July 6, 2009

0 Regret, Hope, and Acceptance: Ozu's Last Three Films

In the 1950s the glory of Japanese cinema was discovered by Westerners. Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon received the Golden Lion, the top prize, at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and the next year a special Oscar as the best foreign language film released in the US in 1951. Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu received the Silver Lion at Venice in 1953, and the next year his Sansho the Bailiff shared the Silver Lion with Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. Yet the great contemporary of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963), who directed 54 movies, remained largely unknown outside of Japan until the 1970s.

Since then Ozu has developed an ardent following. But he is a curious director, one who typically inspires not love or hate, but rather either love or indifference. One reason for this is his totally unique style. D. W. Griffith, the man universally considered the progenitor of the ways of using the language of film to tell stories, was not studied in Japan as a model as he was elsewhere in the world. Thus Ozu developed his own personal ways of telling stories on film, ways that changed little in the 35 years he made movies. As Roger Ebert puts it: "Ozu fashioned his style by himself, and never changed it, and to see his films is to be inside a completely alternative cinematic language."

Ozu leaves many viewers indifferent because his movies can seem so similar to one another. Probably the main reason for this apparent similarity is his highly idiosyncratic and unvarying style. He rarely tried to push his own self-defined visual boundaries, seeking instead to polish his existing artistic vision with each new film. Another reason is that like many of the great directors, he acquired a repertory of actors, using the same favored performers over and over. And he confined himself to similar, quite limited situations and themes in film after film. In fact, he remade several of his early films later in his career.

"There is an easy joke that no one can tell one Ozu film from another," writes David Thomson, "but is that a failing or a virtue?" The answer to that question depends on the individual viewer's reaction to Ozu's style. What some viewers see as repetition, others see as unity and continuity. For admirers like myself (and I'm a latecomer to Ozu, having seen my first Ozu movie just a little over a year ago), it is a virtue: I love his movies, and to see another Ozu is for me like having another helping of a favorite delicacy. Watching one Ozu movie after another is a bit like reading the complete novels of Jane Austen or listening to a set of concerti grossi by Handel or Corelli. On the surface they may seem awfully similar, but look closer and beneath the surface you will find subtle variations that lend each iteration its own distinctive character.

Between 1960 and 1962 Ozu made his last three films, works that David Thomson calls "late masterpieces, still lifes of hope and yearning." Late Autumn (1960), a reworking of Ozu's 1949 film Late Spring, opens at a temple where a group of middle-aged men have gathered for the ritual observance of the anniversary of the death of their former classmate and work colleague. Also present are the widow and daughter. The gossipy and slightly tipsy men observe that the daughter is now of marriageable age and that the widow, who married young and still looks quite youthful, would seem a prime candidate for remarriage. (She is played by Setsuko Hara, who appeared in many of Ozu's films, including the one on which this one is based, and was especially memorable as the daughter-in-law in Tokyo Story.) The men soon devote themselves to matchmaking for the pair, choosing for the mother one of their own group, a widower. The problem with the scheme is that the daughter is strongly resistant to leaving her mother, and her headstrong attitude causes a great deal of conflict with her mother, who is constantly trying to persuade her daughter to find a suitable man and marry. In the end the men's scheme comes to nothing. The daughter ends up marrying a coworker after the mother indicates she will marry the widower friend of her late husband. At the last moment she changes her mind, preferring her independence and teaching career to remarriage.

