I’ve read a lot of articles namechecking Yasujiro Ozu over the years but I personally have never had the opportunity to access his films until recently. (When it comes to Japanese cinema, I’m more of a Kurosawa man myself.)
Perhaps Akira Kurosawa’s best-known films with their emphasis on action and/or suspense have proved to be more accessible to western audiences. (Hollywood has adapted several Kurosawa films, the most successful being The Magnificent Seven, an Americanized version of Seven Samurai ( which featured the mighty Toshiro Mifune – one of my all-time favorite screen performers.)
Mr. Ozu specializes in understated family dramas like Tokyo Story (recently voted No. 1 in a poll of 358 directors conducted by Sight and Sound magazine) and Late Spring, part of a series of “seasonal” works which also includes Early Summer and Autumn Afternoon.
Ozu films were not widely available globally until the 1970s, according to film prof Louis Giametti. They were considered by distributors to be “too Japanese” to appeal to foreign audiences. Mr. Ozu was, Prof. Giametti writes, “a champion of traditional values, particularly that quintessential Japanese institution, the family.” For that reason, things may appear to many Western viewers to be moving too slowly as Mr. Ozu meticulously records details of everyday Japanese family life. He is not interested in heavy drama. The characters move at their own speed: they will not be rushed.
Recently I spotted a Criterion Collection reissue of 1949’s Late Spring at the local library. Lovingly remastered by the Criterion folks, the package also includes scholarly yet accessible essays plus some words from the master himself. The package also includes a second disc, Tokyo-Ga, a documentary by the great German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Buena Vista Social Club), recording his 1983 odyssey to Japan in search of the Tokyo which inspired Mr. Ozu’s films. Along the way he meets and interviews Chishu Ryu, a regular in Ozu films and Mr. Ozu’s longtime assistant, Yuharu Atsuta, who comments on the master’s unique style (he always liked to film with the camera several feet above the floor and using 50 mm lenses). On Mr. Ozu’s preferred method of shooting, Prof. Giametti writes “Ozu treated his characters as equals …for the most part, they are ordinary people, neither very virtuous or very corrupt … kept his camera neutral and dispassionate. Eye -level shots permit us to make up our own minds …”
Thanks to Mr. Ozu’s film I felt I really knew this family and thanks to Criterion’s thoughtful packaging and the accompanying Wenders documentary I felt I knew a little more about Yasujiro Ozu and his art.
Notably missing from Mr. Wenders’ doc is frequent Ozu leading lady Setsuko Hara. Ms. Hara, with her luminous eyes and expressive features, plays a devoted daughter to her elderly professor father (Ryu) in Late Spring. She will learn to her sorrow that she must leave her father and start her own life. Despite the appearance (to some) that little is happening the film is quite poignant and the ending can be ineffably sad. After the passing of Mr. Ozu in 1963 Ms. Hara retired from acting, resumed her real name (Setsuko Hara was a stage name), went into seclusion, refusing all requests for interviews and died in 2015. But we can still view her haunting femininity and screen presence on film.
Some things need no translation.