What I have done here is combine the 300-word entries for Yasujiro Ozu films which appear in two lists elsewhere on this site, the 100 Greatest Films and the 100 Greatest Asian Films, and elsewhere, arranging the entries in chronological order. I should also mention that complete essays on three of the films included below, “An Inn in Tokyo,” “Tokyo Twilight” and “Late Autumn,” appear in the category “film reviews” elsewhere on this site. In addition, there is a piece on “The Only Son” also included in the same category. One final note: Ozu’s “Early Summer” is currently my selection as the single greatest film I have seen.
THAT NIGHT’S WIFE. Useless emotions: a father’s shame; his arresting police officer’s compassion. Stressing psychological elements (to which its use of German expressionism is correlative), Yasujiro Ozu has made in Sono yo no tsuma a great film, one of his trenchant “dark” works in anticipation of An Inn in Tokyo (1935), The Only Son (1936) and Tokyo Twilight (1957).
Shuji and Mayumi are the struggling young parents of Michiko, who is bedridden with a high fever. The couple cannot afford a doctor. Shuji robs a concern, having tied up its employees at gunpoint, to get the money he needs.
He leaves behind a palm print—the mark of shame. Poor parents feel shame for a sick child: shame for their inability to keep their child well or make their child well. Demoralized by this shame, Shuji finds the robbery easier for him to commit; such shame illogically halts Mayumi’s hand from adding expensive sugar to her tea as Michiko sleeps just feet away in their small, cramped apartment.
Hands. Shuji’s bare hands are compared with the white gloved hands of the fleet of officers attempting to hunt down “the criminal.” A pair of those gloved hands on the wheel of the “taxi” that Shuji takes alerts us that he is being shadowed home, is about to be caught, by the law.
The title (if accurately translated) makes sense only if it refers to the arresting officer, Kagawa, whose “wife” Mayumi becomes because Michiko becomes his “daughter” as all three adults await the doctor’s arrival and news of the child’s medical fate throughout the night.
At the last Shuji’s shame trumps Kagawa’s empathy and compassion because Shuji insists on his own arrest, depriving him of his daughter (and her of him) no matter the condition of her health.
TOKYO CHORUS. Yasujiro Ozu’s silent Tokyo no kôrasu begins hilariously. Like his classmates, student Shinji Okajima (Tokihiko Okada, endearing) seems incapable of keeping in line—literally, I mean, quasi-militarily, on the college grounds. Ozu’s film leaps forward “several years,” where rhe comedy deepens. At the insurance company for which he works, Shinji confronts his boss over the baseless termination of a fellow employee, Mr. Yamada, an older gentleman, one year shy of his pension. This confrontation includes a riotously funny exchange of pokes, jabs and fan taps. With lovely tact Shinji explains to Yamada the upshot of all this: “It turns out this is my last day of work also.”
This is the Depression; Tokyo is the “City of the Unemployed.” Shinji and his wife, Tsuma Sugako (Emiko Yagumo, miraculously sensitive and restrained), have a baby girl and two very young children. (Hideko Takamine, age 7, plays the elder daughter.) Shinji desperately looks for work.
Much of the film’s later part is conventional, even sentimental; Shinji ransacks drawers of Tsuma’s cherished kimonos in order to pay the hospital bill when one of their offspring falls ill. One stunning image remains: a street curb tracking shot surveying the backs of the seated jobless.
Shinji’s former teacher, who runs a restaurant (“Our Portions Really Fill You Up”), solicits his help in advertising the place—tactfully: “If you’re out of work, how about helping me for a while?” At a dinner reuniting Shinji’s former class, the former teacher makes a toast: “May all of you continue to prosper through hard work and self-reliance.” But we’ve seen that hard work is insufficient and one must rely on others.
Shinji’s new teaching job means that the family must move. Mrs. Okajima’s wistful remark grazes: “I’m sure we can return to Tokyo someday.”
THE LADY AND THE BEARD. “All great men have beards!” Kiichi Okajima declares, citing Charles Darwin and Karl Marx; but bearded, traditionally garbed Kiichi was born in the twentieth century, while Darwin and Marx lived and died in the preceding century—and elsewhere than in Japan. Yasujiro Ozu’s comedy Shukujo to hige charts the gradual entrance of this old-fashioned young man into his own time. One hopes that Ozu doesn’t approve of Kiichi’s chauvinism, and he certainly mocks certain aspects of traditionalism; but one must concede the possibility that Ozu also identifies with his flamboyant protagonist. After all, it is 1931 and Ozu, in his twenties, is still making silent pictures!
