishment of love. Samma no Aji, despite this theme, is also very funny, laced with salty, ironic comments on how we falsify the past, justify our conduct by ignoring unwelcome facts and can be apparently kind while being totally selfish. The film interlaces formal beauty (the scenes are beautifully designed and photographed) with the melancholy of loss to form an experience not soon forgotten.

1936 Hitori musuko (The Only Son)
1937 Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka (What Did the Lady Forget?)
1941 Todake no kyodai (The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family)
1942 Chichi ariki (There Was a Father)
1947 Nagaya shinshiroku (The Record of a Tenement Gentleman)
1948 Kaze no naka no mendori (A Hen in the Wind)
1949 Banshun (Late Spring)
1950 Munekata kyoudai (The Munekata Sisters)
1951 Bakushû (Early Summer)
1952 Ochazuke no aji (Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice)
1953 Tôkyô monogatari (Tokyo Story)
1956 Soshun (Early Spring)
1957 Tôkyô boshoku (Tokyo Twilight)
1958 Higanbana (Equinox Flower)
1959 Ohayô (Good Morning)
1959 Ukigusa (Drifting Weeds)
1960 Akibiyori (Late Autumn)
1961 Kohayagawa-ke no aki (Autumn for the Kohayagawa Family, Early Autumn)
1962 Sanma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon)

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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