Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963)

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963)

"Two themes seem salient in both Japanese and Western critical discourse about Yasujiro Ozu. First there is Ozu the humble craftsman. If Kenji Mizoguchi was the obsessed, tormented artist, Ozu was the modest artisan, calmly making film after film according to formula. He compared himself to a carpenter, or more often, a tofu-maker. "I just want to make a tray of good tofu. If people want something different, they should go to the restaurants and department stores." Reinforcing the artisanal theme is the image of Ozu the stubborn conservative. He is said to have made the same film over and over. For the average art-house moviegoer, Ozu's technique is simple, perhaps 'primitive', and resistant to technological change. This is an image that Ozu cooperated in circulating. He came late to talkies because he was a perfectionist and because his cinematographer was devising his own sound-recording system. Ozu announced jokingly: "I'm going to film the last fade-out of the silent cinema." As the legend has it, he steadily eliminated dissolves, fades, and camera movements from his style. After the war, he says, people expected that all the foreign movies he saw in Singapore would have changed his work. But no: "Look at The Record of a Tenement Gentleman for yourself: nothing has changed, the same as always. Some people say that Ozu is a really obstinate buzzard." He came late to color and never adopted widescreen. "The wide screen reminds me of a roll of toilet paper." Again, critics have followed his lead and ranked him (with Dreyer and Bresson) as the cineaste of minimal means." [2]

The Movie Bug

Yasujiro Ozu

"Ozu was born in the old Fukagawa district of Tokyo in 1903. Both his parents came from wealthy noble families, but by the turn of the century his father was running a fertilizer firm. Yasujiro, along with his older brother Shinichi and two younger sisters, lived in Tokyo until 1913, when his father sent the whole family to Matsuzaka for the children's education. From 1913 to 1923, Ozu lived apart from his father, developing his famous unruliness and close attachment to his mother, who would remain by his side for life. At school in Matsuzaka Ozu was never an avid student, achieving a reputation instead for drinking, displaying a photograph of an actress on his desk, and writing a love letterto a boy in a lower class. All of these activities were frowned upon by the school administration, and Ozu was expelled from the dormitory and told to commute from home with a passbook in which his mother and teachers had to stamp him in and out. He quickly took to stealing the family seal and coming and going as he pleased.

Yasujiro Ozu

Cleverness in skirting restrictions and requirements stayed with him through his first long stint in the army reserves, when he feigned tuberculosis for nearly a year in the hospital by dipping the thermometer in warm water and coughing. Ozu would never submit to authority unless it was for the sake of doing what he wanted to do, and he would always get others to do what he wanted - such as building ceilings on sets for the first time to accommodate his low camera angle. As his letterwriting approach to the boy at school may indicate, however, he also remained shy in matters of the heart. In later life he occasionally had friends arrange meetings with women in whom he was interested, only to crack a joke and walk away. The result was that the director who specialized in the most delicate nuances of family relationships never had a family of his own.

In middle school Ozu‘s interests were strictly extracurricular. He spoke of a precocious love for contemporary fiction, and a still greater love for movies, all of which were foreign films. He ran away to Tsu and Nagoya to see movies, wrote fan letters to film narrators in Kobe, and talked to his friends about Pearl White, Lillian Gish and William S. Hart. He seems to have been proud of the fact that when he was supposed to be taking the entrance examination for the Kobe Higher Commercial School he was actually in a movie theater watching Rex lngram's 1922 Prisoner of Zenda. After a year's unemployment followed by a year as an assistant teacher in a tiny village a few kilometers from Matsuzaka, Ozu returned with the rest of his family to Tokyo in 1923. Despite the opposition of his father, he was determined to enter the dubious profession of filmmaking and secured an introduction to the Shochiku company, which had just been founded in 1920. He was hired, although the executives were amazed that he had seen only about three Japanese films during his youth as a movie buff, and he became an assistant cameraman.

