Saturday, May 20, 2006

Saturday Movie Review: Yasujiro Ozu in toto

Posted by Loner.
Because we lost, young kids shake their behinds and dance to their hot jazz. But if we'd won...the blue-eyed ones would be wearing wigs and chewing gum while plucking tunes on the samisen.

It's lucky we lost.

You think so? Yeah...could be.

On V-J day, August 15, 1945, the 42-year-old Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu was in Singapore. He'd made 39 movies in 25 years prior to being sent there to aid the war effort two years earlier. While there he spent much, if not all, of his time watching confiscated American movies. He was interned when the British returned in September and repatriated in February 1946. When he began directing again a year later it was immediately apparent that what he'd seen had done nothing to change a style most apparently influenced by the silents of Ernst Lubitsch and polished and refined to a simplicity that in his final movie is breathtaking.

It is a style in which the camera is usually stationary and positioned to capture the point-of-view of a person sitting on the floor. Most of the edits are straight cuts. There are no special lenses. There is no cross-cutting. There are no flashbacks. There are no dream sequences. There are no ghosts. There are no Samurai. From 1935 on there is sound and from 1958 on there is color. In that final movie the camera never moves within a shot and there is not one edit that isn't a straight cut.

For Ozu, like Hitchcock, a movie was largely done when the shooting script was finished. He generally had a collaborator and for the final thirteen movies that collaborator was Kogo Noda. The scripts are all about character. What plot there is is in the service of the characters and the characters were generally created with specific actors in mind. When it came to shooting the script, Ozu told the actors exactly how he wanted everything done (though not generally why) and they did it and did it and did it until he was satisfied. What are his movies about? Donald Richie suggests in his Introduction to Ozu, that Ozu "had but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution." This is more or less true, but it is absolutely true of the first, Banshun (Late Spring), and the last, Sanma No Aji (An Autumn Afternoon), of the final thirteen.

I have a prospect. Interested?

What for?

For marriage, man!

In the two movies a widower has to part, through marriage, with his only daughter. In An Autumn Afternoon the action begins with a series of establishing shots of some sort of factory. Eventually the cut is to a man sitting at a desk. The man is the widower, Shuhei Hirayama.

[He is played by Chishi Ryu. Ryu also played the widower 13 years earlier in Late Spring and he played parts big and small in all but a couple of the 54 movies directed by Ozu between 1927 and 1962.]

A younger woman enters the same office. Mr. Hirayama notes that another woman has been absent for a couple of days. She may be getting married. He suggests that that means the absent woman will be leaving. Maybe. He asks how old the absent woman is. 23 or 24. He inquires as to what the young woman's husband does. She's not married and she's supporting her father. He comments that soon it will be her turn to marry and he wishes her luck. She leaves. Cut to the hallway outside the office where she walks into the background and passes a man (slight bow by both) who knocks on the office door, is acknowledged and enters.

The man is a school friend and after some pleasantries they move into another part of the office where they sit facing one another. The friend asks how old his daughter is. She's 24. "I have a prospect. Interested?" The widower, as you read, doesn't know what he's talking about and when he does dismisses the suggestion as premature. The friend disagrees, but makes little headway and the widower mentions that another school friend called and would like them to join him that night. The friend says he has a crucial baseball game to go to. The widower encourages him to skip the game and come along. He resists. Cut to a shot of stadium lights and score music. More stadium lights. A public address announcer says it's the bottom of the fourth with so-and-so coming to bat. Cut to a black and white television set on which so-and-so is coming to bat and a television play-by-play announcer is doing his shtick. Hold for the first pitch. A called strike. Cut to four men sitting at a bar and watching the television. Cut to a hallway leading to the room in which sit the four men. Cut to another shot (presumably from the same hallway) into a private room in which three men are sitting on the floor and sharing a meal and drinks. The widower is on the right and his friend from the prior scene is on the left. The other school friend is center with his back to the camera.

Another school friend has encountered a long forgotten teacher who they nicknamed "The Gourd." "The Gourd" will prove crucial in convincing the widower that it is time his daughter marry and will also be a link in a chain that will bring him to a bar proprietor who will remind him, but not his oldest, of his dead wife. His oldest son is married and lives in a modern apartment. He isn't making enough money to buy everything he and his wife would like to have. There is another son, the youngest, who still lives at home and depends for his meals and such on his sister.

