Silent Ozu & Late Ozu [sets], Criterion Films
Yasujiro Ozu, an integral member of the Japanese cinematic cannon—along with Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi—was the undisputed master of transcendent family drama. Ozu practically invented the genre of ‘shomingeki’ (stories of everyday people), predating Italian neo-realism by at least two decades. The three ‘family comedies’ in the Silent Ozu package (dating from 1931–1933) find Ozu already making sharp observances about the Japanese psyche. That Ozu resisted the advent of sound underscores his affinity for visual storytelling. While the picturesque ellipses that would mark his style in later years are not as pronounced, the footings are in place. The famously static Ozu camera is more kinetic here, yet he seldom moves the camera to elicit emotional responses. Even in these early films the path to transcendence becomes evident: fleeting everyday moments—from friends drinking sake to children playing bang-bang-you’re-dead—gently lead to vague tremors of conflict followed by a subtle hint of catharsis.
One striking element throughout all three of the silents is Ozu’s portrayal of children. In Tokyo Chorus the young father and salary-man protagonist loses his job when he stands up for righteous ideals. This not only jeopardizes his family’s survival but also threatens his son’s longing for a bicycle. Ozu, who was a teacher before becoming a director, understood the purity of children through their carefree nature. That they are free of the (often unnecessary) complications of the adult world exonerates them from the seemingly selfish trappings of their uninhibited willfulness.
I Was Born But…, the centerpiece of the silent box and the most well-known of Ozu’s early films, focuses precisely on this dichotomy between children and adults. The crux of the film’s comedy comes from two brothers dealing with the bully tactics of the other kids in their new neighborhood. The Chaplin influence is apparent in the lighthearted humor and humanism. Comparisons to The Little Rascals might be undeniable, yet the interactions between children and adults are rendered not as slapstick, but naturalistically. When the kids see how their father has to kiss up to his boss, the father of one of their friends, they are so outraged they refuse to eat. Ozu objectively laments the inevitable loss of childhood innocence as grown-up responsibilities take over our lives.
In A Passing Fancy, the protagonist Kihachi is a poor single father whose own child-like nature is comically idealized. Kihachi represents the modern Japanese everyman: happy-go-lucky, clumsy and flawed, yet hopelessly sincere and warm-hearted. Kihachi is the prototype of Tora-san, the hero of Yoji Yamada’s 1969 film It’s Tough Being a Man, which led to the longest running film series ever. Just like Tora-san, Kihachi falls for a girl only to sacrifice his feelings as he enables her to be with his friend. Kihachi allows the Japanese (and all of us for that matter) to laugh at their own fallacies and the inner conflict between innocent yearnings and the duties of living up to the Confucian ideal of being a good person.
The five films in the Late Ozu box (1956–1961) find the master on a seemingly never-ending quest for transcendence through zen-like practice of form. The themes he explored in masterpieces such as Tokyo Story and Late Spring are repeated and restructured. Ozu’s muse, Setsuko Hara, the perfect Japanese woman whose effervescent smile only gave way to tears in the final reel, remains idealized as she comes full circle. While she once resisted being married off for fear of leaving her widowed father alone in the world, Late Autumn finds her in the role of a mother whose daughter faces the same predicament.
The End of Summer reworks plot devices from Floating Weeds—the patriarch sneaking off to spend time with his mistress and illegitimate daughter—while the eldest daughter gracefully resists her family’s intentions to marry her off à la Early Summer. Tokyo Twilight is one of the most sobering and moving portraits of family dissolution ever. All of the elements of Japanese good manners and propriety are set in place only to be torn apart by a tragic dilemma. The hidden shame of a broken marriage resurfaces, complicating the conflict between true feelings and good composure even further.
Perhaps Ozu adhered to his formulas to hold on to the ideals of simpler times. Through understated exchanges between mother and daughter, implied proposals and inferred longings, a melancholic nostalgia is felt for the completeness of the whole and happy family. This is a sharp reflection of post-war Japan, an era faced with rapid, unsettling change. It is a testament to Ozu’s brilliance that the themes of his first color film, Equinox Flower, reflect his own resistance to change. The story of a father who stubbornly refuses to accept his daughter’s choice of a fiancé could be interpreted as a reflection of Ozu’s own obstinacy. Yet like the father, Ozu must have realized that he had to eventually yield to a changing world. The depiction of the hypocritical ‘ganko oyaji’ or stubborn old man/father is a quiet stroke of comic genius and an insightful comment on human nature. Through his simple life observances and interchangeable narratives, Ozu effects trance-inducing mantras, striking the chord of ‘mono-no-aware’—the acceptance of life’s passing.
David Wilentz dreams in color.