Ironically, Kiichi enters modernity with a traditional act of chivalry: He rescues Hiroko, an office typist, who is preyed upon by Furyou, a female gangster whose modernity mirror-images Hiroko’s in an exaggerated, even grotesque form. Both Hiroko and Furyou fall for Kiichi, especially once Hiroko has convinced him to shave his beard and put on modern clothes in pursuit of a modern job. (A society woman joins the other two in pursuing Kiichi romantically.) Naturally, Kiichi is most attracted to Hiroko, whose modernity, tempered by traditionalism, is modest. Even shorn of his beard, Kiichi cuts a striking figure that Hiroko’s modesty beautifully complements. Implicit in this is Hiroko’s attraction to the very image of Kiichi that she has encouraged him to change! Hiroko desires the substance of the former Kiichi dressed in the appearance of the current Kiichi—a comical expression of Japan’s dilemma in negotiating the competing claims upon it, especially as the lure of modernity becomes code for rejecting Japanese tradition, to whatever extent, in favor of Western influence.
Discontinuous, sometimes visually clumsy, and not all that funny, this is nevertheless a fascinating comedy.
I WAS BORN, BUT . . . . Yasujiro Ozu’s great social comedy Otona no miru ehon—Umarete wa mita keredo was made during his (also, Chaplin’s) prolonged, defiantly silent period.
Promoted, Chichi Yoshii has just moved to a Tokyo suburb, near his boss, whom he immediately visits, to pay his respects, because that’s “the way to get ahead.” If only Yoshii could “read” images as well as Ozu can create them! For the film opens with a closeup of the moving truck’s wheel, stuck, spinning—an instance of the undercutting that the film lobs at Japan’s hierarchic social structure, the principal target. Yoshii applies this hierarchy from work at home; but it becomes clear that his (generally genial) rule of the family roost is also an attempt at compensation for the humiliations that he suffers at work. Meanwhile, his boys, ages 8 and 10, are bullied by peers, including the boss’s son, at their new school—until, that is, they become the reigning bullies themselves. Whose father is the best? They feel they’ve won this contest hands down—until they espy their father kowtowing to his boss. Exposed, Yoshii explains to his children the facts of socioeconomic life—like the mother in Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy,” promoting a false lesson by endorsing the status quo.
This is shrewd, brilliant, sometimes hilarious stuff—and with such an eye, especially outdoors. In one stationery shot, with the low-hung camera tilted upwards, Yoshii performs morning exercises while two trains pass in either direction, the symbolical outcome: stasis—an ironical undercutting of Yoshii’s workday get-go. A traveling shot of the boys trailing their father on the path home expresses their awe of him and the security they feel in his presence.
Ozu remade this, with sound and color, as Ohayô (1959).
WHERE ARE THE DREAMS OF YOUTH? On a college campus students are seated on the ground. A tracking shot surveys them as they watch a tennis match—a metaphor for the competition in the workday world that they presume they will face once they graduate. Cheerleaders stand in front of the seated students. Off alone, another boy is studious, his nose in a book. Crosscutting shows the comradery between three of the male cheerleaders and this serious student. Ironical, the crosscutting undercuts the impression of comradery and solidarity even as it establishes it. Yasujiro Ozu’s silent Seishun no yume imaizuko has begun.
Elements of Kôgo Noda’s script somewhat resemble Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. Upon the death of his business executive father, Taichiro chooses his own “succession” above his ties with college friends, whom he hires when they apply to his company, but upon whom he imposes subservience. In effect, Taichiro chooses tradition over the future, family over friendship. Consider the framing of the shot of Taichiro and his father. Taichiro holds his father’s hand to his cheek, but otherwise the father is excluded from the shot. Perhaps the death provides mere occasion for Taichiro’s doing what he would have done in any case, which is to assert his classism at the expense of those he considers his social inferiors. In retrospect, our first glimpse of Taichiro revealed a boy who was submitting his humanity to a cultivated image. The stoppage of a ceiling fan at a gathering of the four musketeers signals the ripping of Taichiro’s bond with the other three. (A working fan was a feature of Taichiro’s reunion with his dying father.) Sealing this, later, is an eruption of violence in near darkness.
A 21-year-old Kinuyo Tanaka claims a supporting role.
