PRINT October 2003

David Bordwell

FOR SOME OF US, THERE IS NO MORE MOVING moment in cinema than when, in Tokyo Story (1953), which many consider the quintessential film by Yasujiro Ozu (1903–63), Kyoko remarks, “Isn’t life disappointing?” and her sister-in-law Noriko replies, with a smile of calm radiance, “I’m afraid it is.” The poignancy of this exchange is a hallmark of the Ozu we have admired ever since his films slipped into Western film culture in the ’60s. And alongside this poignancy sits an extraordinary formal precision, that much-lauded restraint typically characterized as a set of dogged refusals: constant angle, static camera, rudimentary cutting.

This version of Ozu, defined by the postwar films, puts the emphasis not only on Tokyo Story but on Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Floating Weeds (1959), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962). Yet even this great body of work does not transcend its historical circumstances, and one way to understand how such a flagrantly formalist cinema could summon up such depths of emotion is to consider these films as late fruits of a rich filmmaking tradition. Ozu’s accomplishments built on his earlier work—and the work of others. To take his full measure, we must go back some eighty years.

IN THE WAKE OF THE DEVASTATING 1923 EARTHQUAKE, Tokyo film studios were forced to rebuild, and like the companies refurbishing department stores and coffee bars, they set out to Westernize themselves. Shochiku was the most self-consciously modern studio, rejecting the trappings of kabuki and other theatrical forms while embracing American techniques. Under producer Shiro Kido, Shochiku remade itself as a bastion of urban middle-class dramas mixing tears and smiles. Yet by encouraging talented directors to form cadres of collaborators—writers, cinematographers, and actors—and letting them pursue their instincts, Kido’s regime sometimes fostered bleak comedies and bitter melodramas. Through these Depression-era stories move shiftless college students, disillusioned salarymen, and broken families on the edge of destitution. After college comes unemployment; jobs offer little security; women are treated as chattel. With their ineffectual fathers and stoic mothers and unbending bureaucracies, these 1930s films constitute a muted but massive rebuke to the traditions of Japanese patriarchy and collective welfare. To work in the shoshimin-geki, the film of lower-middle-class life, was to work in a genre that gave poignancy a central place.

Despite aiming at the mass market, Japan’s studio system produced the most formally experimental commercial cinema the world has yet seen. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s delirious Page of Madness (1926), linked to the contemporary Neo-Perceptionist literary avant-garde, was an original response to German Expressionist cinema, while many films of the late ’20s explored dynamic montage in ways parallel to the work of Pudovkin and Eisenstein. The violent swordplay sagas known as chambara displayed frantic camera movements and disjunctive cutting that would have made Abel Gance proud. In the early ’20s Mizoguchi started testing his exquisitely refined staging, which would reach full flower in The Downfall of Osen (1935), Sisters of the Gion (1936), and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939).

Kido’s firmly middle-class policy discouraged extreme styles, but that simply pushed experimentation more deeply into the fiber of accepted formulas. Shochiku filmmakers were at the forefront of “Americanization,” adopting and revising Hollywood continuity principles. Like their US counterparts, directors built scenes out of a master shot followed by reverse-angle closer views of the characters. In the midst of this formulaic découpage, the director might—under the aegis of Ernst Lubitsch, then America’s most celebrated director—insert a telling close-up of an object to underscore the dramatic flow. Add an occasional tracking shot to follow a striding player or to pull us toward a significant detail, and the director’s tool kit was pretty much complete. In addition, Japanese filmmakers benefited from the katsuben or benshi, the commentator who stood by the screen narrating the action and providing the characters’ voices. By supplying ongoing narrative information, the benshi freed ambitious directors to create arresting visuals, which could heighten, or occasionally diverge from, the benshi’s patter.

Japanese directors subjected Hollywood principles to imaginative revision and variation. Characters might be shot from a severely limited array of camera positions (Hiroshi Shimizu’s Star Athlete [1937], for example) or in tight close-ups whose tempo was dictated by characters’ abrupt entrances into the shot (e.g., Mikio Naruse’s Street Without End [1934]). Space could be laid out in ambivalent ways and stretches of time skipped over unexpectedly. Because sound came gradually to the Japanese cinema (the first sound-on-film talkie wasn’t released until 1931, and silent features were produced for several years afterward), a purely pictorial approach lingered far longer there.