From "Nonsense" to Social Realism

At Shochiku's Kamata studios in Tokyo, Ozu began as third assistant to cameraman Hiroshi Sakai, cinematographer for the films of Kiyohiko Ushihara (1897-1985). This formidable director had written the script for the highly experimental 1921 Souls on the Road (Rojo no Reikon), and would later go to Hollywood to study filmmaking under Charlie Chaplin. Ozu apparently pestered him with questions about what the cinema of "the coming generation" should be like, according to Sakai, who since forgot what the answer was, if any.

I Was Born, But... (1932)

This eager young man was obviously on his way to directing. In 1926 he persuaded "nonsense" comedy director Tadamoto Okubo to make him his assistant, a job he filled until his own debut a year later. Okubo was apparently relaxed, generous and undistinguished, specializing in films that were strung-together risqué gags. The advent of sound finished him as a director, and none of his early films remain extant. If any influence from him is to be found in Ozu's work it may lie in his nearly but not quite vulgar humor - such devices as the little boys’ farting game in the 1959 Ohayo and the patriarch rising from his deathbed to rush to the toilet in the 1961 End of Summer. Yet in Ozu's hands even these touches assume a fitting position in the overall design of everyday life, whereas the gags in Okubo's films were aimed at shock value.

Ozu was appointed to the low-prestige period film section as a director in 1927. Although he wanted to film his own scripts from the beginning, he went ahead and did Sword of Penitence, based on a George Fitzmaurice film, with a script by Kogo Noda, who in later years would be coscenarist for all of his great postwar films. Called up into the army reserves before shooting was completed, Ozu later saw the film in a movie theater, but felt that he hardly wanted to call it his own. It would be his only period film.

For several years Ozu trained himself through the vehicle of nonsense comedies, turning out films at a frenetic rate, sometimes in as little as five days. Already he was gathering the staff who would stay with him to refine his expression: coscenarists Noda, Akira Fushimi and Tadao lkeda; cameraman Hideo Shigehara, whose assistant Yuharu Atsuta would later replace him; actors Chishu Ryu. Takeshi Sakamoto and Choko lida. He thought deeply about film grammar and from the beginning worked toward paring down his cinematic means.

The Only Son (1936)

The content of Ozu's films of the 1930s has been hailed as "consummate realism." In this age when proletarian literature was at its most flourishing, and Mizoguchi and others began making leftist "tendency films" about the injustices of the class structure, Ozu's subjects were all lower-middle-class ordinary people. Poverty is part of their existence, as are class differences, but the Ozu message of acceptance is already clear. His first critical and commercial success from the silent era, I Was Born, But..., illustrates Ozu's dominant theme. The film adds cinematic commentary on life's doldrums to the central parent-child conflict. The following year, 1933, Ozu made another silent film - he was waiting for his cameraman Shigehara to get ready to do talkies - with a Depression mood, using the same child star who had appeared in I Was Born, But..., Tomio Aoki. Passing Fancy also focuses on the parent-child relationship and the disappointment of expectations. Economic difficulties are ever present in the story of Passing Fancy, and the setting is a poor neighborhood - not without Ozu's hallmark, laundry on clotheslines and somber gas tanks. Passing Fancy ends with the restoration of the parent-child relationship instead of its dissolution, but the cost is heavy in economic terms. Even so, it is one of Ozu's most cheerful observations of life's difficulties.

One of his darkest expressions of the problem of separation and disappointed expectations appears in Ozu's first talkie, The Only Son (1936). Ozu speaks of The Only Son as a continuation of his prior work. "Because I couldn't get rid of the mood and style of the silent movies at all, I became quite bewildered. In spite of my understanding perfectly well that everything is different in a talkie, this movie had the style of a silent." Yet Ozu's remark about persisting in a silent style should not distract from his accomplishments in the domain of sound. The Only Son introduces several of his characteristic sound techniques. The lyrical music, with one theme based on 'Old Black Joe', is not yet used to signal and smooth over transitions, but it runs throughout several scenes.

