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Once one goes beyond the impressive filmography of Akira Kurosawa, the riches of Japanese cinema seem to spread out in all directions. Before the 1970s their historical and fantasy films were more intense than most Western fare, and their exploitation films far more extreme. But film devotees looking for refined stories of human experience seemingly can't find sufficient praise to describe the films of Yasujiro Ozu. This quiet filmmaker who rarely moves his camera presents deceptively "simple" tales of family life, honest little portraits of ordinary people without the embellishments of melodrama or imposed artistic expression. If Kurosawa is regarded as placing "cinema" first, Ozu's prime commitment is to the Japanese experience. His films create an honest image of the national character that can be universally understood.
Criterion has released many of this director's films on DVD, and this double-disc set pairs Two Films by Ozu made six years apart, that might be thematic bookends. Both are about the sacrifice of single parents. In the director's first talking picture The Only Son a widow endures a life of poverty to pay for her son's education. Made when Japan was at war, There Was a Father examines the self-denial of a widowed father (frequent Ozu actor Chishu Ryu) who provides for his son but places work and duty ahead of his personal happiness. I describe the movies as deceptively simple because, after only a few minutes of watching, one becomes intensely committed to them. The film stories can be described in just a couple of sentences, and lack the easy psychologizing often taken for granted in serious dramas. Yet the situations encountered are wholly identifiable. How do these people overcome their problems? Do they overcome their problems?
The Only Son begins in 1923 when the mother Otsune (Choko Iida), inspired by a local teacher's (Chishu Ryu) opinions on the value of education, changes her mind and sends her small son to expensive private schools. She pays for this by slaving in a silk factory and selling her house. Thirteen years later, she pays her son Ryosuke (now Shinichi Himori) a visit in Tokyo. She finds that he's married and has a baby, and hasn't even told her. Because of limited opportunities in the depressed economy, Ryosuke has only found a low-paying job teaching geometry at night. He has to borrow money to afford simple necessities for Otsune's visit. Already disappointed to have missed her son's wedding, Otsune is shocked when Ryosuke explains that he doesn't believe that he can improve himself. Otsune lectures him on her sacrifice. But when a neighbor's only boy is struck down by an accident, Ryosuke's generous behavior convinces Otsune that her son is a good man after all.
There Was a Father is also about a child separated from his parent, but for another reason. Teacher Horikawa (Chishu Ryu) is a widower with a small son, Ryohei. Horikawa isn't at fault when one of his students drowns on a school outing. No one blames him, including the bereaved parents. Over the protests of his fellow teacher Hirata (Takeshi Sakamoto), Horikawa quits his job as a way of accepting ultimate responsibility. This means that he must move away from the city for a while, taking his son Ryohei out of school. Re-starting his working life in a factory situation, Horikawa elects to live apart from the sensitive Ryohei. Even when Ryohei (Shuji Sano) becomes an adult, Horikawa always has a reason why they can't live together. Horikawa and Hirata are the recipients of a party given by their former students, all of whom have happy and normal familiy lives. But when Ryohei announces his intentions of quitting his teaching job to move to the city to be with his father, Horikawa tells him that he cannot. He reasons that, with the war on, all jobs are important to the nation, and that it is Ryohei's duty to stay at his post. Father and son are pleased when Ryohei's draft notice comes through, and Horikawa arranges for Ryohei to marry Hirata's beautiful daughter.
Much has been written about Ozu's personal style, which never changed much over decades of film work. The impression given is that he sticks to straight-on, often floor level angles of conversations, without much cutting. But when the placement of characters permits Ozu does cut to medium close-ups and angles that rake rooms at 45° angles. We're always aware that the natural blocking is also expressing nuances of relationships, as when a child moves to another part of the room to hide his tears. Ozu's scenes will seem slow to many viewers, but what he's really doing is maintaining a credible human pace. He often ends scenes before conversations are finished. After a few minutes of adjustment, we're picking up on details of behavior and facial expression often ignored in movies with a more elaborate story to tell.
