Tuesday, October 4, 2011

201. Ozu Films #1-7 (1927-1929)

How often have you heard someone refer to a film as being "poetic"?

Googling "poetic film" took me here. These posts were made over a period of 14 months (8/09 to 10/10) and mention about 50 films. Not one Ozu film was proposed.

Michael Radford's brilliant Il Postino was mentioned several times; an obvious choice because the movie is about an actual poet (Neruda). So were such "dreamy" films as Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre, Tarkovsky's The Mirror (just about all of Tarkovsky's films feature the poetry of his father,Arseny), Benigni's Life is Beautiful and Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.

All these so-called art films do in fact have either a dreamy, poetic quality about them or attempt to pretty much literally transform written poem to visual image (see most Tarkovsky, esp. Andrei Rublev)...

In these seven posts I will attempt to emphasize the particulars underlying my own personal assertion that the films of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) are Poetry in Moving Images -- works of art which are eternal in their mental and psychological imprint upon the viewer -- which inspire one to decipher meaning, probe form, and react to the cosmic humor and tragedy on display. Of course, there is nothing else remotely like Ozu in the history of cinema (though many now copy him) -- this uniqueness alone requires close investigation.

I have a pretty massive DVD collection (2000+). When I buy DVDs, I have only one criterion: is this a film that I will want to watch more than once? When I re-watch an Ozu film, I feel like an old friend has dropped by. We'll talk about the same old stuff and enjoy each other's company and that's the plot!

A typical Ozu film has very little going on, plot-wise. But because the story is presented to us with such unassuming realism; familiar characterization, meticulous set design; rock-solid steady and invisible camera; and the acting so completely void of artifice, the end result is something startlingly transcendental. (It is said that Ozu treated his actors badly ... he made them do so many takes, some thought it cruel -- but it was his way of beating out the "performer" in the actor and obtaining something very "real").

If you've already seen some or all of Ozu's surviving films, I hope you'll enjoy re-watching them, perhaps grokking anew with some of my more unusual bullet-points in mind. If you are new to Ozu, I hope my writing makes you interested in seeing these masterpieces. Imagine how gratified I will feel if you become an Ozu-nut, like myself.


Yasujiro Ozu was born in Tokyo on December 12, 1903. His father was a fertilizer salesman. He and his brothers -- as was the custom in middle-class families at the time -- were sent to the countryside to be educated. Ozu was a rebellious, undisciplined student. He matriculated no further than middle school, preferring his twin passions of watching American films and drinking. He rarely saw his father between 1913 and 1923, but forged a potent relationship with his loving mother -- Ozu never married and lived with her until her death in 1962 at the age of 87. Ozu himself died just a year later -- the day before his 60th birthday, December 11, 1963. Carved on his tombstone is a single Japanese character -- mu -- the Zen nothingness that is everything.

(For more detailed biographies, go here, here and here.)

Ozu's uncle got him his first job in the film industry as an assistant cameraman, which basically involved schlepping heavy cameras from place to place. He worked his way up to become an assistant director to the both now and then obscure Tadamoto Okubo, who "specialized in a kind of comedy which was called 'nonsense-mono' -- a running series of gags held together by a slight story line, a succession of chuckles intended to make the time pass" [Richie, p. 200] (must reading for any serious fan). Ozu was quite satisfied with the position. He could drink to his heart's content (he was a heavy drinker, all his life) and had none of the responsibilities and worries that he quickly realized were the domain of the director.

Nevertheless, his friends urged him on and an incident (a waiter at the studio cafeteria insulted him) provoked him to overcome the inertia of his non-ambition. Besides, he had always loved film (almost all American -- at his job interview, he admitted to having seen only three Japanese films!) and probably felt the confidence to strike out on his own.

Ozu made 54 films, Thirty-seven survive in at least abbreviated form. Thirty-five are silent, 19 talkies, 48 are in B&W and six in color. Of the 37 surviving films, 26 are available on DVD -- most of them on the Criterion Collection or their budget label, Eclipse -- but some of the earlier films are available only from Asia, and require a region-free DVD player (which are quite affordable these days). Naturally, the quality of the Criterion releases is extraordinary.

I will discuss four existing films per post, except for the last two posts where I will cover the last six films -- the only ones that were shot in color.

Synopsis in red = No Existing Print [NEP]
Synopsis in blue = existing print or clip but no commercial release
Synopsis in black = film available for sale

1. Zange no yaiba (Blade of Penitence) (10/14/27) (ca. 70 min.) [Silent B&W No Existing Print NEP]

His first picture -- 53 more would follow! -- was an adaptation of an American film, "Kick-In," directed by George Fitzmaurice in 1922. Ozu had not actually seen the film, but had read about it in a film magazine. Mandatory military service came calling before he had wrapped the picture. A friend finished it up for him, and Ozu claims to have seen it only once.

2. Wakodo no yume (Dreams of Youth) (4/29/28) (ca. 50 min.) [Silent B&W NEP]

A comedy about college dorm life, based on American films Ozu had seen.

3. Nyobo funshitsu (Wife Lost) (6/16/28) (ca. 50 min.) [Silent B&W NEP]

Ozu disliked the script but made this light comedy about marital mix-ups into a film because he was ordered to.

4. Kabocha (Pumpkin) (8/31/28) (ca. 60 min.) [Silent B&W NEP]

Comedy about a young man and his mishaps with girls. Ozu states that he learned a great deal about continuity making this film.

5. Hikkoshi fufu (A Couple on the Move) (9/28/28) (ca. 60 min.) [Silent B&W NEP]

Comedy about a couple who cannot stand living in the same house and are continually moving. Ozu began to articulate his unique style with this picture. Unfortunately -- he says -- his final cut was badly reedited and far from his own personal vision.

6. Nikutaibi (Baby Beautiful) (12/1/28) (ca. 60 min.) [Silent B&W NEP]

Comedy about an unemployed husband who becomes his artist wife's model. When her paintings fail to win prizes, she becomes his model, and his paintings (because they are of a nude female) win all the first prizes. Ozu was happy with the result, and the critics and public took notice.

7. Takara no yama (Treasure Mountain) (2/22/29) (ca. 100 min.) [Silent B&W NEP]

Comedy/melodrama about the jealousy between a traditional young geisha and a modern schoolgirl. Ozu recalls not sleeping for five days because the studio wanted the film in a hurry.

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