Thursday, October 13, 2011

Remastering the Film: Yasujiro Ozu

"For me, never before and never again since has the cinema been so close to its essence and its purpose: to present an image of man in our century, a usable, true, and valid image in which he not only recognizes himself, but from which, above all, he may learn about himself."
Wim Wenders, Tokyo-Ga (1985)

The general admiration of the films of Yasujiro Ozu in the West is a direct refutation of the idea, astonishing to us but common among many Asian scholars and artists, that there is a distinct sensibility that only members of a certain race or culture are able to perceive. The titles of some of his films are certainly addressed to viewers with a distinctive palate, like The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) or The Taste of Mackerel (1962). The latter title was changed to An Autumn Afternoon for Western audiences.

Because of this cultural prejudice, Ozu was probably the most inaccessible genius of international film for more than two decades. Treasured in Japan, for the length of his career and for nearly a decade after his death in 1963, one day before his 60th birthday, Ozu's films were regarded as too idiosyncratically Japanese for Western audiences to fully apprehend. The moment New Yorker Films decided to ignore this prohibition and show a selection of Ozu's films in New York in 1972, the response of audiences and critics was unanimously positive.

Ozu's films lack the exoticism that fans of the Japanese film had come to expect in the 1950s from films like Rashomon, Ugetsu, and Gate of Hell. Like Naruse, whose work had been neglected in the West for much longer, Ozu sought out dramas that took place in ordinary contemporary settings, among people whose ordinariness was irreproachable. Rather than the larger-than-life stories found in the films of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, Ozu's uncommon artistry looked into the commonest of places - a middle class home, an office, a provincial town, a suburban street.

Ozu's most overt statement on his favorite subject - the decline of the family - can be found in what is regarded by many as his greatest film, Tokyo Story (1953). An elderly couple set out on a trip to Tokyo to visit their grown children. They are shocked to find they have become selfish, disrespectful, and greedy. Only the former wife of their dead son, who hasn't remarried, is everything their own children are not: kind, loving, and considerate. Without warning, on the way home, the old woman breaks down and dies. After the funeral, the children leave their widower father alone in his house. Ozu closes the film with the image of the old man (Chishu Ryu, who was 49 when the film was made) smoke from the mosquito coil floating around him like incense, gazing forlornly at the view.

Ozu represented families before and after Tokyo Story, but never so purposefully. In fact, it makes Ozu's message come across much more explicitly and, for me, forcedly. Late Spring and An Autumn Afternoonare far more moving because they don't elicit emotions so easily. Their trajectory is similar to Tokyo Story's but they are more complex because they allow their stories to unfold without Setsuko Hara delivering the line "Isn't life disappointing?"

Occasionally Ozu concentrated on subjects other than the family, most interestingly in one of my favorites of his films, Floating Weeds (1959), which follows a troupe of itinerant actors to a small seaside town. The leader of the troupe, played by the great Ganjiro Nakamura, has a young mistress who is the troupe's leading lady. But the small town is home to another woman, who has borne him a son. The old man thinks about quitting his vagabond life, but he returns to his mistress when he learns that there is really no place for him in his grown son's and former girlfriend's world. (The plot of this film is virtually identical to Ingmar Bergman's masterful film Sawdust and Tinsel [1953].)

And Ozu's camera. It's the most noticeable part of his filmmaking, and it is the most profound element of his art. Antonioni once remarked that camera placement is a moral decision. He meant that where the director places his camera determines how he wants the audience to feel about his subject. By the same token, it tells the audience what the director thinks about himself. While many filmmakers have lately decided to abandon the fixed perspective required by traditional camera placement, if only because cameras have gotten smaller and lighter, Ozu takes advantage of the fact that the viewer has to be seated in order to watch his films by sitting down his camera in the room with his actors, on the floor where, in Japan, they sit, eat, and sleep.

Wim Wenders visited Tokyo wanting to get closer to the places that Ozu depicted in his films. The result was Tokyo-Ga, which is invaluable for its interviews with Chishu Ryu, the actor who played the father in so many of his films, and with Yuharu Atsuta, Ozu's cameraman, who showed Wenders the famous squatting camera position. The rest of the film inadvertently shows the extent to which Ozu's world has disappeared almost completely from 1985 Tokyo. The only surviving setting is the labyrinthine bar district, with innumerable cozy, inviting bars. (In one such bar, called La Jetée, Wenders finds Chris Marker!)

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