PASSING FANCY. In the opening scene of Yasujiro Ozu’s first silent about the working poor, Dekigokoro, the camera moves backward across rows of people seated on the floor. The pervasive use of hand fans conveys oppressive airlessness and heat, thus fragmenting with shared discomfort a unifying shot. Someone’s wallet, accidentally misplaced, makes its way through the audience, one shot showing someone’s hand picking up the thing, followed by a shot of the person as he guiltily peruses the contents before tossing the wallet away, whereupon someone else’s hand reaches for it. One man disrupts the continuity of this repetitive event: the film’s protagonist, brewery worker Kihachi, who picks up, checks and tosses away the wallet, like everyone else, but then reconsiders, picks the wallet back up, empties the wallet’s meager contents into his own, smaller purse, and tosses the other, so it makes its way back to the owner in this reduced state, before which we see again the hand-pickup routine until a foot rather than a hand enters the frame, a visual “difference” recalling Kihachi’s. Suddenly it isn’t a wallet that’s passing from person to person but unseen mosquitoes or fleas. In a single shot audience members stand up and start scratching—visually, a scene of harmony (within a single static shot, people behaving identically) undone by the fragmenting nature of perople’s identical discomfort. We never find out what has occurred: wide insect attack or an outburst of contagious behavior. Either way, it’s hilarious.
Two harmonious relationships of single father Kihachi’s are tested by the appearance of a woman in the poor Tokyo suburb: with his young son, Tomio, and with co-worker Jiro. All works out affectionately for the best, with a touch of life’s inevitable rue and disappointment, in the context of family and community.
A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS. One of Yasujiro Ozu’s last silent films is Ukigusa monogatari. “Weeds” refer to an itinerant troupe of stage performers currently lighting in a remote mountain village. The film opens with their “floating” in, and closes with their “floating” out, by train.
The group’s leader is Kihachi Ichikawa. He visits Otsune (Choko Iida, superb), the mother of his son, a postgraduate student, whom Otsune has raised alone. Much of Otsune’s life consists of waiting for Kihachi’s next infrequent arrival. The boy, Shinkichi, doesn’t know Kihachi is his father. As they fish together, father and son, shot from behind, cast their rods in near unison. But revelations and tensions during this visit will undo the harmonious image.
Everything in this humane, humanistic film yields to flux, instability, incompletion. Even the absence of sound seems to contribute to this thematic result.
Both arthritic, Otsune and Kihachi testify to aging—the passage of time. Kihachi is proud at how big his son has become since the last time he saw him. Planning on staying put for a year, presuming that his show will be, as usual, popular, Kihachi hopes to see a good deal of Shinkichi on this go-round. But the troupe also has lost its luster, or perhaps tastes have changed, and Kihachi will be leaving sooner than he thinks. So will Shinkichi. Irony compounds irony: the family that never was is about to dissolve, and Ozu’s comedy drifts into familial tragedy.
Wind-rippled banners outside; the ephemera of cigarette smoke indoors: Ozu orchestrates images of fluctuation, evanescence. We who do not travel for our livelihoods: we, too, are “floating weeds.” It is the impermanent nature of existence. It is what makes the heart ache even as we hold onto those we love.
Ozu remade the film in 1959.
AN INN IN TOKYO. Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo no yado is a silent film about a homeless family—Kihachi, an unemployed father, and his two small sons—at a time of national economic crisis. (His becomes an extended family when it unites with another homeless pair, a mother and her daughter.) Kihachi ends up a thief.
The film opens on the road, in the industrial outskirts of Tokyo, the Koto district, as Kihachi, accompanied by his children, tries to find factory work. His wife has abandoned them, probably because of the family’s poverty, and her dogging absence implies a kind of cosmic abandonment. With his meager resources, Kihachi must often choose between food and temporary shelter for himself and his children. Also, as Kihachi begs and begs for work, his morale is increasingly laid low. Moreover, tensions crop up between him and his sons, whose sense of entitlement to his taking care of them is frustrated by circumstances they minutely perceive but do not totally grasp. Ozu, then, shows us poverty in a depressed time and place and the resultant family dynamics.
As these circumstances press Kihachi toward crime, the film seems closer to Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) than to the postwar neorealism of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), with which it is often compared. Still, Ozu’s film is most expressive in portraying Tokyo’s industrial hinterlands, a sunbaked wasteland with smoke-belching factories in the background. Gigantic spools lying on the ground, shorn of cables, encapsulate an expanse of land bereft of productivity. Their heightened, surreal tangibility, like the sights of factories that taunt Kihachi with the illusion of work possibilities, contrasts with a “family picnic” at which Kihachi and sons, pantomiming, pretend to treat their palates and fill their stomachs with imaginary food.
