Last night I decided to pull out a stack of films I still had to watch from a group of some of my favorite directors and filmmakers. Choosing from a pile of Antonioni, Soderbergh and Goddard I finally settled on Yasujiro Ozu who, as I would start to define last night, is probably my favorite of them all. Stylistically, the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is much more along my own lines of visualizing as well as viewing stories, but as I have recently begun to notice, Ozu taps into something much more personal.
Tokyo 1936, from The Only Son.
The film I decided to watch was Ozu’s first “talkie”, called “The Only Son”. Made in 1936, it runs a mere 83 minutes so at 1 am in the morning it was the perfect length. Like many of Ozu’s films, the story revolves around a fractured family facing the next chapters in their lives: A widowed mother spends everything she has to send her young son to Tokyo to be a success and many years later finds that maybe his ambitions have not paid off as they both had hoped. There are many that criticize Ozu for essentially remaking the same movies over and over. Though this is true in several cases, I do believe what he was doing rather than remaking the films was re-examining over and over the central theme of all of these films, or probably more appropriately, of his life.
And this for me is where I connect to him as an “artist”. Many defenders try and give importance to Ozu’s artistic choices as a director which at times can be intelligently counter argued on some levels. Technically speaking Ozu’s “eye lines” rarely match which by some is a big amateur no-no. If one watches a film where two people are talking in two separate close ups, one generally looks from the right side of frame to the left and then the other character is looking from the left side of frame towards the right. For the audience watching, this feels like they are looking at each other. Much of Ozu’s conversations told in close ups have the characters on both sides looking in the exact same direction (and in many cases what appears to be directly into the camera’s lens). Roger Ebert did recount a story about this in his review of Ozu’s “Floating Weeds”, “[Ozu] once had a young assistant who suggested that perhaps he should shoot conversations so that it seemed to the audience that the characters were looking at one another. Ozu agreed to a test. They shot a scene both ways, and compared them. “You see?” Ozu said. “No difference!”
One could also argue his choice of camera is redundant and even monotonous, as out of Ozu’s large body of work, his camera rarely was ever in motion and by the color films, not at all. In fact, his level of camera is notoriously always the same height, about head high as if from the point of view of someone sitting on a floor or tatami mat. But for me, it was his ability to convey the emotional content of the stories as clearly and as poignantly as he does that makes the films so dynamic even if his variation on story and theme remained limited. Ozu found the way he wanted to tell his stories, and he was sticking to them.
From Ozu's first "talkie", The Only Son.
In many ways, at least for myself, I know artists and filmmakers use their chosen medium as a way to vent and express things experienced in their own life. Maybe questions unanswered. Possibly ones that have been answered, but yet to be comprehended. Either way, our chosen platforms become a place for us to release and expand on our stories and journeys. Even if not to ultimately find an answer or some cathartic relief but to at least serve as an arena to once again face those things that we may have left undone in our prior experiences. There is no doubt Ozu projected his life into his films like few directors have or even could. There is a resonance to films like the amazing “Tokyo Story” or “Late Spring” that we all, if not yet, will one day find ourselves relating to. Ozu himself may have been classified as a lonely man by most terms. He lived with his mother the majority of his life and never married, yet his ability to see and express the many facets of the family unit is fairly unmatched, at the very least in terms of output, in all of cinema.
As the story concluded, like many of his films, it had me asking more questions about the characters in the end than in the beginning. But I soon realized I was asking them as much of myself than of anyone on screen. I have run across many people in the industry looking to one day make a film that has “this kind of budget” or “that kind of cast” but that night I found myself just wanting to one day have the ability to take that platform and to speak as clearly, even if just once, as Ozu had so many times over his lifetime.
"pillow shot" from "The Only Son"
– Michael Worth
Available on DVD from The Criterion Collection.
Cover of the Criterion Version DVD