by Colin Marshall
To modern Western viewers — and even to a lot of modern Eastern viewers — the films of Yasujirō Ozu, with their rigorously mannered appearance and undeniably narrow topical range, feel neither accessible nor relevant. What a shame that is. The Ozu enthusiast’s typical response to dubious uninitiated friends is that, behind the aesthetic formalism, deliberately restrained acting and unshifting focus on the midcentury Japanese household lies a great artistic bounty. But that sounds wrong, somehow; these qualities don’t build a wall meant to keep out the unworthy viewer, nor do they simply emerge as the by-products of a peculiar authorial process. They’re the very architecture of Ozu’s style, the struts supporting, the spaces accommodating and the entryways leading us into what’s so stunningly effective about his films.
Ozu was a craftsman. The analogy is hardly unique to me — best of luck finding a film writer who hasn’t made it — but it clicks so well that employing it is irresistible. From the late 1920s to the early 1960s, Ozu directed over fifty films, refining (and occasionally expanding) his cinematic technique with each one, using similar elements every time but honing the skill with which he united them. Save for a few very early projects, all of his movies are, broadly speaking, thematically and compositionally alike. In his exceptional book on the filmmaker’s life and work, Japanese film scholar Donald Richie observes that Ozu “had but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution,” that “the conventionality of the events in the Ozu film is even by Japanese standards extreme” and that these films “are shot from an almost invariable angle, that of a person sitting on the tatami matting of the Japanese room.”
That a stationary camera, mundane subject matter and the same elements revisited over and over (Ozu even recycled character names from script to script) comes as a turn-off to filmgoers today is perhaps unsurprising. But just one viewing of an Ozu film — practically any Ozu film — should suffice to make a solid case of why these aren’t necessarily negatives. Ozu’s priority was not showing his audience the world, nor showing them experiences alien to their own, nor forcing them to observe from unconventional vantage points. He was concerned with one element above all else, an element compared to which all the others were merely unwanted opportunities for distraction.
That element is character, and at the center of 1958’s Equinox Flower, the onetime black-and-white stalwart’s debut in glorious Agfacolor, stands one of Ozu’s most fascinating. Portrayed by former matinee heartthrob Shin Saburi, the middle-aged Wataru Hirayama starts the film looking like just another of Ozu’s upper-middle-class patriarchs. But he’s quickly humanized at the wedding of a friend’s daughter, when he’s called upon to deliver an impromptu speech. He expresses admiration for the bride and groom, a couple who managed to come together without their parents’ hands arranging it, and half-jokingly nods toward his envy, his own marriage having been of the “unromantic” arranged variety. When a colleague later visits Hirayama’s office and confides his worry about his uncommunicative daughter who’s moved in with her boyfriend, Hirayama readily agrees to help out by visiting the bar at which she works and having a talk with her.
Hirayama may not contain multitudes, but he does contain at least two, and that’s the problem. The relaxed, understanding one is the Hirayama of the outside world; at home, he’s anything but. When his teenage daughter Setsuko announces her intention to marry nontraditionally — i.e., to a man selected by her own hand, not her father’s — Hirayama goes apopleptic. (Or at least as apoplectic as an Ozu character, whose actors had, by each final take, been worn down an attenuated expressive range by the director’s demands for sheer repetition, is capable of getting.) He attempts, desperately and ineptly, to dig up dirt on Setsuko’s (self-evidently harmless) boyfriend, to no avail. For this man of principle, seemingly no tactic is too low if its application means getting his way.
Even Hirayama’s wife, the sort of dutiful agreer and picker-up-after that comes to mind when one imagines a caricature of a 19th-century East Asian mother of the house, takes him to task. Directly accused of his bald inconsistency, he argues back without disagreeing. Indeed, he actually agrees that he’s being inconsistent, but insists that inconsistency is the very nature of the situation, of life itself. A father’s love, he claims, is a species apart from the avuncular advice he freely dispenses to unrelated young women. And besides, he adds, inconsistency is the way of the world; why, existence itself is practically made of the stuff!