A formal Affair? A funeral?

Yes, more or less.

After many scenes in which the characters move the action forward, that initial prospect is acted upon and the coda begins. Just as it happened thirteen years earlier in Late Spring we see a car, but there are differences. There is more than one car. There are chauffeurs polishing them and the first thing we learn when we cut to the interior of the family home is that there aren't enough of them. The younger son is taking care of it. There are no small children about. The widower and the older son talk and the talk is of children. The widower asks if they are using birth control and the son says they are because they can't afford a child. The father suggests that fifty is too late to be raising children. The daughter is ready.

If Ozu did not change, Japan did and it is in this that Ozu is, I think, the most invaluable of all moviemakers because Ozu shows us the changes without anywhere near the editorial comment that a less austere filmmaker would have included. Just as, for the most part, the characters usually maintain that culturally characteristic outward diffidence so too does the director. While Ozu was writing the script for An Autumn Afternoon his mother, with whom he lived most of his life, died unexpectedly and a little under two years later he died, on his sixtieth birthday, of cancer. An Autumn Afternoon is my favorite of the Ozu movies I've seen because every time I see it I can imagine this remarkable man showing me Japan as she was in 1976 and in 1986 and in 1996 and as she is in 2006 were we still blessed with his presence.

In 1949 (Late Spring), there is still much that is ceremonial and traditional dress is common. In 1962, it is rare in the men and mostly nostalgic in the women. In 1949, the relationships have a formality to them. By 1962, this is largely lacking. The daughter is ready. In 1962 there is little awkwardness and a daughter's appreciation isn't expressed; it's understood. The shots of the empty home when the family depart show us what is outside the windows and confirms that the modern is everywhere. Most of the establishing shots elsewhere have shown us thoroughly modern, functional and uninspired architecture. The family home and the better restaurant are the only exceptions and both, it turns out, are surrounded. As in 1949 neither the wedding nor the groom are in the movie. The widower drinks with other characters in the aftermath and he is sitting alone and lonesome when we last see him. Before then in An Autumn Afternoon what I think is the first English as English is uttered in an Ozu movie when the younger son says "Okay" to his sister-in-law as she and the older son prepare to depart.

An Autumn Afternoon is not yet out on DVD in North America. Late Spring and Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story) are and I recommend them above everything that is available and hope and expect that An Autumn Afternoon will come out soon. It is on video.

I began this knowing I could not convey all I wanted to regarding Yasujiro Ozu and the movies he gave us so I especially hope you'll read the Chishi Ryu reminiscence linked above and I'll close with this from Donald Richie's Ozu:

The director Kimisaburo Yoshimura, in Singapore at the time, remembers Ozu looking at.... The film that impressed Ozu most was Welles's Citizen Kane. "If you give Chaplin 62 points, this film gets about 85." He looked at it again and again. It was apparently the technique of the film that most interested him, and according to Yoshimura he kept shaking his head in wonder over this effect or that. Thereafter, whenever asked his favorite foreign film, he always said Citizen Kane, though it is impossible to imagine a picture more antithetical to his own.

...and a picture of his grave in Kamakura. If an actor in an Ozu movie is shown to be drinking sake, beer, whisky, etc. that actor is drinking sake, beer, whisky, etc. and in An Autumn Afternoon a staggering amount is consumed. There will be a bit more on Ozu and drinking in my forthcoming bookend review of another 1949 release, Nora inu (Stray Dog), by another Japanese director you've hopefully heard of, Akira Kurosawa.


buddy larsen said...

great essay. Loner. My son is deep into things Japanesey--even taking courses in the language, preparatory to taking a trip over in the Fall. he's got the alphabet down and uses the spoken language on us--but of course he could be just making sounds for all we know. Love Kurosawa's work--as a layperson. I'm more confident in discussing the Godzillas. ;)

buddy larsen said...

"Because we lost, young kids shake their behinds and dance to their hot jazz. But if we'd won...the blue-eyed ones would be wearing wigs and chewing gum while plucking tunes on the samisen"

"Knowing who you are is good for one generation only"
--Flannery O'Conner

buddy larsen said...

O'Connor --