Often called the most "Japanese" of Japanese directors, Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) created films about middle-class Japanese life and familial relationships with simplicity and austerity. Known for keeping the camera three feet off the ground in order to view the traditional Japanese sitting on the floor, Ozu presented quiet observations of parents and children caught between obligation and the modern world. Ozu, who was an acclaimed director in Japan and whose body of work reached 54 films, first began to gain notoriety in the West late in his life.
Yasujiro Ozu was born in the Fukugawa district of Tokyo, on December 12, 1903, the son of a fertilizer salesman. Rarely seeing his father, he attended a remote school at the family's ancestral hometown where his doting mother primarily raised him. His unconventional childhood was reflected in many of his films, which invariably dealt with family life and relations between parents and their children.
An unruly youth who disliked school, Ozu favored watching the movies from Hollywood he loved so much, especially those from Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Rex Ingram. He worked for a few years as an assistant teacher in rural Japan and studied at Waseda University.
Ozu's break into filmmaking came in 1923 when he landed the job of assistant cameraman to director Tadamoto Okuba at Shochiku Motion Picture Company—the film company at which he would eventually spend most of his professional life. Okuba became Ozu's mentor who later influenced Ozu's own films, especially his comedies.
Directed Silent Films
Following a year of military service, Ozu returned in 1926 to become an assistant director at Shochiku. He attributed his desire to become a director to Thomas H. Ince's 1916 silent epic Civilization. Ozu made his first film in 1927, Zange no yaiba (Sword of Penitence), an uneven silent film that showed his lack of experience. Undaunted and armed with his interest in Hollywood films, he began to adopt an American studio approach to his filmmaking.
Ozu's first major film was one of the last great silent films. The 1932 comedy/drama Umarete wa mita keredo (I Was Born But …) met with critical and financial success and was named the best Japanese film of the year in the Kinema Jumpo poll. In the film, as seen through the eyes of children, the world of adults is both ridiculous and painful. For this film, Ozu employed the technique that would become his trademark—unobtrusive and static camera work.
During his career, Ozu would win many awards. His 1933 Dekigokoro (Passing Fancy) was another Kinema Jumpo winner. The 1934 silent film Ukigusa monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds) was one of only a few films Ozu did not make for Shochiku, but for Daiei film company. Based on an American silent film called The Barker, Floating Weeds, a film about the adventures of traveling players in the countryside, is considered a superior work. Still clinging to silent films, Ozu was one of the last directors to relinquish the style, wanting to explore all of the possibilities the medium had to offer, as well as waiting until sound technology was perfected. Sadly, more than half of Ozu's 30 silent films are lost.
Placed the Camera on the Floor
In the 1930s, Ozu rejected the conventions of both Japanese and Hollywood filmmaking to create his own style and themes. He experimented with camera angles, settling on a concept of simplicity. Describing his decision to limit the camera work, Ozu was quoted in Donald Richie's book Japanese Cinema, as having said: "For the first time, I consciously gave up the use of the fade-in and fade-out. Generally dissolves and fades are not a part of cinematic grammar. They are only attributes of the camera." The tactic worked, as Ozu became one of Japan's most popular and respected directors during the decade.
Ozu became known for his deceptively simple camera technique that used a stationary 50mm lens placed three feet off the ground. This low angle corresponded with the eye level of a person sitting on Japanese tatami mats on the floor of a traditional home. Consequently, sets on Ozu's films were built with ceilings. Observant but never intrusive, the camera contemplated and chronicled human behavior, presenting only the bare essentials.
Rejecting the more conventional camera direction through a 180-degree space to view action, Ozu focused instead on his characters and their interactions. He rarely resorted to devices such as fades, dissolves, pans, or tracking shots. Rather, through subtle, minimal camera work, simple cuts, and measured dialogue of everyday conversation, he presented scenes that were unhurried. He often textured his films with empty rooms and uninhabited landscapes.
Focused on the Family
The thematic thread linking Ozu's films was the exploration of the human condition, specifically the domestic problems of the contemporary Japanese middle-class family. Quiet and virtually plotless, his films chronicled human behavior in ordinary situations, evoking nostalgia, duty, and Japanese sensibilities. Not spurred by the actions of heroes or villains, conflict arose from the interaction of ordinary people, usually a parent and adult child, coping with everyday challenges. Home life contrasted with work life, tradition with modern society, parental responsibility with rebellious youth.
Ozu often used repetition in his films to evoke the familiar and the dependable. He would refer back to an outside shot of a building or a pond or leave the camera on a principal character. For example, in the 1956 film Soshun (Early Spring), he chaptered scenes with a repeated view of early morning in the suburbs. Many of the same actors returned again and again in Ozu's films to play similar characters. Ozu's favorite actor was Chishu Ryu, who most often played the father of an adult child he does not understand.
