Understanding Ozu

Yasujiro OzuAn entire generation of Japanese men and women came to be known to a world of cinephiles because of the films Yasujiro Ozu made. The statement would sound like a hyperbole for anyone who hasn’t watched an Ozu film but for anyone who has, the men and women in Tokyo Story was a culture being represented. We identified the growing Japanese generation that was breaking away from the family, the young people neglecting their duties to their ancestors, to their parents and the busy life they were getting accustomed to in the city . Ozu brought this story about a generation of post-war Japan out in a universal manner but in a style that seemed distinctively Japanese and in turn Ozu’s.

By picking out his portrayal of post-War Japan as central to Ozu’s filmmaking relevance, I don’t mean to alienate his work during the silent film era, the course of which came the stunning A Story Of Floating Weeds. His work has a transcendental quality that overpowers the realism and expresses a desire to stick with us. The reason Ozu’s post war filmmaking is more central to our understanding of his work is simply because of the lack of access to his pre-War work. A Story Of Floating Weeds is clear indication that Ozu’s understanding of Japanese culture and the realisation of the same on screen was not confined only to the post-War era.

Whenever you discuss Ozu, it is inevitable not to talk about the way the visuals are captured. When everyone else was focussing on widescreen projection and capturing of frames, Ozu developed a distinctive style which would make him one of the most revered and discussed filmmakers and also limit his films from going outside Japan. The Japanese considered Ozu a “Japanese” filmmaker and declared Akira Kurosawa as their universal filmmaker. Akira Kurosawa was “Westernised” or rather Americanised in how he shot a movie and also developed a story. A lot of Akira Kurosawa’s films would be about a man finding his way,himself or affecting the society by entering a realm of living. This was a style that appealed to the Western world. YojimboSanjuroSeven Samurai were templates for the development of Westerns. Akira Kurosawa found a niche for himself in the American market and his love for widescreen was telling in the approval he received. Ozu on the other hand focussed not on an individual’s impact on the society alone but would concentrate on every aspect that made a society.

A Still from Tokyo Story

A Still from Tokyo Story

Ozu’s distinctive style would have the camera at a position which would be at maximum 3 feet from the ground and it would rarely move. Instead of gazing over the actors, Ozu would involve the viewer in a scene by gazing directly at the actors. In a family feud, he invites you to sit and listen to both parties, to understand their problems and at times pass judgement. By placing the camera at just 3 feet above the ground and gazing directly at the actors, Ozu created an atmosphere of simple observation but powerful character assimilation. A typical Ozu scene would have an establishing shot where a character would slowly come into focus and then the camera would withdraw and settle to observe the character. In an Ozu movie, every character would have a say and all of them are important. These are people who change the course of a life, affect the one goes about a day. As their time on-screen comes to an end, the camera goes back to form another establishing shot and the scene ends. It is a cycle which is akin to life. The focus and withdrawal are part and parcel of how we deal in life and Ozu observes this and not just captures the activities that are around him.

Many historians believe that Ozu’s films are about Japanese families. Like the great film historian Donald Richie has rightly registered, Ozu’s films are not about Japanese families but the dissolution of Japanese families. In almost every Ozu film, the focus is on a family’s troubles to the extent of them cracking to the point of no repair. Somewhere, you are reminded of the great author R.K Narayan. R.K Narayan would almost always have his characters settled in Malgudi, the fictional town and would keep them as simple flawed people. The brilliance in a Narayan book would be in the character’s daily grind and what comes out of it when a routine is altered. Ozu used a similar technique when it came to his movies. There would always be an unmarried young woman living with the parents, kids living away and a family crisis bringing their allegiance and love into focus. No matter how you look at it, Ozu’s stories were predictable and simple but that doesn’t take the sheen away from watching an Ozu film. On the contrary, Ozu’s appeal was in that simplicity.

When you watch a Kurosawa or Mizoguchi film, it is easy to spot the genius in it. The texture and the exoticism on the surface leaps at us and we are mesmerised. In Ozu’s case, it is the other way around. The first time you watch it, you are drawn at how simple and real the characters are. Our eyes refuse to see the mastery in the shots or the texture. The characters are so life-like that we start connecting with them and more often than not there’s heartbreak and we find ourselves going for the tissues. Ozu’s intention is not to have us teary eyed but he tries to withdraw the emotion out of the scene so much that we are drawn to them and our hearts open to the stage that he creates. The emotion in an Ozu film comes from us and we are left to wonder how such a simple story could have evoked so much of a response from us. Anyone who has watched Tokyo Story, Early Summer and Late Spring will be able to attest to having this experience. Even though we cry and have an emotionally enriching experience, we place his films beneath a column marked nostalgia and forget to sense the mastery in them. The experience stays with us and we come back to watch an Ozu film. When we watch the film for the second time, we notice the yin-yang, nature’s balance. In every Ozu film, the yin-yang is essential.

For every good deed he shows on-screen, he’d come out with a deed that’s equally bad by another character. Duality was a theme that never went out of an Ozu film. Ozu observed people through this yin and yang. Everything had a balance and Ozu’s films maintained this balance. After watching the movie twice, we realise that there is something on the back of our head and it might be an umbrella or a tree or socks hanging that came alive on-screen. These are precious moments in an Ozu film because they are elements of dynamism that people initially fail to notice in the establishing shot – middle shot – establishing shot routine. The textures jump when you start watching the movie for the third time and it is at that point that everything about an Ozu film seems complete and the mastery comes across as a stroke of genius. The stroke of genius is not because the great man beguiled you and had you watching the same movie thrice but because even after watching the movie thrice, there is so much more left to contemplate and take away from the film. These days as we sit to watch movies, we tend to fast forward to catch our favourite scenes and then move on to watch another film. We don’t linger on movies in their entirety. Mostly, this is how our repeat viewings at home turn out to be, With an Ozu film, every scene garners importance and every rarely is there an urge to move the bar forward.

It is 50 years now since he passed away and only after he died did he start getting the recognition he deserved. held back by his own people for being too “Japanese”, Ozu’s films were literally brought back to life by the love of certain film historians in Japan. Ozu was a modest artisan who compared his work with that of a tofu seller but this mere artisan is now renowned as one of the greatest filmmakers to have graced the world of cinema. A masterly execution of recurring themes meant that we are never bored with an Ozu film. At once they are experimental, enlightening and amusing.  If there is a filmmaker who actually perfected the art, it was Ozu for he was precise, touching and an absolute delight, opening realms of possibilities that touched both the heart and the mind.


2 thoughts on “Understanding Ozu

  1. I discovered Ozu,when a friend of mine had forwarded his wiki page,at first i was amazed by his lifestyle,he lived like a true rockstar.Later on i discovered his movies,i am not fan of Akira, but Ozu is one of my all time fav directors Along with Satyajit Ray and Martin Scorsese.

    His movies are like Haiku for me, one of the few directors who was both good as story teller and master craftsman of cinema. As you have rightly mentioned in the post “Our eyes refuse to see the mastery in the shots or the texture.” I guess this is hallmark of one of the genius.

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