In the 1993 documentary short Talking with Ozu, filmmakers from around the world including Wim Wenders, Claire Denis, and Paul Schrader attest to Yasujirō Ozu’s subtle yet resonant influence on their own filmmaking and their understanding of cinema as an art form. But rather than discuss how Ozu’s intricate and subtle shot compositions or elliptical depiction of consequential narrative events had a direct contribution on their own techniques, they each offer strictly personal tales, typically memories of the first time they saw one of Ozu’s films.
Even though there is a lot of mastery in Ozu’s work to dissect and drool over, the real miracle of Ozu’s filmmaking is the personal connection that develops between the audience and the work. One does not have to be a filmmaker to understand how profoundly one can become tethered to deeply humanist character studies like Tokyo Story or Late Spring. There is something profoundly revelatory about Ozu’s work, something that speaks to the emotional and social undertaking of simply being a person in a world with other people. This is why his films have traveled with such potency across nations and history. Ozu’s influence can’t be measured in terms of references or innovations. His movies resonate in ways that a viewer might not initially realize. That’s incalculable.
That, of course, doesn’t mean his specific techniques and contributions can’t be explored concretely. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from perhaps the one director whose incredible contributions to cinema resists the format of a list.
Find Cinema’s Grammar
“I consciously did away with fade-ins and replaced them with the cut. Henceforth, I never used such editing techniques again. In fact, neither dissolve, fade-in nor fade-out can be regarded as ‘the grammar of film,’ they are no more than characteristics of the camera.”
While making the silent I Was Born, But…, Ozu decided to do away with dissolves and fades, and this contributed a great deal to his distinctively restrained and idiosyncratic style of filmmaking. Ozu considered the cut to be integral to cinema’s grammar, and was wary of these other stylistic devices.
As a result, Ozu’s work has a fascinating, sometimes elliptical relationship to time. We proceed from one event to another, occasionally without knowing whether or not an important narrative event has happened in between. This exhibits Ozu’s remarkable faith in framing and juxtaposition in place of invasive or self-conscious editing techniques – let the camera angles, the actors’ interactions, and the characters themselves tell the story. That can fill worlds of work in between cuts.
Film’s Grammar Lies in Silence
“This is a film that went down well…At that time, everyone around me was making talkies, while I hung onto silents.”
In discussing Story of Floating Weeds, Ozu justifies his continued production of silent films well into the 1930s. While Ozu’s most celebrated works are his sound films, several of his masterpieces are from his silent period, and many of these films exhibit the same humanist sensibilities of his more celebrated postwar career.
As much of Ozu’s most-recognized work is defined by correspondence between characters through spoken interaction, it may seem like Ozu’s style belongs much more fittingly to the sound era. But Ozu’s output during the silent era helped him cultivate the nuanced visual sensibility through which he created such humanist narratives and themes.
There is something integral, fitting with what Ozu referred to as film’s “grammar,” about his particular staging of interactions between characters and narrative events. Ozu’s cinema speaks volumes, even if we don’t hear the characters say a word.
Not All Technology Advances Cinema
“About this time, CinemaScope was getting popular. I wanted to have nothing to do with it, and consequently I shot more close-ups and used shorter shots.”
While Ozu eventually embraced the possibilities of sound, he shied away from cinema’s later commercial attempts to manifest spectacle through technology. Hollywood had developed CinemaScope to compete with television, and manufactured epics in order to create visions impossible in other media (Ozu later dealt with the subject of television in Good Morning; it’s safe to say he wasn’t a fan). This technology became adapted across the world; fellow Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa, for instance, embraced the wider screen for his period action films.
Ozu wasn’t convinced that bigger necessarily meant better. His films invest in intimacy, in small interactions between people that may go unremarked-upon in everyday life. His films embrace the possibilities of smallness and restraint. For Ozu, there is plenty of drama and meaning latent amongst a family in a single dining room for dozens of films.
New techniques do not render old ones inferior; in fact, new techniques can keep us from realizing the wealth of possibilities still present in the standard techniques. Ozu witnessed many changes during his career: sound, color, and CinemaScope. That the latter was the one opportunity he never embraced is essential to understanding his approach to cinema.
A Small Cast of Characters Can Speak to a Much Larger Social Change
“I tried to represent the collapse of the Japanese family system through showing children growing up.”
This was Ozu’s reasoning behind making Tokyo Story, perhaps his most celebrated film. Having long abandoned comedies and stories about young children, Ozu focused later in his career on stories about growing up and growing old in the face of modernity. In doing so, he was able to illustrate important changes in Japanese society, from the postwar Western influence depicted in Late Spring to the generational schism between grown children and their parents represented with grand heartbreak in Tokyo Story.
Ozu’s films have always been culturally specific, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also echo well outside the islands of Japan. That Tokyo Story is an unofficial remake of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow exhibits the enduring possibilities that a single family of characters have in their ability to attest to systemic problems that exist well outside the solitary household.
In The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Mark Cousins’s epic subjective foray into cinephilia, the narrator/director refers to Ozu as a “gentle rebel” and points out that, despite not having a family himself, Ozu continually revisited the idea of family and the lives of ordinary people. Ozu rarely recorded interviews (which makes this entry in this series uniquely scarce for resources), but one can speculate that Ozu was a full-time observer, one who didn’t need individual experience to understand his fellow humans, but simply possessed the insight and the patience necessary to understand how people lived.
Perhaps alcohol was an opiate for Ozu’s precious insight into society on the macro and micro scale. Perhaps his tendency to observe and create prevented him from being able to do anything else. But speculation about Ozu’s process and personal life is of no matter – the result of his efforts is undeniable.
As evidenced not only by his cinematic influence, but furthermore by a gravesite ever-burdened with gifts, Ozu’s observations made a deep connection.
What We’ve Learned: Make Tofu
“I just want to make a tray of good tofu. If people want something else, they should go to the restaurants and shops.”
Usually we end this column with a “What We’ve Learned” section, but I can’t think of a more fitting way to summarize Ozu’s contribution and influence than with this quote. Like a chef, Ozu was both a craftsman and an artisan. But what he’s making seems simple on the surface, exceedingly ordinary and everyday. However, with patience, insight, and a confident and precise approach, something as ordinary as tofu can reveal itself to be intricate, extraordinary, and even far stranger than it first appears.
Of course, what Ozu is saying here is that he doesn’t care if people don’t like his films (the truth is, he really did), yet he’s also asserting that he doesn’t think of cinema as a device for entertainment or distraction. Ultimately, it is the person who rejects Ozu’s tofu that’s missing out.
Ozu’s Tokyo Story beat out visual symphonies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Vertigo, and 8½ on Sight & Sound’s 2012 Best-Of List by directors for good reason: his films display a delicate understanding of cinematic expression on scales both wide and small. Ozu used these skills not to exhibit the spectacle of the technological possibilities therein, but rather he used cinema expressly as a device so that we can better understand ourselves.