Mother and daughter in Late Autumn

In The End of Summer (1961), which takes place during a heat wave, an elderly widower, the owner of a sake factory, lives with his daughter and her husband, who manages the factory. A younger daughter and the widow of his late son are unmarried, and finding them husbands occupies the minds of the other members of the family. The father is a stubborn rascal who insists on ruling the family and making all the decisions about the business. His son-in-law constantly tries to convince him that small family-run sake breweries are no longer profitable in postwar Japan and that he should sell out to a larger company, but his father-in-law refuses even to consider this. He has also begun secretly seeing his former mistress and her vapid teenaged daughter, whom he believes is his and whose main interest in him is to wheedle him into buying her a fur coat. (Others are skeptical of his paternity; apparently the mistress had quite a reputation for promiscuity.) The daughter with whom he lives, a shrewish control freak given to self-dramatization, is constantly criticizing her father and is outraged when she discovers he has resumed relations with his former mistress. The family gets a scare when the father has a heart attack, but he seems to recover, then suddenly dies of another heart attack after sneaking off to the dog races in the sweltering heat with his mistress. As the funeral procession crosses a footbridge on the way to the crematorium on a small island, two peasants gathering reeds on the bank of the river remark impassively that someone must have died, while smoke pours from the smokestack of the crematorium in the background.

The funeral procession crossing the footbridge

Ozu's final movie, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), again concerns a middle-aged father, Shuhei Hirayama (Chishu Ryu, who also appeared in several of Ozu's movies and was so memorable as the elderly father in Tokyo Story), a widower trying to marry off his grown daughter, who like the daughter in Late Autumn is devoted to her widowed parent and doesn't want to leave. When he and his two school chums arrange a reunion with their now-retired middle-school teacher, whom they have nicknamed The Gourd, they get a shock. The man is a depressed alcoholic who owns a shabby noodle shop in a run-down part of town with his middle-aged unmarried daughter. In one especially poignant sequence, Hirayama takes the drunken ex-teacher to his daughter in the shop, and leaves them sitting next to each other. The father nods off; the daughter glances at him for a moment, her face crumples, and she buries her face in her hands and quietly weeps. When the teacher confesses to Hirayama his regret for ruining his daughter's life and warns Hirayama not to do the same, Hirayama becomes determined to find his daughter a husband and persuade her to marry. In the end he succeeds. On the way home from the wedding he stops in a bar for a drink and another patron, seeing the expression on his face, jokingly asks, "Where have you come from? A funeral?" "Something like that," Hirayama answers.

Hirayama (right) and his school chums

Ozu's last three films deal with closely related and sometimes overlapping subjects and themes that seem to have preoccupied him for much of his career. All three deal with matchmaking as either the main plot or a major subplot, so much so that it sometimes seems as though one is watching the ruminations of a Japanese Jane Austen. Parents seem almost obsessive about marrying off their daughters, while the children, like modern young people in traditional cultures everywhere, resist arranged marriages, seeing the practice as an outmoded vestige of the days when young people had no life outside the family home. But as in Austen, this preoccupation with matchmaking is about more than just a suitable marriage. It is about the desire for stability and for securing one's place in life, and the hope of parents to assure these things for their children.

Like so much in Ozu's movies, this attitude of the older generation toward marriage suggests an underlying anxiety about the inevitability of change and the realization that life is always moving on. In the last three movies we are always aware of the difference between the old and the new, the traditional and the postwar modern, the past and the present. The middle-aged characters cling to the past and to their cultural traditions and resist change. Mothers wear traditional clothing and stay at home caring for the family, while their daughters wear Western clothing and makeup and work in offices. Fathers remain closely bonded to men they went to middle school with 40 years earlier, or try to resume romantic relationships that ended decades ago. Sons and daughters ignore their parents' desire that they selflessly conform to traditional values, following instead independent courses of action that for them signify modernity.

In his last film, An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu seems especially to dwell on the corrosive changes in postwar Japanese culture. The predominant color in the movie is gray. "People have become so cold since the war," The Gourd observes to Hirayama. The responsible and conservative Hirayama's married son is an immature, self-centered spendthrift who lives in a dreary modern concrete apartment block and whose greatest ambition is to own a set of expensive golf clubs. One of the most distinctive features of Ozu's style—what has been referred to as "pillow shots" or "curtain shots"—also reflects this postwar malaise.