A writer as well as a director, Ozu perpetuated his fondness for repetition, as evidenced in his series of films titled with the seasons. Early Spring, 1956; Banshun (Late Spring), 1949; Bakushu (Early Summer), 1951; Kohayagawa-ke no aki (Autumn for the Kohayagawa Family), 1961; and Akibiyori (Late Autumn), 1960, suggest a circular round of life as well as the figurative spring or autumn of his characters' lives. He also directed the series Daigaku wa deta keredo (I Graduated But …), 1929; Rakudai wa shita keredo (I Flunked But …), 1930; and I Was Born But…, 1932.
Attained Success after the War
At first, Ozu did not fare well with talking pictures. His first two films Hitori musuko (The Only Son), 1936, a story about maternal love, and Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka (What Did the Lady Forget?) 1937, about a bossy wife, were described as dull and badly paced.
When World War II loomed, Ozu was drafted and sent to China, and in 1945 he was confined for six months in a British POW camp. He made only two films between 1937 and 1948, continuing to focus on his usual humanist values rather than addressing the war. The 1941 film Todake no kyodai (The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Clan), about a mother and daughter, was Ozu's first box-office hit garnering critical acclaim. The film was made in collaboration with Yuharu Atsuta, who would become Ozu's regular cameraman. The other film, Chichi ariki (There Was a Father), 1942, concerned the obligatory conflict between parents and children and virtually ignored the war.
After World War II, Ozu reached the pinnacle of his talent making what many critics propound as some of his finest films. Roger Greenspun of the New York Times called Ozu's 1949 film Late Spring the most beautiful Ozu movie he knew. The study of a widowed father and his adult daughter both considering marriage was also one of the director's own favorite films.
Directed the Masterpiece Tokyo Story
Ozu's most acclaimed film was the 1953 masterpiece Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story) about an elderly couple from a small town who visit their married children in Tokyo. With their children too caught up in the frenzy of modern life to pay them appropriate attention, the couple is packed off to one house after another. They receive kindness only from the widow of their dead son. Soon after the elderly couple returns home, the wife dies. Tokyo Story appeared in the top 10 films of all time in Sight and Sound's poll of international film critics.
In his trademark style, Ozu left the camera a few feet off the ground, unmoving. This technique limited the field of vision, yet allowed the camera to observe the interaction of the characters. No actor was to dominate a scene; the camera commanded the attention of all. With regular actor Chishu Ryu playing the father, the film condemned none of the characters. While the children are not portrayed as evil, they are uncaring and unresponsive to anything but their own desires. The movie advocated a certain resigned sadness to the way things have become.
Ozu, as well as his characters, adopted this gentle resignation and acceptance which culminated in the face of the corrupting influence of postwar society on family traditions. This mono no aware outlook on life is a belief that the world will go on despite the uncertainty surrounding you. Live in the present, acknowledge that the past is gone, sympathize but don't complain, face your life with serenity and calm.
The scope of Ozu's films were black comedies, satires, social criticism, melodramas, and even a gangster film, the 1933 Hijosen no onna ("Dragnet Girl"). The last film Ozu made in black and white was the 1957 Tokyo boshoku (Twilight in Tokyo), perhaps his darkest and most pessimistic portrayal of the disintegration of the family. Embracing color for the 1958 Higanbana (Equinox Flower), Ozu employed a newly developed Japanese color-film process to tell the story of the younger generation, this time with Shin Saburi as the father reconciling with his errant daughter.
Late in Ozu's career, the new wave of Japanese artists criticized him for his rigid style and refusal to address current social issues. Undeterred, he made Sanma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon), 1962, which would be his last film. A story about loneliness, the movie was influenced by the death, during filming, of his mother. Chishu Ryu returned as a widower who had married off his only daughter and occupied the rest of his days drinking.
Influenced Filmmakers Around the World
Ozu, who lived with his mother until her death in 1962, died of cancer on December 11, 1963, just shy of his 60th birthday.
The West was slow to embrace Ozu's films, which did not appear in foreign theaters or film festivals until the 1960s, shortly before his death. Japanese distributors feared that his work was too subtle for Western audiences who were more familiar with the adventures from Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, who were winning awards abroad. Nevertheless, Ozu's simplicity of presentation fortunately gave his films international appeal and a universal desire for family, affection, and security.
Ozu himself has been an influence on such diverse Western directors as Jim Jarmusch, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese. He inspired a documentary by Wim Wenders and was frequently the subject of books by Donald Richie, a scholar of Japanese cinema.