THERE WAS A FATHER. A masculinization of it, with the parent making the sacrifices this time a father, Yasujiro Ozu’s Chichi ariki suffers from some of the same melodramatic tendencies as his The Only Son (1936); but Chishu Ryu, who plays Shuhei Horikawa, gives an exceptionally fine performance.
Horikawa, a schoolteacher, is raising alone his son, Ryohei. When he is touched by disgrace owing to a pupil’s drowning death on a school trip he led, Shuhei resigns and summarily struggles to keep his head above water economically, accepting menial jobs so his son can have an education. Cherished reunions between father and son eventually become very infrequent; for Shuhei, they are like coming up for breaths of air in a drowning life. He dies, and the urn of his ashes at his funeral eludes the grip of his son, whose own, now (thanks to his father) independent life leaves little room for reflection, recollection, nostalgia. His loving father is less than a memory to the grown Ryohei.
Shuhei’s is a disappointing life, to which the film’s grayness and perverse melancholy are correlative. An array of distancing strategies helps suggest that Shuhei’s life isn’t even his own. In no way does the son dutifully take up the burden and legacy of his father’s spirit.
But there is no suggestion that Shuhei behaved improperly in his all-consuming interest in an offspring; Ozu hasn’t made a Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945). Authorities may have felt differently, that in wartime Japanese cinema should stress instead the allegiance its citizens owed Japan. Likely as punishment for this film, Ozu was drafted into the military for a second time. Who was this Ozu who even during wartime felt entitled as an artist to go his own way? Ozu believed in family, not nation.
RECORD OF A TENEMENT GENTLEMAN. Yasujiro Ozu’s first postwar film, Nagaya shinshiroku, is as delightful as his comedy I Was Born, but . . . (see above) and twice as profound. Its makeshift family reflects Japan’s shaken institutions, and its setting—the lower-class section of downtown Tokyo—reflects Japan’s postwar economic hardship. What irony that the character who sets the plot into motion, Tashiro, is a fortune teller. Japan’s future is clouded and indeterminate.
Kohei, the small son of an itinerant carpenter, attaches himself to Tashiro, who brings him home to his tenement to the dismay of his actor-roommate. They decide that Tané, their widowed neighbor, should take the boy in for the night. Tané wants no part of Kohei, but he is left there and, so, she complies. Attempts to find the motherless boy’s father fail, and Kohei tries Tané’s patience with his recurrent bed-wetting. But the two slowly bond, and Kohei becomes for a while a cherished part of Tané’s life.
For a while; Ozu is cinema’s great poet of transience, impermanence. A key shot consists of discarded newspaper pages blown by wind across the ground. The image, poignant, refers to Japan’s postwar army of abandoned children. Can anything restore the nation’s fortunes? Perhaps; but Kohei’s young father shows up one day to claim his son, expressing charming gratitude.
Kohei and Tané: each wears a pudgy, sour face. Chouko Iida beautifully plays Tané. Thus Ozu’s great pre-war tragedienne, best known for maternal roles, now plays a reluctant surrogate mother or grandmother—and she is hilarious when expressing disapproval of the boy, deeply moving once her heart opens up to him, and devastating upon her loss of him.
The film ends by showing anonymous young boys in a park. Two share a cigarette: the obliteration of Japanese childhood.
A HEN IN THE WIND. Postwar human devastation and national tragedy: Yasujiro Ozu’s Kaze no naka no mendori mines a vein that looks back to his silent Woman of Tokyo (1933) and ahead to his Tokyo Twilight (see below). An upstairs boarder in Tokyo’s bleak, industrial, working-class outskirts, Tokiko Amamiya (Kinuyo Tanaka, Kenji Mizoguchi’s future star, wonderful) struggles to survive and support her toddler by making kimonos. When Hiroshi falls ill, Tokiko resorts once to prostitution to pay for his medical treatment. When he belatedly returns home from war, Shuichi, her husband, reacts to her “choice” with coldness, accusation and violence. When he rapes her, their son’s ball—echoing Fritz Lang’s M (1931)—drops to the floor.
Hiroshi’s recovery, especially as recorded in a peaceful passage in the grass, constitutes a brief respite before the storm of Shuichi’s reappearance. But, even here, Tokiko and a friend acknowledge the discrepancy between their younger dreams and current realities. Tokiko, exhausted, lies on the ground, and Ozu cuts to an ambiguous shot of the calm, cumulus-clouded sky.
At a “Time Life” workplace—a sign of the U.S. occupation—a friend comments on the inflation that is ravaging Japan and lends Shuichi money. Thus Shuichi sells a bit of his dignity. We are reminded of his wife’s earlier remark that she would “sell anything” to take care of Hiroshi.