Ozu does not agree with Hirayama. Nor does he disagree. And that’s the magic of Ozu’s finest films: as a filmmaker in relation to his characters, he never agrees, never disagrees, never likes, never dislikes. He neither moralizes nor editorializes. He raises to life a fully-realized cast of characters, brings them together and then artfully serves the aestheticized results to his audience. I take no small amount of perverse pleasure in calling Ozu’s films — meticulously scripted, planned and assembled as they are — borderline documentaries. Ozu sought an unadulterated presentation of character, after all, and that’s something even many legitimate nonfiction films can’t manage.
Think of that least necessary variety of documentary filmmaker, the one with an axe to grind. (Surely we need not name names here.) How easy it is to imagine an alternate universe’s faulty Ozu equivalent, a documentarian who enters a home much like the Hirayamas’ and shoots reel after reel of footage, cutting it together afterward to portray poor Wataru as hapless, ossified and retrograde against his wife and daughter’s beacons of progressivity. Or imagine a filmmaker with the opposite slant, one who shapes his film to cast Wataru as the last bulwark of a noble, honorable traditional society against a rushing tide of laxness and libertinism as personified by Setsuko and her mother. Both approaches would have been possible; both would have been badly flawed.
In Ozu’s eyes, Hirayama is right, but so are mom and Setsuko. The couple of whose “love marriage” Hirayama speaks highly are right too, as are the cohabiting couple Hirayama’s co-worker sends him to check up on, as are all the pre-arranged partnerships of Hirayama’s generation. But if all of the characters are, to Ozu’s mind, right, then the distinction between right and wrong must not mean much in the small worlds he creates. This is not to say that Ozu was an amoral filmmaker — certain young critics did, in his time, deride him as a moralist, a traditionalist and reactionary — but his concerns are in no way normative. His work cares about how things are, not one creator’s opinion of how they should be.
Richie and other critics have made much of the vital role of mono no aware in Ozu’s movies, a tricky-to-translate concept that works out, roughly, to a wistful appreciation that all things must pass. Ozu’s characters experience life’s disappointments; occasionally, they come right out and declare that life is disappointment, or at the very least disappointing. But they also possess the uncommon self-awareness with which Ozu imbues them, and thus realize that disappointment is transient, and if life is disappointment, well, by simple syllogism, disappointment is still transient. Besides, this life is all we’ve got, so we’d better appreciate it while we can. Certainly Hirayama is disappointed when Setsuko, unswayed by his protestations, moves forward with the non-paternally-sanctioned nuptials. But this disappointment, too, proves fleeting; in the film’s nearly-iconic final sequence, Hirayama rides a train to visit Setsuko, happily humming to himself, evidently having forgotten his freakout.
Ozu was a storyteller. A reader unfamiliar with his work might read this article, about a film whose events can be neatly summarized as “Daughter wants to marry, Dad doesn’t approve, Daughter marries anyway, Dad gets over it,” and wonder about that. But almost all of Ozu’s best films can be similarly encapsulated: “Family pressures Daughter to marry, Daughter refuses, widowed Father acts as if he’ll remarry and prompts Daughter to marry” and “Absent Father visits Son, Son thinks Father is his uncle, Father’s Girlfriend grows jealous of Son, truth comes out, Father discovers he now can’t become a genuine father” describe two of Ozu’s greatest masterpieces.
Ozu was not a plot-teller. E.M. Forster’s classic definition of story versus plot is helpful here: “The king died and then the queen” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. Just as Ozu was uninterested in sending down commandments to the rest of the world from his director’s chair, so he was unwilling to set up elaborate causal domino lines of plot. Ozu’s disdain for plot was well known; he felt plot jerked characters around unnecessarily, resulting in a grotesque distortion of the very natures that a narrative film should merely display. In this disdain, he held a key to cinematic transcendence, one which, alas, many if not most of today’s filmmakers fail to find for themselves. Apply the plot lightly, frame the action simply and let the characters be who they are. Only then will you capture and portray what really matters: the choices, the loyalties, the foibles. The inconsistencies.