In 1983, Ozu's devoted assistant Kazuo Inoue produced a documentary profile of the director, called I Lived But … The Life and Works of Yasujiro Ozu that featured interviews with Ozu's production crew and recurring actors, plus excerpts from newsreels, home movies, and clips from two dozen of Ozu's films. Ozu's cameraman Yuharu Atsuta shot the film, and his long-time production company Shochiku produced it.
On December 12, 2003, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Ozu's birth, the Berlin International Film Festival, in collaboration with Shochiku Co. Ltd., will present a retrospective on the Japanese director. The retrospective will go on to screen at festivals in Hong Kong and New York.
Garbicz, Adam and Jacek Klinowski, Cinema, The Magic Vehicle: A Guide to Its Achievement, Scarecrow Press, 1975.
Richie, Donald., Japanese Cinema: Film Style & National Character, Anchor Books, 1971.
Shipman, David, The Story of Cinema, St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Thomson, David, Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A.Knopf Co., 1996.
Malcolm, Derek, "Yasujiro Ozu: Tokyo Story," The Guardian,http://film.guardian.co.uk/Century_Of_Films/Story/0,4135,217142,00.html (February 3, 2003).
"Ozu: Poet of the Everyday," Harvard Film Archive website,http://www.harvardfilmarchive.org/calendars/99sep/ozu.htm (February 3, 2003).
"Yasujiro Ozu," Malaspina Great Books,http://www.malespina.com/site/person_906.asp (February 3, 2003).
"Yasujiro Ozu," World Cinema: Directors,http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Metro/9384/directors/ozu.htm (February 3, 2003).
"Yasujiro Ozu," Yahoo Movies,http://movies.yahoo.com (February 3, 2003). □
"Yasujiro Ozu." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yasujiro-ozu
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Nationality: Japanese. Born: Tokyo, 12 December 1903. Education: the Uji-Yamada (now Ise) Middle School, Matsuzaka, graduated 1921. Career: Teacher, 1922–23; after introduction from uncle, began as assistant cameraman at Shochiku Motion Picture Co., 1923; assistant director, 1926; directed first film, 1927; military service in China, 1937–39; made propaganda films in Singapore, 1943; interned for six months as British POW, 1945. Died: In Kamakura, 12 December 1963.
Films as Director:
Zange no yaiba (The Sword of Penitence)
Wakodo no yume (The Dreams of Youth) (+ sc); Nyobo funshitsu (Wife Lost); Kabocha (Pumpkin); Hikkoshi fufu(A Couple on the Move); Nikutai bi (Body Beautiful)(+ co-sc)
Takara no yama (Treasure Mountain) (+ story); Wakaki hi(Days of Youth) (+ co-sc); Wasei kenka tomodachi (Fighting Friends, Japanese Style); Daigaku wa deta keredo (I Graduated, But . . . ); Kaisha-in seikatsu (The Life of an Office Worker); Tokkan kozo (A Straightforward Boy)(+ co-story)
Kekkon-gaku nyumon (An Introduction to Marriage); Hogaraka ni ayume (Walk Cheerfully); Rakudai wa shita keredo (I Flunked, But . . . ) (+ story); Sono yo no tsuma (That Night's Wife); Erogami no onryo (The Revengeful Spirit of Eros);Ashi ni sawatta koun (Lost Luck); Ojosan (Young Miss)
Shukujo to hige (The Lady and the Beard); Bijin aishu(Beauty's Sorrows); Tokyo no gassho (Tokyo Chorus)
Haru wa gofujin kara (Spring Comes from the Ladies) (+ story);Umarete wa mita keredo (I Was Born, But . . . ) (+ story);Seishun no yume ima izuko (Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth?); Mata au hi made (Until the Day We Meet Again)
Tokyo no onna (A Tokyo Woman) (+ story); Hijosen no onna(Dragnet Girl) (+ story); Dekigokoro (Passing Fancy)(+ story)
Haha o kowazu-ya (A Mother Should Be Loved); Ukigusa monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds)
Hakoiri musume (An Innocent Maid); Tokyo no yado
Daigaku yoi toko (College Is a Nice Place) (+ story); Hitori musuko (The Only Son) (+ story)
Shukujo wa nani o wasuretaka (What Did the Lady Forget?)(+ co-story)
Toda-ke no kyodai (The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family) (+ co-sc)
Chichi ariki (There Was a Father) (+ co-sc)
Nagaya no shinshi roku (The Record of a Tenement Gentleman) (+ co-sc)
Kaze no naka no mendori (A Hen in the Wind) (+ co-sc)
Banshun (Late Spring) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Munekata shimai (The Munekata Sisters) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Bakushu (Early Summer) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Ochazuke no aji (The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Soshun (Early Spring) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Tokyo boshoku (Twilight in Tokyo) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Higanbana (Equinox Flower) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Ohayo (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda); Ukigusa (Floating Weeds)(+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Akibiyori (Late Autumn) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Kohayagawa-ke no aki (The End of Summer) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Samma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
On OZU: books—
Anderson, Joseph, and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art andIndustry, New York, 1960.