In a stunning shot, Tokiko falls downstairs after Shuichi pushes her away—it turns out, in self-disgust. Tokiko crawls back up and begs forgiveness. Shuichi understands that she had no choice and says so. They will put this past “behind them.” They tightly embrace. Ozu’s closing shots, however, imply a circularity and enclosure as much as a moving ahead. We realize that Shuichi’s sense of shame is inextricably bound to Japan’s defeat in the war.
LATE SPRING. Every girl should get married, and every father is doing the right thing by seeing to it that this happens—in letting his daughter go. This conventional wisdom, though, does not describe how Shukichi and Noriko Somiya, in Yasujiro Ozu’s Banshun, feel. Although no spring chicken (she is 27), Noriko has no interest in marriage and is as content remaining with her widowed father, a professor, as he is content in having her remain. But society takes a different view, and Masa, the professor’s sister, is especially meddlesome in her determination to get Noriko married. If her getting married is the way things ought to be, Shukichi comes up with a scheme to push Noriko out of the nest: he will pretend that he is about to get remarried. Noriko, whose smiles conceal disappointment, finally accepts a suitor’s proposal, and Shukichi ends up alone in his kitchen, peeling an apple. It drops to the floor. This, now, is the way life will be.
Based on a novel by Kazuro Hirotsu, Late Spring benefits from a brilliant script by Ozu and Kôgo Noda. Social comedy and familial tragedy brush across one another. Self-determination is hard to come by; disappointment results from the compromises one makes in the course of one’s life. At the same time, however, Ozu hasn’t made an adolescent film decrying how bad things are. His film is one of acceptance. Ozu’s resigned acceptance, which is philosophical, not defeatist, is borne of the contemplation that permeates his postwar films. As usual, Ozu is peerless at capturing another intersection: the rush of emotion; the passage of time.
And he has two perfect actors at his disposal, giving tremendously moving performances: Chishu Ryu as Shukichi, whose smiles conceal as much as his daughter’s, and Setsuko Hara as Noriko.
EARLY SUMMER (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1951). Postwar Tokyo; Noriko’s family prevails upon her to marry, but she chooses a man of whom they disapprove. He is twelve years her senior, has a child, and is relocating to Akita. Noriko’s family worries that she will not end up happy.
In the aftermath of war, with Japan’s authoritarian ruler deposed and democracy dawning, the structured, stable Japanese family, as a social force, has devolved. A small child tells his grandfather (twice) that he hates him; her older brother (Chishu Ryu, superb) tells Noriko she is impudent to men—to which Noriko counters, “Men used to be too important.” “Our family has scattered,” the father will say once Noriko has left. “We shouldn’t want too much,” he tells his wife (twice). Is this the path to happiness—being content with what life gives rather than asking for more? Perhaps an attitude of acceptance provides the only consolation and relief for life’s disappointments, and life’s transience.
Bakashû, delicately composed, is sensitive to light and to nuances of feeling; yet the accumulated result is overwhelming. No film more powerfully conveys the passage of time—here, a paradoxical, slow, inexorable rush. Sisters walk the beach, talking, the camera following, or the father and mother sit outdoors side by side, discussing family, the low, angled camera favoring their backs. Much of their anxious conversation is pressured by time—human time measured against eternity.
As ever with Ozu, human beings are paramount. In a beautiful long shot, a loose balloon scales up the sky. “Some child must be crying,” the father notes.
Ozu’s characters experience happiness, when they do, not because of good fortune but from the way they engage life: with humility, and with their philosophical stance. This life is gently moving, always, imperceptibly, towards the last end.
FLAVOR OF GREEN TEA OVER RICE. What lower-class taste! Green tea over rice: it is just like Mokichi Satake, a successful businessman, to like that dull dish! Wife Taeko is above partaking in so simple a meal, and her contempt for it mirrors her contempt for Mokichi in their arranged marriage. While Taeko lies to her husband to go on a spa retreat with girlfriends, Mokichi treats their servant girl with kindness, respect and fatherly interest. Will that silly goose Taeko realize what a gem of a man—reliable, thoughtful, patient—she is married to?
Lifelong bachelor Yasujiro Ozu perhaps did not appreciate that security and decency aren’t the sum of what Taeko wants from marriage; and there is also the issue of the self-determination from which its arrangement once barred her. Now Taeko is pressing 21-year-old niece Setsuko into a marital match. Some say that Taeko’s misery would love to have Setsuko’s company. Let us say instead that Taeko wishes for Setsuko the marital happiness that she also wishes she herself possessed. How deep runs Taeko’s seeming discontent? Behind Mokichi lies the real target Taeko is taking aim at: a woman’s lot in Japan’s traditionally patriarchal society.