Into this milieu came Ozu, a passionate cinephile and an admirer of American movies. He was in a sense the ideal Shochiku director, gifted equally in hilarious comedy and sharp-edged pathos. He gravitated at first to ero-guro-nansensu (erotic-grotesque-nonsense), on display in college comedies like I Flunked, But . . . (1930) and urban romances like The Lady and the Beard (1931). Yet even these near-slapstick outings have a curious rhythm: They tend to start silly and end sober. In Days of Youth (1929), the earliest Ozu film to survive intact, the first half shows the antics of a pair of college boys trying to woo a young woman on the ski slopes. Why not? She has flirted with both and knit socks for one (though she promised them to the other). But when they learn that she is engaged to a fellow student, they’re plunged into a funk, and the film’s mood shifts to something far more pitiful. The boys return to Tokyo morose, freezing in their apartment and facing failed grades on their exams. They cheer up only when they resume their woman-hunting ways.

Tokyo Chorus (1931) traces a more nuanced modulation, moving from acute social comedy to piercing sadness. After a remarkably scatological sequence in a company washroom, where the clerks retreat to count their bonuses, a young man sticks up for an older employee and winds up getting fired. Without telling his family, he takes a job working for his middleschool drillmaster, who has opened a restaurant. The men must confront the reality of the new Japan: teachers discharged, principle beaten down by the demands of authority, the shame of being a father who cannot provide for his family. Through the good offices of the instructor he once mocked, our hero finds a teaching job in a remote town, and a chorus of his schoolmates wishes him well. Forced optimism? The happy ending is undercut by the reunion song, which asks when these friends will ever see one another again.

The bittersweet flavor beloved by Japanese audiences and institutionalized by Kido allowed Ozu’s talents full play. Several of his early masterpieces are pathetic through and through—Woman of Tokyo (1933) most obviously—but the great majority enlivened the studio formula through a delicate play of tonal shifts between comedy and poignancy. In The Only Son (1936), one of the saddest films Ozu ever made, the citified son takes his mother to the movies. “This is the talkie,” he explains. She nods apprehensively and falls asleep. The Lubitschian social comedy of What Did the Lady Forget? (1937) swerves into melancholy when our sophisticated moga (modern girl) pauses at a window, longing to stay in Tokyo and anticipating the nostalgia she will feel at home. “Why does a hand have five fingers?” asks the son in Passing Fancy (1933), and to his baffled father, Kihachi, he answers, “If there were only four, they wouldn’t fit into a glove.” The nansensu gag points up Kihachi’s slow-wittedness and becomes part of a hand motif winding through the movie. But the humor becomes something else at the climax. Kihachi has run off from his son. On board a boat carrying day laborers, he recalls the riddle, and his despondency quickly gives way to a determined grin. He suddenly leaps into the water. Floating between cypresses reminds him of another gag his son has told, and the film ends with him starting to swim home, remarking cheerfully, “Very funny.”

Attending to the early films allows us to correct the oversimplified characterizations of Ozu’s style as well. Always the same camera position? No, the setups vary constantly, in response to quasi-geometrical principles. No camera movements? The camera tracks or pans in every Ozu film up to Equinox Flower (1958). (After this, his first color film, he gave up camera movement forever, as if adding a new dimension of expression required him to delete an old one.) Simple cutting? Far from it; he elaborates the editing experiments of his contemporaries in extraordinary ways.

Ozu created the most rigorous style the popular cinema has yet known out of a personalized variant of American continuity principles. He developed his own system of establishing shots, reverse angles, and cutaways. From the start he was treating dramatic space as a circular arena, planting his camera alongside or in between his players and obliging their eye lines to cross—all the better to generate astonishing graphic similarities between shots. Many of his contemporaries worked on foregrounding the picture plane; even the chambara exploited rapid wipes and burst its swordfighters through paper walls, as if they were crashing through the movie screen. In cutting dialogue scenes, Ozu went still further, placing the characters’ heads and bodies in exact alignment from shot to shot, the better to highlight minute differences. An outré example occurs in Passing Fancy when Jiro tells Harue he loves her; the shots sacrifice centering for a wonderful sense of two figures in perfect coordination [see illustrations top right].