Richie, Donald, Five Pictures of Yasujiro Ozu, Tokyo, 1962.
Sato, Tadao, Ozu Yasujiro no Geijutsu [The Art of Yasujiro Ozu], Tokyo, 1971.
Satomi, Jun, and others, editors, Ozu Yasujiro—Hito to Shigoto [Yasujiro Ozu: The Man and His Work], Tokyo, 1972.
Schrader, Paul, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Berkeley, California, 1972.
Burch, Noël, Theory of Film Practice, New York, 1973.
Tessier, Max, "Yasujiro Ozu," in Anthologie du cinéma, vol. 7, Paris, 1973.
Richie, Donald, Ozu, Berkeley, California, 1974.
Schrader, Leonard, and Haruji Nakamura, editors, Masters of Japanese Film, Tokyo, 1975.
Gillett, John, and David Wilson, Yasujiro Ozu: A Critical Anthology, London, 1976.
Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors, New York, 1978; revised edition, Tokyo, 1985.
Burch, Noël, To the Distant Observer, Berkeley, 1979.
Tessier, Max, editor, Le Cinéma japonais au présent: 1959–79, Paris, 1980.
Sato, Tadao, Currents in Japanese Cinema, Tokyo, 1982.
Bordwell, David, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, Princeton, New Jersey, 1988.
Hasumi, Shigehiko, Kantoku Ozu Yasujiro, Tokyo, 1992.
Hamano, Yasuki cho, Ozu Yasujiro, Tokyo, 1993.
Ishizaka, Shozo, Ozu Yasujiro to Chigasakikan, Tokyo, 1995.
Yoshida, Yoshishige, Ozu Yasujiro no han eiga, Tokyo, 1998.
Skiki, Ichiro, Kurosawa Akira to Ozu Yasujiro, Tokyo, 2000.
On OZU: articles—
"Ozu Issues" of Kinema Jumpo (Tokyo), June 1958 and February 1964.
Ryu, Chishu, "Yasujiro Ozu," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1964.
Iwasaki, Akira, "Ozu," in Film (London), Summer 1965.
"Ozu Spectrum," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), Summer 1970.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Ozu," in Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.
Zeaman, Marvin, "The Zen Artistry of Yasujiro Ozu: The Serene Poet of Japanese Cinema," in Film Journal (New York), Fall/Winter 1972.
Branigan, Edward, "The Space of Equinox Flower," in Screen (London), Summer 1976.
Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell, "Space and Narrative in the Films of Ozu," in Screen (London), Summer 1976.
Thompson, Kristin, "Notes on the Spatial System of Ozu's Early Films," in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 1, no. 4, 1977.
Bergala, Alain, "L'Homme qui se lève," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1980.
"Le Cinéma toujours recommencé de Yasujiro Ozu," special section, in Cinéma (Paris), January 1981.
Bock, Audie, "Ozu Reconsidered," in Film Criticism (Edinboro, Pennsylvania), Fall 1983.
Berta, R., "A la recherche du regard," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1985.
Geist, Kathe, "Narrative Style in Ozu's Silent Films," in FilmQuarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1986/87.
Lehman, P., "The Mysterious Orient, the Crystal Clear Orient . . . ," in Journal of Film and Video (Boston), Winter 1987.
* * *
Throughout his career, Yasujiro Ozu worked in the mainstream film industry. Obedient to his role, loyal to his studio (the mighty Shochiku), he often compared himself to the tofu salesman, offering nourishing but supremely ordinary wares. For some critics, his greatness stems from his resulting closeness to the everyday realities of Japanese life. Yet since his death another critical perspective has emerged. This modest conservative has come to be recognized as one of the most formally intriguing filmmakers in the world, a director who extended the genre he worked within and developed a rich and unique cinematic style.
Ozu started his career within a well-established genre system, and he quickly proved himself versatile, handling college comedies, wistful tales of office workers, even gangster films. By 1936, however, he had started to specialize. The "home drama," a Shochiku specialty, focused on the trials and joys of middle-class or working-class life—raising children, finding a job, marrying off sons and daughters, settling marital disputes, making grandparents comfortable. It was this genre in which Ozu created his most famous films and to which he is said to have paid tribute on his deathbed: "After all, Mr. President, the home drama."