Ozu doesn't use traditional establishing shots. When cutting in the middle of a conversation he'll simply jump to a view of a corner of the room, without apparent relevance to the scene. 1 When he wants to bridge a time gap, Ozu will hard-cut to two, three, or four "views" of the neighborhood or city: not wide establishing shots, but rather long focus-length lens views of laundry on a line, or a fence in a walkway. We don't get the "big picture" that might distract us from the intimate drama on view. Action is handled the same way. We see a foolish boy playing a dare game around the horse that will kick him, and we see a pair of boats out on a lake, but in both cases we learn that tragedy has struck when somebody reports the news.
These are interior stories; Ozu refuses to play movie travelogue games. When Ryosuke drives his mother through Tokyo, we see a view past the taxi's fender at the tops of buildings. To discuss their deepest feelings, Otsune and Ryosuke end up sitting in a ugly empty lot next to a trash incineration plant, a humbling location in keeping with Ryosuke's feelings of failure. Late in Horikawa's life, he and Ryohei are able to go fishing together as they had years before. They still cast and set their fishing lines in unison, expressing their harmonious relationship.
Ozu's individual frames are beautiful without being too decorative. Their simplicity of composition isn't minimalist but instead conveys a balance of what is necessary and what is ornamental. We love the heavily art-directed, graphically-inspired beauty shots in great classics by the likes of John Ford, but Ozu's visuals are different -- they're just right, without attracting attention to themselves as "pretty pictures". The films as complete items are beautiful.
What can't be overemphasized is how close we feel toward these people. Otsune is a rather simple woman surprised to find that her darling son has developed a life and ideas separate from her own. Horikawa is a very deliberate man prone to judging himself harshly. It can be argued that his remorse for his student's death is proof of his commitment, and that his real responsibility is to continue his good work. What's even odder is that he causes his son to pay for his imagined failing as well. Ryohei is the one to suffer when Horikawa decides that he only feels comfortable living alone. Yet he rationalizes his choice with other excuses.
Criterion's DVD set of Two Films by Ozu is sourced from surviving 16mm prints that are sharp but worn, and intermittently marred by age-related water marks, etc. The film made during the war actually seems in worse shape than the one from the 1930s. Yet both are intact, with reasonably clear audio tracks. The film's unobtrusive music cues are quite touching. Each title comes in a separate keep case with an insert booklet containing informative essays by Tony Rayns and Donald Richie -- welcome aids for an Ozu neophyte like Savant. Film critic Tadao Sato appears in one interview, explaining some of the historical context behind activities shown in the film. Regional silk factories like the one where Otsune works were actually the backbone of the nation's economy, and as Sato explains, "earned the money to build a lot of battleships".
David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson appear in filmed discussions on both discs guaranteed to raise one's interest in the movies. They eventually zero in on the wartime context in There Was a Father, which was heralded as an ideal patriotic/propagandistic movie even though it barely touches on the subject -- there are no war heroes in sight or even men in uniform (although we glimpse some students with military-style caps). Horikawa's sincere insistence on total devotion to duty is in full accord with wartime edicts -- even though it seems inspired by an irrational desire for atonement. In his essay, Donald Richie explains that the movie may have had more specific references to soldiers and the war effort. It was cut by orders of the U.S. censors at the beginning of the MacArthur Occupation, when 'themes of war' were banned from Japanese movies.
What Thompson and Bordwell communicate best is the enthusiasm shown by fans of Yasujiro Ozu -- those who get hooked want to see everything he made. At a retrospective of all of the director's work that has survived, Bordwell recalls being accosted by an attendee, who said "Is that all of them? What will I do with the rest of my life?" 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Two Films by Ozu rates:
1. What are those boxy, rounded objects about a foot square with holes in the side that show up near the front doors of these Japanese homes and apartments? They appear several times in different places in these two movies.
2. This is a question that pops up in fandom whenever one realizes one's seen all the Ford or Hitchcock films he's ever likely to see --- we'll no longer have the pleasure of seeing another Kubrick film as "virgins". Just diversify, is the answer. The number of potentially wonderful films even the most educated of us have seen, is many times more than all the hours we have in our lives to see them.
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Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.