Friday, July 2, 2010

Kurosawa, Ozu & Mizoguchi (Part 2 ot 3)

As I mentioned, I saw four Ozu films at Viz/New People in June.

The Only Son directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1936)
Record of a Tenement Gentleman directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1947)
Early Spring directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)
Tokyo Story directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1953)

Ozu is known for a few techniques in his film. First is the "Ozu shot" or "tatami shot" which is a static camera shot at an upward angle from the ground. The effect is as if you are lying on the floor looking up at the characters on the screen. In addition, Ozu rarely edited the scenes. Frequently, during a conversation, a film will cut to a medium close-up headshot of the person speaking. Ozu didn't do that; Ozu usually had both (or more) people talking in the same shot without any edits. As a result, Ozu's shots average longer in duration than most filmmakers. The effect is to make the story flow at a more relaxed or measured pace.

Ozu frequently uses a narrative technique called ellipsis where major events are not filmed or shown. Rather, they referred to by the characters. An example would be if a character dies. Instead of filming a death scene, Ozu will film a scene at the funeral or more likely, two characters will reminisce about the funeral or complaining about having to go to the funeral.


The Only Son is Ozu's first sound film. The 35 mm print which was screened looked as if it were the original.

The plot involves Tsume, a widow who sends Ryosuke, her only child to Tokyo in 1923 for secondary education. She works at a silk factory and can't afford to educate her son any further. Earnest pleas from the boy and his school teacher carry the day. Ryosuke promises to study hard & become a great man.

Thirteen years later, Tsume decides to visit her son in Tokyo. She quickly discovers that all is not as he has been reporting back to her. Ryosuke's not a salaryman but a low paid night school teacher. Also, he has a wife and daughter he's never mentioned to his mother. The school teacher that convinced Tsume to send Ryosuke to Tokyo also made the journey to achieve his glory. Fate hasn't been kind to him either as he is now small restaurateur.

Eventually, Ryosuke and Tsume have a confrontation. Ryosuke is disappointed by his own accomplishments or lack thereof. He wishes he never moved to Tokyo. Tsume responds with her own secret - to pay for his education, she sold her house and lives at the factory dorm. She gave everything up for his education. Although she can't come out and say it, she is disappointed in her son.

When a neighbor's boy is injured, Ryosuke gives his family's last yen to the boy's mother to pay the hospital bill. Tsume sees this and says she is proud of her son. However, the film ends with her alone at the silk factory with a look of grief & disappointment after telling her co-workers that her son is a "great man."

This early Ozu film is prototypical - sentimental, wistful, centered around family and lacking a happy ending. It didn't presage the greatest director in Japanese history but it was certainly an effect tearjerker.


Record of a Tenement Gentleman centers on an abandoned boy who I suppose is the eponymous character. Chouko Iida who played Tsume in The Only Son returns as a Tané, hard-hearted widow who gradually accepts the boy as her surrogate son. Being Ozu, it couldn't end that way. The father of the boy shows up and takes him back. Only then does Tané fully realize how close she's grown to the boy.

The plot of the film was very simple. Filmed in 1947, Ozu uses the war's aftermath as narrative device. It's easy to understand how a boy could be separated, orphaned or abandoned by his parents. What becomes of these children? They'll have a hard life unless some kind-hearted person takes them in. Ozu constructs the crusty widow with a heart of gold but never shows it. Only when she cares for the boy does her own humanity bubble to the surface.

This film was my least favorite of the four films I saw. The ending was too predictable and the character not fully developed. Tané and the boy seem more like caricatures navigating well-worn narrative paths. Instead of paint-by-numbers it was film-by-numbers although in the hands of Ozu, I was still able to be manipulated into caring about both Tané and the boy.


Tokyo Story is generally considered Ozu's masterpiece. Shukichi (Chishû Ryû) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) Hirayama, an elderly couple, decide to visit their adult children in Tokyo. It requires a day long train trip but they've never been to Tokyo and haven't seen their children for quite awhile. Their eldest son is a doctor and their eldest daughter runs a hair salon. Their children's work and family obligation don't leave much time to reconnect. Ironically, it is Noriko (outstanding performance by Setsuko Hara who I thought looked a little like Dorothy Lamour), their middle son's widow, who makes time in her schedule to entertain the Hirayamas.

Realizing they are imposing on their children's lives, the Hirayamas cut their vacation short and return home via train. The wife, Tomi, takes ill on the train and shortly after arriving home, the youngest daughter who lives with the Hirayamas, sends a telegram to her siblings that their mother is seriously ill. All the children (except the youngest son in Osaka) and Noriko arrive to keep a vigil. Upon their mother's death, all the children have to quickly leave to resume their lives. Again, only Noriko takes extra time to stay with her father-in-law and sister-in-law.

Shukichi comments on the irony that his late son's widow has shown him more kindness than his own children. Similarly, Kyoko (the youngest daughter) complains to Noriko about her siblings selfishness. Noriko, seemingly selfless, deflect criticism of her in-laws stating they have busy lives to lead. Eventually, Noriko has to return to Tokyo as well and leaves Shukichi and Kyoko to their lives.