Ochazuke no aji was made only months before the U.S. occupation of Japan, as agreed upon in 1951, ended. A stunning early shot juxtaposes a traditionally garbed Taeko and, at her friend’s workplace, this other woman dressed in Western clothes, including high-heeled shoes. Japanese society is changing, what with women in responsible positions in the business world, and this as much as anything predicts the film’s ending of marital reconciliation, which non-contextualizing viewers find coming out of the blue.
With Ozu’s cinema, one must see not only where a film is going but also where it is coming from.
TOKYO STORY (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953). The Japanese family’s postwar disintegration: this is the theme of a noble, massively humane work by Yasujiro Ozu, all of whose films bear the universal appeal of family (or surrogate family) concerns. The war’s demoralizing outcome and the chauvinistic U.S. occupation that followed aren’t mentioned in Tokyo monogatari, nor do they need to be. We grasp, as Japanese audiences certainly did, that what we are witnessing is, at least partly, fallout from what Japan endured over the previous decade.
An elderly couple visit their married son in Tokyo. Both the son, a pediatrician, and his wife work, leaving little time to attend to these guests; and their son is a disrespectful, unruly child. Only the widow of the elder couple’s other son, who died in the war, is warm and attentive. Meaning well, the younger couple send the elder couple off to a spa, but thus being denied the company of those they came to visit only intensifies the older couple’s loneliness and disappointment. At home, the doctor’s mother falls ill and dies.
As it happens, the younger couple also are disappointed, but their sense of the traditional Japan that they’ve lost is less tangible. Ozu’s film, then, is a study in disenchantment, disappointment, about a national mood as it affects the thoughts and feelings of individuals. Acting is key in such a film, and the performances are wonderful, especially those of Chishu Ryu as the father and Setsuko Hara as his compassionate daughter-in-law.
No film better portrays upheaved lives in a “society in transition.” Moreover, Ozu’s shots, such as those showing the backs of the elderly couple sitting outdoors, which convey their shared loneliness and suggest the world—the past—that is now behind them, are material and poetic, elegiac, mundane and transcendent.
EARLY SPRING. Yasujiro Ozu spent three years making Soshun, a tedious film. The opening is extraordinary, however. At dawn the whir of a train passing through a Tokyo suburb gently breaks the night’s silence. Inside the home of the Sugiyamas, a childless married couple (we later learn they have lost a child), an alarm clock awakens Masako, who efficiently rises to start the day but doesn’t disrupt her husband Shoji’s sleep, but nonetheless hurries him once he is up on his own so that he won’t be late for work. “You are going to shave, aren’t you?” When Shoji says no, Masako resolves the matter: “You had better!” Outdoors, a few, and then more and many men dressed in light trousers and clean white shirts emerge from homes and head to the train station. Destination: the city. Shoji has a low-level office job at Tokyo’s Toa Fire-Brick Company, where he seems to have little to do and certainly no serious responsibility, and the conversation seems to revolve around a weekend respite, a group hike, some of the workers are arranging. The camera withdraws up one of the massive building’s closed-door, empty corridors accompanied by the muted sound of countless typewriters at work: an image of absent humanity and dehumanization puncturing the vaunted achievement of Japan’s postwar “economic miracle.” The low clackety-clack of the manual machines underscores the interiorization of the process by which “successful” industry is separating workers from their souls. In this context, an after-hours nostalgic group song pierces, and a summary remark by an older worker, “I hate my job,” becomes brutal punctuation.
Shoji has an affair with a co-worker, testing his marriage, and is separated from his wife when he is transferred to the company’s Osaka branch. His is a life of quiet desperation.
TOKYO TWILIGHT (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan). Ozu’s deeply affecting Tokyo boshoku illustrates the disintegration of family in postwar Japan. It makes explicit what is implicit in Ozu’s exceptionally poignant Late Spring (1949), suggesting the bitter aftermath of the tenuously hopeful marriage with which the earlier film ends, and suggesting that the father’s Prosperoic sacrifice there—his letting go of his daughter, who had been anchoring his life, into a life of her own—has turned up empty for them both. Tokyo Twilight joins A Hen in the Wind (1948) in being one of Ozu’s bleakest works.
