Ozu’s People: Us

Yasujirō Ozu (小津 安二郎, 12 December 1903 – 12 December 1963)

toyko story 2

If you’re ever tempted to believe that we humans are not all alike … that Grandma’s cooking, the amount of melanin in your skin, your religion or country of origin, the presence or absence of an epicanthic fold makes a big difference  … spend a weekend watching Yasujiro Ozu’s films.

Ozu is the best director you’ve probably never heard of. His movies weren’t released in the West until the early 1960s, shortly before his death, and then mostly confined to art houses. But Ozu is one of the three great directors of Japan’s “classic period” – the contemporary and peer of Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa – and one of the greatest world directors of all time.

Ozu violates some of the conventions of Western filmmaking (e.g., not always following the “180-degree rule” and rarely cutting on action) but I find his signature style the simplest of the great directors. For the most part, Ozu uses the same shot (from a low still camera), the same lens (a slightly distortive 50mm), and straight cuts. He never uses transitions and, as introduction to or punctuation between scenes, he employs what are called “pillow shots,” brief glimpses of exterior detail from a train station clock to a cumulus cloud. This device of the pillow shot is adapted from Japanese poetry and Ozu used it to create a film poetry all his own.

Ozu’s subject matter, too, is simple and relatively fixed. Domestic dramas that, on the surface, seem relatively minor variations on the theme of family ties. Generations butt heads, someone marries or wants to marry, established unions strain and spouses stray, someone leaves for a better job in a bigger city, someone dies, and – in Ozu’s finest film, Tokyo Story (1953) – aging parents visit children from whom they’ve grown apart,

Watch these families in Yasijuro Ozu’s movies and tell me they’re not your family, the families of relatives and friends, people whose families you know. Watch two or three of his elegant, beautifully composed films – about the mess of daily life – and tell me we’re not all the same.

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