Here are two things everybody knows about Yasujiro Ozu: his camera is always low to the floor, and it never moves. If itís hard to define Ozuís style beyond such false commonplaces, thatís because his style never froze into formulas. To move beyond a routine view of the director and start to understand him, itís necessary to see all his films. Thatís why itís important that the Harvard Film Archive is showing almost the entirety of his surviving work (everything but a short documentary and one feature that exists only as a fragment) in "Yasujiro Ozu: A Centennial Celebration."
The more you see Ozuís films, the more their stylistic freedom becomes apparent. This freedom was born, no doubt, out of strict limitations; but as acquaintance with the works grows, the limitations count less and the freedom counts more. And yet, as Shigehiko Hasumi has pointed out in the best book Iím aware of about the director (translated into French but not yet English, unfortunately), itís through the limitations that Ozu is almost invariably described.
Western reception of Ozuís work has played down the incongruity and disruptiveness of his vision, qualities evident in his fanatical arrangements of people and objects at the expense of normal screen continuity. He hardly ever made a shot that didnít highlight the arbitrariness of the cameraís position. People sit down in the frame or walk away from the camera at unpredictable and unsystematic angles.
Although often seen as conservative, Ozuís films are made out of a deep sense of chaos and impermanence. This sense can surface in the most surprising manner. The comic endings of The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941; April 12 at 9:15 p.m. and April 13 at 9 p.m.) and The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952; May 4 at 7 p.m. and May 5 at 9 p.m.) donít so much contradict the narratives that have gone before as pretend to ignore their serious implications and suggest that despite appearances, the issues theyíve raised are unresolved.
Ozuís earliest surviving films, comedies about the lives of college students, show the director already discovering new ways to convey change and transition. Made in his 25th year, Days of Youth (1929; April 3 at 9 p.m.) shows youth in the process of going away; I Flunked But . . . (1930; April 27 at 9 p.m.) and Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth (1932; April 7 at 9 p.m.) share the same movement from cheerful student solidarity to a sober recognition of the inevitability of separation along lines of class and ability.
Ozuís films about domestic life and crime widen his range of visual experimentation. The layout and dimensions of the apartment in That Nightís Wife (1930; April 18 at 9 p.m.) remain elusive because his flexibility of tempo makes imperious demands on space. Regardless of the scale of shots, the focus is always on gestures, such as the whimsical and erotic inspiration of a policeman crowning a woman with the fedora of her criminal husband. To its deep tenderness, Tokyo Chorus (1931; April 17 at 9 p.m.) adds a wondrous complexity of interlocking movements: children playing, the father dressing for work. A geometrical film, obsessed with the hot-house lasciviousness of bodies poised at seductive angles, Dragnet Girl (1933; April 18 at 7 p.m.) absorbs itself in motion studies and collections of objects (three bit players walking past the camera playing with yo-yos; the camera executing arcs around a teapot on a table).
The sound masterpieces exhibit a still greater stylistic freedom. Ozuís expansive use of landscape and interior space to frame the conversations of the father and the son in There Was a Father (1942; April 20 at 8:30 p.m.) is eloquent in its moral conviction. The later films play on the independence of spaces, the mystery of whose connectedness Ozu refuses to elucidate, making puzzles out of films like Early Summer (1951; April 23 at 7 p.m.) and Late Autumn (1960; May 7 at 9 p.m. and May 9 at 9 p.m.). He juxtaposes spaces to make the point that they donít belong together, as in the sequence of the elderly coupleís visit to the noisy resort inn in Tokyo Story (1953; April 2 at 7 p.m. and April 4 at 9 p.m.), the film usually considered his masterpiece.
Although its title sounds like Ozuís way of avoiding having to say what the film is about, Tokyo Story is indeed a film about Tokyo, about the impossibility of encompassing it in a single view or of reconciling the perspectives, experiences, and value systems the city embraces. The film stages confrontations ó between ages and times ó that lead to no synthesis; the best the characters can attain is acceptance.
Early Summer is Ozuís major statement on happiness and how much itís permissible to wish for. Throughout the film, which like several of his works is concerned with a young womanís reluctance to marry, people say things like "Happiness is a dream" and "Weíre happiest now" and "Donít hope for too much." Although Ozu is deeply critical of the diminishing of human possibilities, his protest, in his best-known films, is usually muted and restrained. But Early Spring (1956; April 11 at 7 p.m. and April 14 at 9 p.m.), with the unremitting bleakness of its view of both office life ("Whatever you do in life these days, you canít expect excitement") and domestic life ("How boring, that we get by with things"), is an exception, or an extreme, in Ozuís work ó and a stunning one.
The scene in Dragnet Girl in which the delinquent heroine acts out the role of "wife" in front of her boyfriend offers a key to the directorís view of the family, a view that has been misconstrued as conservative. In Ozu, the role exists apart from the person occupying it, and it may match the feelings and inclinations of the person, but never completely or automatically: there usually takes place a conscious decision to assume a role, as when the heroine of my favorite Ozu film, the harrowing Late Spring (1949; April 4 at 7 p.m., April 5 at 9 p.m.), decides to marry.
If the much abused term "realism" means a way of showing a narrative action so as to suggest how it would be experienced by someone witnessing or taking part in it, Ozu is one of the great film realists. The dead father of The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family will barely be remembered, and thatís how the film presents him: before we have the chance to know him, heís gone. Throughout Ozuís films, the accumulation of comments about the weather, of discussion of food, of clothes, etc., rather than just bolstering a naturalistic portrayal of the way of life of a certain social group has a precise structural-rhythmic function, diluting the narrative, which he distributes over a global and chaotic life experience.
The many scenes of rituals in Ozu films function in a similar way. In There Was a Father, a reunion of former schoolmates, now grown to adulthood, is filled with banal, sententious dialogue ("So much time has passed"; "Do you want more sake?"); the key issue ó the death of one of the students during a class trip ó is remembered only once, late in the scene. Despite the conventional nature of the meeting, everything significant somehow finds expression; itís another instance of Ozuís realism.
Yet he is also capable of criticizing just that kind of empty talk, through the voice of a little boy, in the comic Good Morning (1959; May 7 at 7 p.m. and May 10 at 9 p.m.). In Ozu films like the hilarious and grim I Was Born But . . . (1932; April 24 at 8 p.m.), children are catalysts for the revelation of truths that adults pass over in silence. Ozu never identifies himself with just one point of view: heís always looking, with or beyond his characters, for something else, something missing. The view of Tokyo in Tokyo Story is consistent with his awareness of place as independent, lingering before and after peopleís time there. He responds to the potential absences in places as much as to their potential presences. In The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, the voyages of the husband and the wife leave the house empty, its rooms seemingly carrying on their own silent conversation, not at all impatient for the return of their quarreling owners.
At the same time, there is a great sense of plenitude in Ozuís films, and it reaches its peak in the color films, starting with the sublime Equinox Flower (1958; April 23 at 9:30 p.m. and April 25 at 7 p.m.), its frames filled with smooth, sculpted faces and objects staring at the audience. His last film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962; May 9 at 7 p.m. and May 11 at 7 p.m.), is one of his most desolate, but itís also animated by his exact enjoyment of place, detail, and ritual. In its crystalline confrontation of attitudes and its delight in contradiction, the film exemplifies Yasujiro Ozuís astonishing achievement.
Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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