Shukichi Sugiyama’s two daughters, college-age Akiko and older sister Takako, live with him. When Akiko was an infant, Shukichi’s wife, Kisako, abandoned him and their children. Now Takako is conflicted for having left her spouse, an alcoholic brute, and her mother’s reappearance in the neighborhood deepens her anguish. Father and daughters each lead a painfully lonely life.
This is a film of cold, wintry evenings; its dusky and darker grays are correlative to souls at loose ends, living lives they cannot take hold of. With Dreyer’s Vampyr (see above), this is the grayest film ever made—Vampyr, light gray; Tokyo Twilight, dark.
Ozu’s angled shots of a couple, backs to the camera, sitting side by side, generally intimate the couple’s closeness and connectedness. Here, though, the couple aren’t a comfortable pair of married folk. Akiko and her boyfriend, Kenji, sit on a pier, bound together by Akiko’s news that she is pregnant, as fog and the moans of foghorns envelop them. Ozu cuts to a frontal view of the pair and cuts back and forth between them as they quarrel, now seemingly far apart. The couple disintegrates before our eyes.
Setsuko Hara, Ineko Arima, Chishu Ryu and Isuzu Yamada all give remarkable performances.
EQUINOX FLOWER. Yasujiro Ozu’s first film in color again mines generational difference and conflict. At a wedding reception, businessman Wataru Hirayama notes the shift from arranged marriages to love matches. He approves, but at the same time Wataru deeply loves Kiyoko, his wife, who is present; how can he completely turn his back on the old ways that gave him a marriage that has been the principal blessing of his life, including its fruit, his daughters? Moreover, hasn’t postwar culture also wobbled his sense of authority, hence, being? When a friend confides that his daughter is now living with a man without benefit of marriage, Wataru’s confidence in the present is further eroded. He thus arranges a marriage for his elder daughter, Setsuko. Stubbornly, Wataru rejects the suitor of her choice, Masahiko Taniguchi, her co-worker, after the boy respectfully asks him for Setsuko’s hand in marriage. Father and daughter become estranged as a result, and Kiyoko presses for their reconciliation.
Higanbana refuses to reduce its material to a study of hypocrisy; each character, including Wataru, is presented fully, as someone coping with contradictory, deep feelings. Unlike Akira Kurosawa in even his greatest film, Ikiru (see above), Ozu refuses to clobber one generation with another.
Perhaps the elegiac film achieves its most exquisite poignancy in the passage in a park. Amidst beauteous Nature (Ozu’s cinematographer, Yuuharu Atsuta, contributes phenomenally throughout, even in interiors), the Hirayamas reminisce. Kiyoko speaks of wartime; she hated the war, but now, looking back, recalls how much closer people felt when the possibility existed that Allied bombing would cause them to die together. Higanbana is the rare film to analyze nostalgia rather than exploit it.
Higanbana is brilliantly acted: Shin Saburi as Wataru; Kinuyo Tanaka, Kiyoko; Ineko Arima, Setsuko; Keiji Sada, Masahiko; Chishu Ryu, Wataru’s friend, Shukichi.
FLOATING WEEDS. Inferior to his 1934 version, which is shorter, silent and in black and white, Yasujiro Ozu’s Ukigusa is nevertheless a spirited, lovely film. I am doomed for the rest of my life to see it rarely because my normal preference will always be to revisit the original. However, Ozu’s greatest decade, the 1950s, included the greatest film ever made, Early Summer (1951), and another of the twenty-five greatest films, Tokyo Story (1953); but sound and color add nothing of great value to Ozu’s remake of Ukigusa monogatari. I see only commercial motivation behind all this. I will say nothing here about its story, which essentially remains unchanged.
Seaside; the first shot, inaugurating a brief Ozuvian cluster of establishing shots, is formal and imposing: upon a strip of land in the foreground stands a black bottle, beyond which, with the sea in between, is a strip of land, three-quarters of the way across right to left, upon which stands a white lighthouse. Thus the two upright things are parallel, as are, in a more oblique way, the deep blue sea and the light blue sky, which occupies four-fifths of the frame. The image, which is correlative to the traveling theatrical troupe/family drama about to unfold, is therefore one of balance—but of imperfect balance. (A later shot, with a shift in distance and perspective, parallels the lighthouse with an electric pole.) A young man, after all, does not know that his “uncle,” who is part of the visiting troupe, is really his biological father. This is the big difference between the two versions; with its assault on patriarchy, the outcome of World War II for Japan has left the issue of paternity in the later film, for the boy, of smaller consequence. Life goes on—ironically.