Ozu enriched this genre in several ways. He strengthened the pathos of family crisis by suggesting that many of them arose from causes beyond the control of the individual. In the 1930s works, this often led to strong criticism of social forces like industrialization, bureaucratization, and Japanese "paternalistic" capitalism. In later films, causes of domestic strife tended to be assigned to a mystical super-nature. This "metaphysical" slant ennobled the characters' tribulations by placing even the most trivial action in a grand scheme. The melancholy resignation that is so pronounced in Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon constituted a recognition of a cycle of nature that society can never control.
To some extent, the grandiose implications of this process are qualified by a homely virtue: comedy. Few Ozu films wholly lack humor, and many involve outrageous sight gags. As a genre, the home drama invited a light touch, but Ozu proved able to extend it into fresh regions. There is often an unabashed vulgarity, running to jokes about eating, bodily functions, and sex. Even the generally sombre Autumn Afternoon can spare time for a gag about an elderly man run ragged by the sexual demands of a young wife. Ohayo is based upon equating talk, especially polite vacuities, with farting. Ozu also risked breathtaking shifts in tone: in Passing Fancy, after a tearful scene at a boy's sickbed, the father pettishly says that he wishes his son had died. The boy responds that the father was looking forward to a good meal at the funeral.
Ozu developed many narrative tendencies of the home drama. He exploited the family-plus-friends-and-neighbors cast by creating strict parallels among characters. If family A has a son of a certain type, family B will have a daughter of that type, or a son of a different sort. The father may encounter a younger or older man, whom he sees as representing himself at another point in his life. The extended-family format allowed Ozu to create dizzying permutations of comparisons. The sense is again of a vast cycle of life in which an individual occupies many positions at different times.
Ozu had one of the most distinctive visual styles in the cinema. Although critics have commonly attributed this to the influence of other directors or to traditions of Japanese art, these are insufficient to account for the rigor and precision of Ozu's technique. No other Japanese director exhibits Ozu's particular style, and the connections to Japanese aesthetics are general and often tenuous. (Ozu once remarked: "Whenever Westerners don't understand something, they simply think it's Zen.") There is, however, substantial evidence that Ozu built his unique style out of deliberate imitation of and action against Western cinema (especially the work of Chaplin and Lubitsch).
Ozu limited his use of certain technical variables, such as camera movement and variety of camera position. This can seem a willful asceticism, but it is perhaps best considered a ground-clearing that let him concentrate on exploring minute stylistic possibilities. For instance, it is commonly claimed that every Ozu shot places the camera about three feet off the ground, but this is false. What Ozu keeps constant is the perceived ratio of camera height to the subject. This permits a narrow but nuanced range of camera positions, making every subject occupy the same sector of each shot. Similarly, most of Ozu's films employ camera movements, but these are also systematized to a rare degree. Far from being an ascetic director, Ozu was quite virtuosic, but within self-imposed limits. His style revealed vast possibilities within a narrow compass.
Ozu's compositions relied on the fixed camera-subject relation, adopting angles that stand at multiples of 45 degrees. He employed sharp perspectival depth; the view down a corridor or street is common. Ozu enjoyed playing with the positions of objects within the frame, often rearranging props from shot to shot for the sake of minute shifts. In the color films, a shot will be enhanced by a fleck of bright and deep color, often red; this accent will migrate around the film, returning as an abstract motif in scene after scene.
Ozu's use of editing was no less idiosyncratic. In opposition to the 180-degree space of Hollywood cinema, Ozu employed a 360-degree approach to filming a scene. This "circular" shooting space yields a series of what Western cinema would consider incorrect matches of action and eyelines. While such devices crop up in the work of other Japanese filmmakers, only Ozu used them so rigorously—to under-mine our understanding of the total space, to liken characters, and to create abstract graphic patterns. Ozu's shots of objects or empty locales extend the concept of the Western "cutaway": he used them not for narrative information but for symbolic purposes or for temporal prolongation. Since Ozu early abjured the use of fades and dissolves, cutaways often stand in for such punctuations. And because of the unusually precise compositions and cutting, Ozu was able to create a sheerly graphic play with the screen surface, "matching" contours and regions of one shot with those of the next.
Ozu's work remains significant not only for its extraordinary richness and emotional power, but also because it suggests the extent to which a filmmaker working in popular mass-production filmmaking can cultivate a highly individual approach to film form and style.
"Ozu, Yasujiro." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ozu-yasujiro
"Ozu, Yasujiro." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved July 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ozu-yasujiro
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