Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Crazy for Ozu


Over the past few years, slowly but steadily, I've developed an insane love for the films of Yasujirō Ozu. I'm not sure when it came on or what started it, but I find myself wanting to watch and rewatch every film he's ever made. I feel extremely lucky that I've only seen a few and there are many to go. I don't think I've been so jazzed about the life and work of a single auteur since Luis Bunuel, a deep admiration that still abides.

No one would ever get these two confused, but there is, possibly, one link between them (aside from the fact that they were both born at the dawn of the 20th Century and smoked and drank heavily): they are filmmakers who never tire of addressing the same themes, over and over, and they always have something fresh to say, new ways of looking at the same blackbird. With Bunuel, that meant surrealism, society, religion, and the general disconnection between what life on earth is and what people wish it to be, or dream it to be.

Ozu is even more single-minded. His films, it has often been said, are all the same, that they almost always involve family life, and that relatively little may happen, and the titles are sound almost hilariously repetitive, as if they were barely an afterthought: I was Born, But..., I Went to College, But..., I Flunked, But..., Early Summer, The End of Summer, Early Spring, Late Spring, Late Autumn, An Autumn Afternoon and on and on.

And, I freely concede, some people legitimately and understandably think his films are as interesting as watching paint dry; in Roger Ebert's recent book on Martin Scorsese, the latter said that it took him forever to get into Ozu. This isn't at all hard to understand, as Ozu is definitely the kind of director who makes an audience come to him on his terms, his deeply Japanese, deeply Zen, deeply removed and austere terms. He's a great artist who is hard to recommend to everyone, because not everyone is going to connect with his style. He films do not, generally, have a lot of physical action, and his camera will very often linger on rooms or hallways or exteriors with no one in them, as if to show that the spaces people inhabit exist with or without them, to meditate on the empty spaces where life has been, much in the way any empty house reveals the character of the people who live in it.

Also, his camera, in most of his films, never moves; it's locked-down, very often at medium distance. Characters talk to each other by talking directly into the camera. It's startling and off-putting at first, but you soon realize that this is film language pared down to its essence, the way it is in a great short story or a novel that boils life down to its essence, its interior essence, and these immobile images become moving indeed. To watch Ozu is to be reminded that the things we remember most over the span of life are moments of deep realization or awareness -- epiphanies, you might say -- where characters become deeply aware of what life is and who they are. As always with great films, there's a certain exhilaration that comes with the sense that something vital has really been captured.

Here's something else I love: The Criterion Collection, which has recently started boxing lesser-known films of great or notable directors and selling them at (by their standards) budget prices. I snagged two such boxes for Christmas: Post-War Kurosawa and Late Ozu. Hopefully, I'll talk about these later; right now, I'll just cite their superb three-disc set of Silent Ozu, which includes the early films I Was Born, But..., Tokyo Chorus and Passing Fancy.

As in so many of Ozu's films, these all involve the relationship between parents and children. But where in later films he would focus on the generational divide, and the growing distance between aging parents and the children who disappoint them -- his masterpiece Tokyo Story being a prime example -- here the focus is on small children whose fathers prove less than ideal.

I was Born, But... (1932) is a wonderfully funny and tender film about how children encounter the class system; it creaks a little with age, but it's also surprisingly fresh. Two young boys, whose father has transferred to a new job, start life at a new school and immediately run into trouble with bullies. They try to avoid confrontation either by skipping school, hiding behind their father, getting a local beer salesman to serve as their tough guy, or ultimately taking their own chances in a fight.

As with most children, self-esteem has a lot to do with family status, and a chance event shows them that the father they look up to is, also, a man who has to bow before people who are more important, like the father of one of their classmates. Their father suddenly seems to them a fool, and alters their sense of who they are; the father, likewise, finds himself hoping his boys grow up to become something more than "an apple-polisher like me."

Ozu tended to focus on people middle aged and older, calmly observing the inevitable stages of life -- work, marriage, getting ahead, death -- and the sense of decline that comes as goals are put off and illusions are shattered with each passing year. I Was Born, But... shows that his themes were already very much in place, particularly in how our sense of who we are as adults is shaped by one's own children. It bears the subtitle "A Picture Book for Adults"; as with any family scrapbook, it offers both a lot of fond memories and a melancholy bite.

I was less impressed with the earlier Tokyo Chorus, from 1931, which also involves a young father's relationship with his young children, among other things. The father in the story is an up-and-comer who works for an insurance firm, and promises to get his son a bicycle with his new bonus. Unfortunately, he no sooner gets his bonus than he's fired -- and buys his woefully disappointed son a cheap scooter instead. There are more losses to come, as he suffers all the indignities of prolonged unemployment while struggling to keep his family alive, and eventually winds up working in a cheap cafe owned by his former schoolteacher. As a picture of hard times in Japan in the 1930s, it's affecting, but it doesn't have the depth of his best work.

Passing Fancy is in some ways the most amiable of the three. Here the father, Kihachi, is a drunken layabout who is a good deal less responsible than his little boy, Tomio, who literally has to roust the old man out of bed with a baseball bat to get him to go to work. The story revolves first around Kihachi and his roommate, Jiro, who will ultimately vie for the affections of the same woman, and then around Kihachi and Tomio, whose sudden illness will make Kihachi's glaring lack of parental skills all too apparent.

These silent films are much more broad and rollicking than most of Ozu's later work, but they are all fine examples of the Ozu to come, whose films speak more loudly even as they get more quiet and somber. They are deeply humane, visually alive and even violent on the most subtle scale imaginable.

1 comment:

Jonathan M said...

Great review Rodney. I definitely think that Ozu is a director you have to 'get'.

I think what did it for me was the realisation that the shots of alleyways and buildings are there as kinds of palate cleansers after a scene that demands your concentration. They give you the chance to take a drink, shift in your seat and re-settle.

That has always struck me as an idea that is incredibly Japanese; putting out a film that demands your attention on its own terms but which is polite enough to acknowledge that you might not want to concentrate in that way for 90 minutes and so it gives you little breaks.