Ozu's pillow shots are brief montages, usually of outdoor scenes, that signal transitions in place or time, but not necessarily in the conventional way of establishing a precise change of setting or the passage of a precise amount of time. They are instead an abstract series of images that indicate events or time progressing in a general rather than in a specific sense. These interludes are normally peaceful and sedate, with a haunting, self-contained beauty of their own. But in An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu's pillow shots show postwar industrial Japan in all its blighted disfigurement: the skyline riven by stark power poles, snaking utility lines, and the smokestacks of factories spewing toxic smoke; the landscape littered with unsightly sheet metal fences, piles of rubble, barbed wire, and rusty barrels. These pillow shots are not without their own grim beauty, but it is the grimness that lingers, not the beauty.

A stark pillow shot in An Autumn Afternoon

In his last three films, Ozu takes his lifelong interest in the subject of generational conflict and by focusing more closely on the older generation makes the theme of the inevitability of aging and death that he explored so poignantly in his best-known work, Tokyo Story (1953), the central element of these movies. And he makes it clear that the proper response to this inevitability is not unseemly resistance or self-pity, but stoical acceptance of the situation. In Late Autumn, the middle-aged couple who decide in the end not to get married after all retain their dignity by taking the sensible course. In An Autumn Afternoon, Hirayama can finally face his old age with equanimity, knowing that he has chosen not to selfishly keep his daughter from pursuing her own happiness. By contrast, in The End of Summer, the defiant sake brewer makes a fool of himself and dies ignobly, while in An Autumn Afternoon, the alcoholic ex-teacher's morbidity and regret make him seem merely pathetic.

As in all of Ozu's films, the action in his last three movies takes place largely indoors—in the rooms and hallways of houses, in the corridors or offices of workplaces, in restaurants, noodle shops, or American-style bars. In film after film, we see what appear to be the same rooms in the same houses, the same offices, the same corridors. The overhead light fixtures, the wall coverings, the colors and furnishings may change, but the spaces seem the same in each movie. And they are photographed in the same style and lighted in the same way, the flat lighting with no obvious light source and few shadows giving these spaces a timeless and insular feel.

Because nearly all of the action takes place indoors, when the film does move outside, the effect is all the stronger. The sequence in Late Autumn where the mother and daughter take a last holiday together before the daughter's marriage and walk quietly beside a mountain lake, the funeral procession to the crematorium in The End of Summer, the opening shots of An Autumn Afternoon showing the factory in Yokohama that Hirayama manages—each of these sequences is rendered more forceful by its complete tonal contrast to the enclosed interior settings that dominate the rest of the film.

Each shot is meticulously composed. Right angles predominate: Ozu favors horizontal and vertical lines, squares and rectangles; he only occasionally uses diagonals, and hardly ever curves or circles. His compositions have a classic sense of order, balance, and symmetry, with great attention to form and pattern in the arrangement of people and objects within the frame. His actors are usually photographed facing the camera, facing away from the camera, or in profile. They are most often photographed seated. When they do move, they tend to move directly toward the camera or away from it, or across the frame. That Ozu prefers not to move the camera, to hold his shots so long, and to use flat cuts gives his compositions an especially painterly quality.

This painterly way of filming creates an overall air of stillness in Ozu's films. Yet the serenity of his surfaces masks currents of emotional turmoil just beneath the surface, and this is the source of conflict in his films. This is a turmoil not of agitation, but of controlled disturbance, for in Ozu's world there is no place for turbulent emotions. This is an outwardly placid world where grace and restraint are prized above all else, where even strong-willed people perceive the difference between strength of resolve and unseemly stubbornness and behave accordingly. If they don't, they become objects of gentle pity or derision. Ozu's films achieve their quietly moving emotional impact not through big dramatic moments, but through the cumulative effect of many small moments. His movies are canvases painted with small, delicate brushstrokes: a facial expression, a brief glance, a gesture, a boat or train passing in the background.

Ozu's cinema is one not of action, but of contemplation, and in his last three films his object of contemplation is the end of life. In these films Ozu suggests that ultimately we must let go of regrets for the past and of hopes for controlling the future and simply accept what the melancholic Gourd tells Hirayama in An Autumn Afternoon: "In the end we spend our lives alone . . . all alone."

The website Ozu-san.com is devoted to the life and films of Yasujiro Ozu. All the images above come from this site.


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