PRINT October 2003

Jim Jarmusch

My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent
and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.
—Frank O’Hara, from “In Memory of My Feelings” (1956)

IN 1984 I MADE MY FIRST VISIT to Japan to promote my film Stranger Than Paradise. Well before this trip I had given several interviews in which I cited Yasujiro Ozu as one of the film directors from whom I received my deepest inspiration. After completing several more interviews in Tokyo I realized that among the younger, hipper Japanese film critics and journalists, Ozu was, at this moment, out of fashion. His films were from the “old school”—stylistically conservative and thematically stodgy, middle-class and domestic. When questioned about his influence, it was as though I had committed a blatant act of contradiction.

This attitude toward Ozu seemed strange to me, but it made me aware that I have no real interest in fashion, but that style, on the other hand, is of great interest to me. All filmmakers are, in the end, stylists, whether they know it or not—and those who don’t most often create films with the most uninteresting of styles. Fashion seems connected to popularity, while style is inseparable from human expression. Films made by Ozu (or the works of any masters, for that matter) may drift in and out of fashion, but their stylistic strengths and particularities are not movable.

Near the end of that first visit to Japan (I have since returned eight or nine times) I was taken by my friends Kazuko Kawakita and Hayao Shibata to Kamakura, the town outside Tokyo where Ozu lived and often worked, and where his ashes are buried. Appropriately, we took the train, and from its moving windows I saw urban rooftops with lanterns and clotheslines, parallel sets of train tracks, and passing railroad platforms—images oddly familiar to me via Ozu’s employment of them as static punctuation in the language of his films.

Upon arrival, the station’s platform in Kamakura was also eerily familiar. Even the cherry trees were filled with blossoms. In a small museum there, an exhibition of personal artifacts from Ozu’s life and work had recently opened—the main reason for this trip to Kamakura. There were notebooks full of writings, ink pens, and scripts also covered with notes and corrections in Japanese. (I was struck by the realization that filmmaking is directly related to calligraphy.) Ozu’s pipe was there, along with cigarette packets, his ashtray, and his preferred teacup, with the image of a chestnut glazed onto its surface. His favorite hat was also on display (one I recognized from a particular on-set photograph) as was a pair of his eyeglasses. In a corner of the exhibition space was a tripod designed by Ozu himself. It had only two positions which locked the camera’s height in place—one position about three feet off the ground (the approximate eye-level of a person traditionally seated on a cushion on the floor), and a second about a foot and a half higher. Ozu had no need for alternate possibilities. These limitations would instead define the core of his style.

Also on display were several sketches Ozu made of interior sets for various scenes from his films. The sets were then specifically created around the focal length and depth-of-field of the single lens that Ozu preferred—a 50 mm. Again, alternate lenses were not of much interest to Ozu, and he almost never used them. Movement of the camera itself, whether panning or tracking, is nearly non-existent in his late style—as are fades, dissolves, or other optical effects. It is through this elegant quietness that Ozu navigates his slight stories around the expected landmarks of dramatic curves and heightened emotions. Nothing is forced. All that is left on screen are the smallest details of human nature and interaction, delivered through a lens that is delicate, observational, reductive, and pure.

The themes in Ozu’s films—typically concerning familial relationships and miscommunication—are fluidly interwoven with the director’s style, and they are as organic as his favorite natural analogies: the movement of light, the cycle of life, and the passing of the seasons (film titles include: Dreams of Youth, Days of Youth, Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth?, I Was Born, But . . . , Late Spring, Early Summer, Early Spring, Tokyo Twilight, Equinox Flower, Late Autumn, The End of Summer, An Autumn Afternoon). Again, Ozu is inclined to limit his themes just as he does his camera positions (and his casts, working with the same actors again and again).

After leaving the exhibition of Ozu artifacts, I found myself in the Engakuji Temple cemetery. There, a plain black marble grave-marker commemorates the life of this extraordinary filmmaker. There is no name on the face of the headstone, no date of birth or death—only a single Chinese character, which Kazuko and Hayao identified as mu. They explained to me that its meaning is philosophical and spiritual, nearly impossible to translate into English. An approximation, they offered hesitantly, might be “the space that exists between all things.” My friends instructed me, following tradition, to show my respect by filling a wooden ladle with water and gently pouring the contents over the gravestone. I did, and watched the clear water flow softly over the angular ideogram engraved in the hard stone surface, then become absorbed into the ground below.

Jim Jarmusch is a New York–based filmmaker.