Although the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu (1903-1963) now enjoys a kind of central position in the mainstream canon of film history, his work was not seen in its totality in the United States until the 1970s – and at that time, his work was subjected to some of the most inept and derogatory criticism ever leveraged in the guise of praise for an artist. Ozu’s highly idiosyncratic formalism immediately made him something of a legend within film communities, but it’s clear that early western commentators often confused his stylistic rigor with their own wrong-headed notions about Japanese culture. Ozu’s work was initially known for being slow and highly austere in manner, and because almost all of his work deals with familial life, he was simplistically regarded by some critics as “the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers.” This reductive portrait of Ozu’s art as being a kind of filmic sedative becomes problematic in that it ignores the most exciting aspect of his style: those moments in his films which burst with graceful motion and performative energy, and which seem to form a kind of rhythmic dialectic against the stillness of other dramatic scenes. Ozu is actually a very expressive filmmaker in this regard, and he is similar to Howard Hawks in that his direction of actors seems to convey meaning in dissonant relation to other aspects of the material.
It’s worth mentioning, in this context, that Ozu was said to have worshipped Hollywood studio films. His favorite film ever was reportedly Citizen Kane, and he has been quoted as having said in 1935, “It may be possible for Japanese directors to make films like [Josef von] Sternberg’s, but we cannot become the master King Vidor, who made The Stranger’s Return.” The influence of Hollywood production methods on the early Japanese studio system has been well documented, and scholars like Shigehiko Hasumi have persuasively written about how Ozu’s passionate cinephilia for figures like von Sternberg and Vidor exerted a great deal of influence on his earlier, more kinetic visual style.
Ozu’s silent work, some of which lamentably no longer survives, is full of genre pictures: Sternbergian crime thrillers like Dragnet Girl (1932) and hilarious social comedies like I Was Born, But… (1932) display a kind of American vulgarity that seems quite at odds with Ozu’s reputation for stern domesticity. This quality of Ozu’s early work has been provocatively written about at length by Hasumi, Jonathan Rosenbaum and others, but I would argue that certain elements of this formative expressionism can be observed even in Ozu’s later, more famous seasonal dramas. A key example of this peculiarly rhythmic aesthetic can be seen in Ozu’s postwar masterpiece Banshun [Late Spring] of 1949.
Late Spring represents the first of Ozu’s collaborations with the great actress Setsuko Hara, with whom he would eventually make six films altogether. This particular outing is essentially a character drama which deals with an archetypal conflict: the whims of individual personhood against the demands of social tradition, here embodied by a woman’s wish to remain unmarried. Noriko (Hara) is a twenty-seven-year-old woman living with her scholarly father (Chishū Ryū), a widower. The conflict arises early on, when Noriko’s father tries to impose social expectation upon her in urging her toward marriage. Noriko initially resists her father’s wish, but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that her personal freedom is being halted at every turn by oppositional ideas which seem to gradually corrode her autonomy.
The sparse, painful narrative of the film is told to us primarily through two distinct types of composition, the first being the domestic two-shot, in which characters engage in dialogue within the enclosed space of a room or bar. This is the kind of horizontal “table shot” that conservative critics tend to associate with Ozu’s austerity, and it is in these scenes that we can broadly observe the strain of tradition being enforced upon Noriko. The secondary compositional form of Late Spring tends to function outside of the home, and in general we can associate it with a more liberated thematic strain. These are the outdoor wide shots which serve a dual purpose: they meticulously document the milieu of postwar Japan (its train stations, roadways and increasing signs of modernity) as well as display certain forms of motion that seem to emphasize Noriko’s idiosyncrasy of character.
Perhaps the most famous example of this secondary formal pattern occurs during the early bike-riding sequence, in which Ozu’s camera follows Noriko as she rides along a seaside road with her friend, Hattori. This beautiful sequence cuts between ecstatic shots of Noriko riding, landscape shots of the shore, and other images which function as harbingers of modern life, such as a foregrounded Coca-Cola sign. This scene is astonishing because it elides our usual sense that Ozu is a static filmmaker whose camera “never moves.” Here, the forward momentum of Ozu’s camera and of Noriko riding seem to merge together as part of a single impulse – rarely has form embodied meaning with such exquisite delicacy and warmth of feeling.
Extraordinary grace notes such as these suffuse Late Spring with a kind structural dissonance, giving rise to a sense of musicality which bristles up against the interior scenes. Ozu also presents this to us in the form of a minor character, a young boy (the son of Noriko’s aunt) who wants to practice baseball in his room at every spare moment. The quick motions of the boy – a figure of carefree youthfulness – are situated in opposition to the more stilted gestures of the adults who surround him in the narrative. It’s not a coincidence that this boy, in his dress and manner, recalls the kids playing baseball in Ozu’s earlier film I Was Born, But… (1932). Any Ozu film almost always synthesizes material from his other work in this intertextual way, allowing the films to reverberate off of one another.
Setsuko Hara’s performance in the film is clearly one of the greatest in all of cinema, and in examining it one can see how Ozu also displays another kind of dissonance through his direction of actors. Hara has a very peculiar way of delivering her lines here that is at once highly stylized and affecting. At various moments in the film – particularly those moments in which she says something especially painful or devastating – she will deliver the line with a big grin on her face, as if she is feeling joyous or celebratory. This marked break between Hara’s performative style and the content of what she’s saying becomes quite bitter for the viewer because it simultaneously withholds emotional release and closure while also emphasizing the thematic territory of the script, which deals with the ultimate irreconcilability of external forces and internal desires. Ozu’s films never simply endorse tradition and social values, but instead show us how oppressive these forces can be. His work is heavily stylized, and yet quite economical in the way that it divides up textual labor between performance, image and narrative; it seems to be working differently on multiple spatial levels.
On May 11, experience a towering achievement of Japanese film with IU Cinema’s screening of Masaki Kobayashi’s three-part epic The Human Condition. This screening is part of the Beyond Epic series. There will be a 45-minute intermission approximately five hours into the screening for a meal break. Food-truck service will be available outside of IU Cinema from 5:00–5:45 pm.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.