The Human Order

Ohayô (1959)

Ozu's development consisted of a refinement of the problems of life through archetypal situations and characters. Even in a wartime film such as the 1941 There Was a Father, the problem is separation of father and son, as in Passing Fancy. In the 1959 Ohayo the family faces difficulties because of the disparity between the logic of the adult world and the world of children, as in I Was Born, But... In Tokyo Story parents face disappointment in their children similar to that shown in The Only Son. The characters, though their economic circumstances may differ, are enmeshed in the same kinds of familial relationships. Their worlds are always the same enclosed circle: everyone knows everyone else who appears, everyone likes everyone else. There are no heroes and no villains, no great successes and no abject failures - everyone is ordinary. All who are not members of the immediate family in question are neighbors, school friends, war buddies, teachers, work colleagues or long-patronized eating and drinking establishment owners.

Fathers, typically played by Chishu Ryu, are usually gruff, kindly, and introverted. They are lovers of alcohol, mah-jongg, and theatrical entertainments as much as literature and natural scenery. They often work in an office, but rarely appear to be absorbed in what they do there. Their shortcomings usually consist in a failure to observe the feelings of their children. Mothers, typically played by Kuniko Miyake, are gentle, devoted, hardworking, and more apt to voice opinions and feelings than their husbands. Daughters, typically played by Setsuko Hara, and later Yoko Tsukasa and Shima lwashita, are solicitous, modest, often employed, but reluctant to be separated permanently from their parents.

The core relationship among these ordinary people of the Ozu film is that between parent and child, in his late works often that type of dependence described as amae, a presumption on the indulgence of another, exemplified by a baby‘s behavior toward its mother. Or, as two parents in There Was a Father state it, in a formulation that does not sound so foreign to western ears. "One's child is a child no matter how old."

Tokyo Story (1953)

Ozu portrays the rupture of amae most often through the marriage of a daughter, although father-son relationships undergo separation stresses in Passing Fancy and There Was a Father, and mother and son accept his loss of dependence in The Only Son. Facing separation becomes the crisis of the film, most poignant in situations involving a single parent and child. Marriage is thus not seen as an attractive prospect by daughters, because it entails a transition to responsible adulthood. They must look forward to managing a household and bearing their own children. For the parents who are to lose the daughters, the marriage means not only the loss of a comforting dependent, but the necessity of facing the end of their own lives with the termination of their responsibility toward the daughter. (The word for marrying off a daughter, katazukeru, also means "to finish, settle, clean up or dispose of.") Accepting the loss of dependence becomes the crucial means to continuing their own lives, and the only consolation Ozu offers is the propriety of so doing.

The structure of these stories of separations occasioned by the human order denies plot and drama. Speaking of the construction of one of his last films, Late Autumn, Ozu revealed that he had been trying since 1941 to do away with all elements of drama in order to allow a character's personality and presence to emerge fully, to create an air of sadness without making people cry, to make them. rather, "feel life." Eliciting sorrow and happiness through drama, he maintained. was "easy," but after all only an "explanation" that smothered the basic truth of character and life. This plotless cinema of archetypal families meeting inevitable situations has been described as a transcendental style that proceeds from the commonplace to a recognition of disparity, to a resolution that consists in stasis. The commonplace, however, represents not boredom and a lack of emotion, but a sense of security in carrying out forms. In everyday interactions Ozu's characters are extraordinarily polite, seeking to show consideration for others at all times. Disparity emerges not in an alienation from nature, but in a recognition that nature - human order - disappoints and separates. Stasis involves an acceptance of the human order, not much consolation, but a way of going on.

Looking Up and Beyond

Dialogue is of primary importance in Ozu's construction; it was the first element he approached. Ozu and Noda conceived of the characterizations with particular actors in mind, and talked through each role until it was completely familiar to them. The dialogue script in this way achieved satisfactory form and balance before any actual writing began. The slender story line of each film thus became a vehicle for character revelation. Subjectivity becomes a major element of the method because while the dialogue may give the characters moments to indulge in nostalgia, no narration or flashback ever interrupts the flow of present time.