OHAYÔ. Although Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning certainly, if obliquely, refers to it, Good Morning isn’t a remake of Ozu’s silent I Was Born, But . . . (1932) in the way that his Floating Weeds (1959) is a remake of his silent Story of Floating Weeds (1934). In the Ozu œuvre it isn’t much of anything really; it is affable and visually pure, but the comedy never comes together in a meaningful way. Its assortment of characters, across generations, in a modern Japanese suburb never yields the requisite undertow of melancholy attaching itself to the older people, the two men facing retirement and the woman facing the reality of her growing senility. The stubborn desire of two young brothers to have their parents buy them a television set: this should resonate in the context of what the three elder characters are facing; but it doesn’t. One can say this, however: the final, familiar Ozuvian image, of wash flapping dry on an outdoors line, resolves sweetly and with humor a joke running through the film: a boy’s habitual soiling of his underpants and pants. One loves the film, I guess, because it’s by Ozu; but Good Morning is very minor Ozu, and almost entirely superficial. It happily suggests that some problems can be solved, but one notices that neither the boy’s sensitivity and sense of shame over the matter nor the possibility of an underlying medical or psychological cause are ever addressed. Given its method of zigzagging amongst different households, the film lights more often than it lands—and indeed lightness is one of its principal virtues. But one expects more from Ozu.
The rumors and gossip pertaining to the money “missing” from a woman’s club intriguingly brings this film, however, closer to Hitchcock than I ever expected to find Ozu.
LATE AUTUMN. Yasujiro Ozu’s Akibiyori is a lovely, humane, mostly comedic meditation on family matters, human existence and acceptance. It resembles Ozu’s Late Spring (see above), but with a twist. Now it isn’t a widower who courts greater loneliness by seeing a daughter through to her wedding, but a widow. While in Late Spring the professor feigns his upcoming marriage in order to release his daughter from a sense of obligation, in Late Autumn two friends of the widow’s spouse concoct a rumor of the teacher’s upcoming marriage toward the same end. Either parent chooses to remain solitary as a means of keeping faith with the past and embracing the natural course of life. “That’s the way life is”—a summation of the Ozu spirit—is a recurrent line of dialogue in this film.
Ayako becomes enraged when she believes that her mother, Akika (heavenly Setsuko Hara), is planning to marry—a threat to the friendship that has deepened their bond since the death of husband and father. Misunderstandings, however, are corrected. Ayako marries. But the film ends sadly, with Akika alone in the apartment she shared with her daughter. Moreover, the marital match scarcely resolves itself into an image of bliss. The couple’s dour pose for a wedding photograph suggests Akika’s loving sacrifice for what will prove her daughter’s unhappy union.
“Life is simple,” someone says in the film; “It’s people that make it complicated”—by their feelings. Ozu’s is a cinema of transience, of stable life fluctuating, sometimes evaporating, in mortal breezes. Throughout, Ozu inserts shots of people walking—for instance, glimpses through alleyways. The haunting evanescence of such moments is extended through match-editing consecutive ambulatory movements of different characters, either from indoors to out (or vice versa) or from one indoor spot to another. Life passing by.
AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON.
“Human virtues have melted away since the [Second World War].”
Sanma no aji is the final work of Yasujiro Ozu, Japan’s greatest filmmaker and possibly the world’s. With certain tonal and other differences, it is a partial remake of Ozu’s 1949 Late Spring, a tragicomedy that in this updated incarnation is much more comical and emotionally discreet. In Late Spring, another widowed father (again played beautifully by Chishu Ryu), because of outside meddling and social pressure, comes to feel that his 27-year-old, live-at-home daughter ought to get married rather than continue her obligation to him. But does she feel thus obligated? In any case, she marries, thereby abandoning her father to solitude, and possibly ruining her life as well as his. In the later film, the possibility that each is sacrificing happiness for the other’s sake is much less distinct. Traditional (including patriarchal) values having further dissolved, it is less clear that Shuhei Hirayama is acting unnecessarily in pressing for his 24-year-old daughter Michiko’s arranged marriage; nor is the wedding shown this time, helping to make the marriage seem more like a routine occurrence. We do know, because of Shuhei’s tardiness in untying Michiko’s familial strings, that Michiko ends up with someone other than the fellow she actually loves. (Life as disappointment, as compromise, is a familiar Ozuvian theme.) But it is good that Michiko will not end up like another father’s daughter whom we see, the negative example that inspires Shuhei to take action, and it delights that women routinely speak up to fathers and spouses.
The father in Late Spring was a professor; here, a businessman whose friends had gotten him the job: a sign of social desperation made the best of.
Ozu’s farewell is one of the richest comedies in creation.