This film is amazing for its richly textured characters and performances. For example, the eldest daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) can be quite shrill and inconsiderate. I didn't like her but there was a scene where it is revealed that Shukichi had a drinking problem when Shige was growing up which explains a lot. This kindly, elderly gentleman was not always so kind or old nor was he was always a gentleman. With just a few words of dialog, Ozu communicated an incredible amount of backstory which explains some of the distance between parents and children.

Setsuko Hara (left) and Chishû Ryû in Tokyo StoryMore complex is the character of Noriko. Eight or nine years after her husband's death, she still hasn't remarried. One wonders why this attractive and kind woman doesn't remarry. It's implied that she can't fully move past her husband's death although comments by the Hirayamas lead one to believe her husband was an alcoholic and a handful. Despite her kindness, Noriko admits that she barely keep going at times and there is something incredibly sad that she can't or won't find companionship.

Tokyo Story is a masterpiece because Ozu weaves together quite a bit of humor and melancholy on so many different subjects - growing old, drifting apart, being alone, city life vs. rural life, Japanese post-war society, etc. The film never feels like an allegory and perhaps its primary intent is just an examination of an elderly couple and their relationship with their children.


Looking at Ozu's filmography, he seems to prefer the seasons when titling his projects. He has directed films titled Late Spring, Early Summer, Late Autumn and Early Spring. Do the seasons refer to periods of one's life? I don't know having only seen Early Spring.

The plot involves Shoji (Ryō Ikebe) and Masako (Chikage Awashima) Sugiyama, a young married couple. Shoji commutes via train to an office job in Tokyo every morning. He has made friends with his fellow commuters. They are a tight-knit bunch with which Shoji spends much of his free time. You can't really blame him as his wife is somewhat cold towards him. Although it is never directly mentioned, it seems that the death of their child several years prior combined with their inability or unwillingness to have another child has created a rift between them.

On a hiking trip with his friends sans Masako, Shoji and Kaneko aka Goldfish (Keiko Kishi) hitch a ride to the top of the trail. This leads to an affair between the two. Masako quickly begins to suspect something is amiss but either pride or indifference keeps her from confronting her husband. As Shoji and Goldfish carry on their affair, their friends begin to suspect what's really going on. Shoji for his part, treats the affair casually and would have preferred not to have engaged in it to start with given the inconvenience of having to deal with the increasingly needy and emotional Goldfish. One night, Goldfish is confronted by her friends regarding the affair. She denies the accusations but flees to Shoji's house. This affront forces Masako to confront Shoji about the affair. In anger, Masako leaves Shoji to live with her mother and divorced sister.

In the background of this story of adultery is Shoji's career path. One of his co-workers and best friend who started at the company at the same time as him has been sick for months. His declining health is used as an excuse for Shoji's absences from Masako. Eventually the man dies. Shoji has been avoiding the man but visits him on what turns out to be his final night. Separately, Shoji has been offered a new job within the company at a remote factory/mining location. The job will allow him to advance up the corporate ladder but the small town he must move to is a far cray from Tokyo and its bustling suburbs.

By the time Shoji accepts the job, he and his wife are estranged. Shoji has broken it off with Goldfish and indeed Goldfish has put the affair behind her as well. However, Masako is not easily placated. Shoji's efforts to reconcile fail and he is resigned to living in the small town by himself and perhaps divorce or permanent separation from his wife. In a surprising (and for me disappointing) ending, Masako shows up unannounced at Shoji's flat in the small town. Having had a change of heart, it appears Masako is ready to forgive and perhaps their marriage will be stronger than before.

The plot I just recounted is a dissection of a strained marriage but in the hands of Ozu it becomes a examination of the salaryman and the breakdown of the Japanese family unit. Shoji's long absences for work & commute contributes to an emotional distance between Shoji & Masako. The lack of children (even today Japan has the lowest birth rate in the world) influences the Sugiyama's marriage in negative ways. Using a scene where Shoji's war buddies gather for beer, Ozu clearly shows that the generation that fought the war was now the the generation of the salaryman...if one was lucky enough to be a salaryman. Shoji's army buddies tell him how envious they are of his job and its steady salary.

I interpret Ozu's film as a criticism of what Japan had become 10 years after the war - Westernized with Western style problems associated with long commutes, big corporations and failing marriages. The great thing about Ozu is that he doesn't state these things in a heavy-handed manner. He always focuses on the family and lets the peripheral action affect the main characters. Nothing is ever good or bad per se, Ozu lets the audience view the effects and interpret it for themselves.


Having seen many more Kurosawa films than Ozu films, I was partial to Kurosawa's muscular form of storytelling. Kurosawa paints with broad strokes and vibrant colors and grabs your attention. Having seen these four from Ozu, I have a better appreciation for Ozu's more subtle characterizations and multi-layered stories. Continuing the metaphor, Ozu paints with an eye for detail and muted colors that fade into each other. His films require more focused attention to appreciate. They are two very different directors who film appeal for different reasons. I won't rank the two against each other but say that you can't go wrong watching either auteur's films.

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