Ozu's frequent screenwriting partner Kōgo Noda: from Late Spring on, Noda would collaborate on all Ozu's films until the latter's death in 1963

Just as the time frame is limited by conversational flow, the geographic area in which the characters reveal themselves is circumscribed to archetypes. The home, the office, the tea salon, the restaurant or bar are the places in which the plain but deeply illuminating conversations occur. Even the types of dialogue may be controlled according to locale: domestic arrangements at home, reminiscence and social concerns in restaurants, nostalgia and expressions of disillusionment in bars.

Dialogue formulated, settings determined, Ozu next set about placing objects on the set before putting any actors into it. He was notorious for demanding that furniture, teapots, cups, vases be moved one or two centimeters this way or that until he got exactly the composition he wanted, whether it maintained continuity from shot to shot and satisfied logic or not. Masahiro Shinoda, who was later to become a director, assisting Ozu on Tokyo Twilight in 1958, finally asked why a cushion was placed on the floor where no one was to sit. Ozu made him look through the viewfinder and pointed out to him, when he said he saw only what was there, that the tatami floor-mat borders all radiated from that spot. Ozu wanted to cover up what he found visually distracting from the exchange between characters. He would always shoot a set straight on, with sliding doors open the same distance. In opposition to Mizoguchi, Ozu then subordinated time and environment to dialogue and character. As a result, editing became the least interesting aspect of filmmaking for Ozu.

He was no less demanding when it came to directing the actors on the set. Rather than seeking the active, emotional outpourings Mizoguchi required, Ozu wanted characters to be so controlled that the acting had to be flat, and enormous concentration devoted to how a teacup was raised to the lips and then set down. Chishu Ryu, the archetypal Ozu father, reported failing to achieve a desired effect after more than two dozen attempts in one instance. Ozu would allow no one to dominate a scene, demanding equal flatness from all. Director Shohei lmamura, who assisted Ozu on several films in the fifties, finally asked to be moved elsewhere because he could not tolerate the wooden, formalized acting that Ozu required. Like the stories, the settings, and the events, if the acting became individualized and special, Ozu‘s balance would be upset. Every expression of shock or grief had to be delivered with the same control as the good-mornings, good~bys and thank-yous. Movements appear at times so ritualized as to be dance-like, as characters sit side by side on a slightly staggered diagonal and face the camera as they talk to each other.

Target for iconoclasts

Yasujirō Ozu directing Setsuko Hara in the final film of the 'Noriko Trilogy,' Tokyo Story (1953); Ozu is standing in the foreground of the picture, at left

Ozu would be the object of criticism by the new generation of the 19605. They would rebel, as Imamura did, against the rigidity of his form. They would rebel, as Oshima did, against the acceptance of things as they are, seeking the redress of social evils. They would bring all levels of society into their films, and they would show the passions, vulgarities and cruelties that Ozu had rejected in favor of mundanity. They believed that rebellious youth was their contribution to film culture, that people do not try to protect each other's feelings, and that widescreen and hand-held cameras would open up the closed, static world of the Ozu film.

Yet Ozu's inalienable truths of human life and the limited cinematic means with which he showed their emotional facets could not be completely rejected. His last words to Shiro Kido, who came to see him in the hospital where he lay dying of cancer, may be interpreted as defiance against the New Wave, "Mr. President, it is after all the home drama, isn't it ?" And indeed, Ozu's message of graceful resignation, couched in his spare but eloquent form, proved to be universal, not particular. His films are shown all over the world today to highly appreciative audiences. His films in the end came to be respected by such New Wave directors as Masahiro Shinoda, who learned from him a severity of attention to detail and a value placed on the director's own space in the film.

