Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Long Goodbye

It would be easy to come away from an Ozu film like Tokyo Story with the impression that he was being pessimistic about life. What Ozu seems to be saying is that people are the way they are - selfish, thoughtless, uncaring - because life in the modern world makes them that way. Only the exceptional children don't grow up to disappoint their parents.

There is a certain amount of resignation in Ozu's sympathetic characters to this, but not, I think, in Ozu himself. The simple fact that he devoted the last dozen years of his long career to depicting the breakup of families, the desertion of parents by their children, shows how Ozu was certainly not resigned to it at all. His films are a powerful protest against change, against the seemingly inevitable disintegration of tradition and custom.

When Alan Booth traveled through provincial Japan in the 1980s, he admitted that he was trying to see as much of the authentic and original aspects of the country as he could before they would disappear forever. Tragically, it was Booth that disappeared, in 1993 from colon cancer. He called his last book Looking for the Lost.

Because of his obstinate loyalty to the Japanese family, some critics* have attacked Ozu as a reactionary defender of Japanese traditional values in their most benign form - the same values that made Japan follow its emperor into World War II. Ozu loved a Japan that barely survived the war and the American occupation. It is the same world that Mikio Naruse explored far more critically, especially its impact on the lives of women. In Ozu, good women know their place and only presume to transcend it at the risk of losing our sympathy.

Some critics are finally wondering if Ozu's loving portraits of fathers finding themselves alone in the final shot after their beloved daughters have gone away are reflections of a gay sensibility. He worked within self-imposed limitations that allowed him enough space to say everything he wanted to say about his time. His films are deceptively still and contemplative. They are, in fact, passionate eulogies of a passing worldview. His favorite characters, exemplars of a lost age, immortalize a way of life that is perhaps better off lost, but vital - even beautiful - enough to give us all pause at its passing.

*Joan Mellen is one.

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