So thoroughly does Ozu rely on his 360-degree playing space that it becomes a default value, an oddly “transparent” norm to which we quickly become accustomed. For more striking effects he goes beyond his quirky dialogue cutting to a thoroughgoing organization of each image. He is as much an editing-based director as Mizoguchi is a staging-based one, but both seek to activate every zone of the frame. Shots empty of human presence will be linked through overlapping furnishings, or congruent shadows, or similar objects (hats, lamps). Even when characters are present, to follow an object or background figure through a procession of Ozu shots is to take an adventure in pictorial design. Subtle changes in camera setups allow him to bring props and secondary characters into prominence; during the twenty-three shots in the death scene in Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (1932), not a single camera position is repeated, and minute differences among them enrich the dramatic flow. Often, when we return to a locale, the new scene will notably recast the shot order of the first, providing an almost structuralist table of permutations and a faint echo of earlier actions.

What Did the Lady Forget? proved his last frivolous film for some time, and he bowed to government demands for films exalting the Japanese spirit. But his experimentation with dramatic tone and with every element of cinematic expression continued, albeit in more muted form. In Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941), the kindly father dies unexpectedly, and the older children are obligated to take in his widow and youngest daughter. But the pair is thoughtlessly shunted from one household to another. Ozu’s first extended-family film, Toda Family is a rough draft for Tokyo Story, but it has a flavor all its own, quietly suggesting that traditional family hierarchies must be set aside when a younger generation—here the happygo-lucky junior son—proves ready to take responsibility. And the film ends with a deflating joke that can make you rub your eyes. Full of casual swagger, the son announces, “I’ll get married when Hitler does,” and then he flees to the beach when an attractive woman comes calling.

Much more unvarying in tone is There Was a Father (1942), a simple story of a teacher who spends his life expiating for a boating accident, obliging his son to stick to his duty even though they must live apart. The propaganda message is clear, and unusually for him, Ozu steeps his story in Buddhist iconography. Yet a placid pictorial experimentation shines through: layers of hospital beds revealing tiny faces in crevices, empty landscapes over which sound echoes mournfully. In this film and Toda Family, we are already in the world of late Ozu, when the stylistic audacity is less flagrant, the humor emerges in flashes, and every scene aims to achieve a delicate poignancy.

AFTER THE WAR THE JAPANESE CINEMA MODERNIZED AGAIN, bringing forward a younger generation (Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Imai). Ozu and Mizoguchi refused to update their technique and favorite genres. Although they came to seem oldfashioned, Shochiku’s most distinguished director could afford to continue refining his approach through a cycle of films about youthful marriage and approaching old age. Indeed, Ozu once described himself as “like a painter who always paints the same rose.”

This is the late Ozu celebrated in retrospectives, but even in this period the poignancy is counterbalanced by bracing humor. His one flat-out comedy, Good Morning (1959), mounts a wry defense of the chitchat that lubricates daily life, while also becoming cinema’s first in-depth study of farting. Elsewhere drama is enriched by tints of comic observation. In The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952), wealthy women staying at a spa discuss how pond carp resemble their husbands point for point. In Early Summer, the rebellious sons kick around a loaf of bread (“Don’t kick your food!” the father shouts), and later the adults snacking on cake hide their plates when one of the boys passes through the room. Social satire is never far from the surface, and even nansensu comedy will occasionally return. After a few drinks, An Autumn Afternoon’s two navy veterans speculate that if Japan had won the war, their teenagers would be in New York shaking their bottoms to rock ’n’ roll. “Good thing we lost,” they agree.

Ozu’s late films are built so thoroughly out of the textures of daily routine that it is easy to overlook how he recruits them into intricate formal patterns. Situations, gestures, lines of dialogue, color schemes, food on the table are all pulled into a teasing, almost bewildering pattern of symmetries. The intricacy of the plots—one woman wants to marry, another doesn’t, a third can’t decide or won’t say—finds a fine-grained equivalent in the glasses of beer and orange soda that scurry across the foregrounds, or the red teakettle that squats in a different position whenever we return to a certain alcove. This universe of parallels becomes a parallel universe.

Throughout his career Ozu carried the Shochiku policy to an artistic height, elevating the smiles-and-tears formula and rethinking Americanized découpage. His cinematic precision sustains the poignancy, forming a baseline against which the slightest emotion stands out in relief. Form also becomes the vessel of feeling, as when subtle shifts in composition or color mark a change in the drama. Yet Ozu still sees the funny side of everything, including his own style. When a can of nuts (“Walnut Circus”) skips around the frame in a string of shots or when the drinks in glasses dotted through an image are filled to exactly the same horizon line, we have found a filmmaker who believes that form, operating at all levels and taken to a playfully pure extreme, can yield deeply satisfying delights.

David Bordwell is Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.