Ozu's films are not for those seeking utopian solutions. He never made claims for the possibility of romantic love, worldly success, or even human communication. Only acceptance, never happiness, was open to his characters, no matter what social class they belonged to. In avoiding virtuoso technique as well as dramatic structure he went straight into the irrationality of character and that terrible truth: life is disappointing, isn't it?" [1]


  • Sanma no aji (1962) ... aka An Autumn Afternoon
  • Kohayagawa-ke no aki (1961) ... aka The End of Summer
  • Akibiyori (1960) ... aka Late Autumn
  • Ukikusa (1959) ... aka Floating Weeds
  • Ohayô (1959) ... aka Good Morning
  • Higanbana (1958) ... aka Equinox Flower
  • Tôkyô boshoku (1957) ... aka Tokyo Twilight
  • Sôshun (1956) ... aka Early Spring
  • Tôkyô monogatari (1953) ... aka Tokyo Story
  • Ochazuke no aji (1952) ... aka Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice
  • Bakushû (1951) ... aka Early Summer
  • Munekata kyôdai (1950) ... aka The Munekata Sisters
  • Banshun (1949) ... aka Late Spring
  • Kaze no naka no mendori (1948) ... aka A Hen in the Wind
  • Nagaya shinshiroku (1947) ... aka Record of a Tenement Gentleman
  • Chichi ariki (1942) ... aka There Was a Father
  • Todake no kyodai (1941) ... aka The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family
  • Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka (1937) ... aka What Did the Lady Forget?
  • Hitori musuko (1936) ... aka The Only Son
  • Daigaku yoitoko (1936) ... aka College Is a Nice Place
  • Kagamijishi (1936)
  • Tôkyô no yado (1935) ... aka An Inn in Tokyo
  • Hakoiri musume (1935) ... aka An Innocent Maid
  • Ukikusa monogatari (1934) ... aka A Story of Floating Weeds
  • Haha wo kowazuya (1934) ... aka A Mother Should Be Loved
  • Dekigokoro (1933) ... aka Passing Fancy
  • Hijôsen no onna (1933) ... aka Dragnet Girl
  • Tôkyô no onna (1933) ... aka Woman of Tokyo
  • Mata au hi made (1932) ... aka Until the Day We Meet Again
  • Seishun no yume imaizuko (1932) ... aka Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth
  • Otona no miru ehon - Umarete wa mita keredo (1932) ... aka I Was Born, But...
  • Haru wa gofujin kara (1932) ... aka Spring Comes from the Ladies
  • Tôkyô no kôrasu (1931) ... aka Tokyo Chorus
  • Bijin aishu (1931) ... aka The Sorrow of the Beautiful Woman
  • Shukujo to hige (1931) ... aka The Lady and the Beard
  • Ojosan (1930) ... aka The Three Humorous Samurai
  • Ashi ni sawatta koun (1930) ... aka The Luck Which Touched the Leg
  • Erogami no onryô (1930) ... aka The Revengeful Spirit of Eros
  • Sono yo no tsuma (1930) ... aka That Night's Wife
  • Rakudai wa shitakeredo (1930) ... aka I Failed But...
  • Hogaraka ni ayume (1930) ... aka Walk Cheerfully
  • Kekkongaku nyûmon (1930) ... aka Marriage for Beginners
  • Tokkan kozô (1929) ... aka A Straightforward Boy
  • Kaishain seikatsu (1929) ... aka The Life of an Office Worker
  • Daigaku wa detakeredo (1929) ... aka I Graduated, But...
  • Wasei kenka tomodachi (1929) ... aka Fighting Friends
  • Gakusei romansu: Wakaki hi (1929) ... aka Days of Youth
  • Takara no yama (1929) ... aka Treasure Mountain
  • Nikutaibi (1928) ... aka Body Beautiful
  • Hikkoshi fufu (1928) ... aka A Couple on the Move
  • Kabocha (1928) ... aka Pumpkin
  • Nyobo funshitsu (1928) ... aka Wife Lost
  • Wakodo no yume (1928) ... aka Dreams of Youth
  • Zange no yaiba (1927) ... aka Blade of Penitence