If you read the books of P. G. Wodehouse, you will find a certain repetitiveness. Not only are the plots similar with the same characters cropping up again and again, but you will begin to recognize words, phrases and even complete sentences making their appearance again and again. And far from being monotonous, these repetitions entertain, their familiarity endears. Such also are the films of Yasujiro Ozu.
If a motif is defined as an element that recurs frequently in a body of work, an Ozu film is replete with them to such an extent that everything is a motif. It begins with the title: An Autumn Afternoon, Early Autumn, Late Autumn, Early Spring, Early Summer, Late Spring… The films too are similar in their subject and theme, focusing mainly on the relationship between old parents and their adult children, especially on the question of marriage. They films are peopled by more or less the same actors playing more or less the same characters: the widowed father, his cronies, the unmarried daughter… Even the shot-taking is familiar. We recognize set-ups, compositions, transitions. The camera remains static and low. Ozu characters mainly talk, and the camera catches every word. Only rarely will there be an off-screen dialogue. And music will begin only when a scene is about to end, playing through the transition and ending when the next scene begins.
But Ozu films weren’t always like this. A lot of his earlier films were campus comedies and gangster films. (Early Ozu was very much influenced by American cinema especially that of Ernst Lubitsch and Harold Lloyd.) The camera moved around (there are a lot of trolley shots in I Was Born, But…) and so did the characters. But somewhere down the line, Ozu began to move away from the American influence and became what many critics call “the most Japanese of directors.”
Donald Ritchie attributes Ozu’s aesthetic choices to the practice of Zen Buddhism, especially to the concepts of mono no aware (acceptance or resignation) and mu (nothingness). David Bordwell differs on this and analyses the films using a parametric approach based on poetics. Both arguments are persuasive. And I don’t know enough about Zen Buddhism or film narrative theory to disagree with either. As Bordwell points out, Ozu can be critiqued as all three – a ‘commercial’ film-maker who was a master storyteller; a profound moralist as an ‘art-cinema’ director; and as a ‘parametric’ director, one of the great experimental film-makers.
Before I embarked on this dissertation, I was curious to find out the motivations for Ozu’s minimalism. What was it that made Ozu refuse camera movements, fades, dissolves – all deemed to be a necessary part of a film-maker’s arsenal. While Ritchie’s explanation of mono no aware and mu does indeed satisfy (after all, the sole inscription on Ozu’s tombstone is mu), and Bordwell admits that detailed awareness of the working of Ozu’s film style eludes our grasp, I think a part of the answer lies in Ozu’s choice of genre and subject.
Tracing the development of both cinematic style and thematic content in Ozu’s films, it seems obvious to me that both have gone hand-in-hand. It is pertinent to note that Ozu’s signature style that dominates his later films is almost absent from his early works. If Ozu had continued to make films in the jidai-geki (period films) like his first film The Sword Of Penitence (which he would have if Shochiku had not closed down their jidai-geki operations in Tokyo), we might have seen a different cinema from Ozu altogether. Somehow, even for Ozu, a swashbuckling samurai film couldn’t have done with a static camera. Similarly, the early Ozu campus comedies and gangster films abounded with energy and demanded camera movements. It was only when Ozu settled down to making films about older people that his unique aesthetic style flowered.
As Bordwell says, with Ozu, we must adopt new viewing strategies, recognizing that film style can claim our attention in its own right. It seems to me that Ozu also is trying to draw our attention to style. A case in point are his compositions. Ozu doesn’t frame situations in the analytic-dramatic context, showing us what is to be seen. Rather he leaves things unseen, making us more aware of what is being shown. Take An Autumn Afternoon. Our introduction to Hirayama is through the corner of his desk, as his secretary walks in through the door and leaves a paper on his desk. He remains off-screen. And even when we get to see him, it is an odd composition – Hirayama is to the left of screen looking on to the camera. What’s more, these compositions keep recurring throughout the film, making style in Ozu’s films just too difficult to ignore.
Another way Ozu draws attention to his style is in the way he shoots a scene. In shooting a conversation, for example, most film-makers would shoot a variety of angles and magnifications and cut between them to relieve the monotony of people talking, in such a way that we are constantly looking at something new and fresh. Ozu does precisely the opposite. He shoots only a limited number of angles, keeps the magnification almost constant and keeps cutting between them. This he does not only in one scene but repeats it for subsequent scenes shot in the same space, be it Hirayama’s office in the factory or the sake bar where he and his cronies meet, so that we begin to recognize individual shots themselves.
Transitions are another stylistic tool Ozu uses. When a scene ends, Ozu transits to the next scene not through fades but through a series of shots that has an oblique connection to the scenes it interconnects. Signs of Tokyo street life just before a bar scene. Smokestacks in anticipation of a scene in Hirayama’s office. Corridors and clotheslines especially are an Ozu favourite. Interestingly, Western critics refer to them as pillow shots from the pillow words in Japanese poetry, while Japanese critics refer to them as curtain shots, from curtains signaling the end of a scene in a proscenium theatre. Typically, music plays through an Ozu transition. Occasionally he will surprise us by continuing the music throughout the next scene.
Ozu also underplayed drama. He eschewed close-ups, a device analytic-dramatic film-makers use to heighten the drama, and never used music to underline the dramatic content of a scene. Ozu’s style was to keep his magnifications almost constant, usually midshots and long shots, and let the drama unfold imperceptibly, as in daily life, giving the impression that almost nothing happens in his films. He also resorted to ellipsis, preferring not to show important dramatic events, but instead have characters casually refer to them in the dialogue.
An Ozu film is then a pattern, not so much in narrative structure, but in visual structure as well. A design in space and time, there are repetitions and variations, similarities and contrasts. Gradually, we begin to recognize the elements and wait in anticipation for their next appearance. Ozu’s cinema then is ‘the cinema of the familiar.’
Thanks for the post Kaevan. I find a lot to agree with in it and it brings to mind several different thoughts about how Ozu’s films seen to be received, especially here on Mubi as a number of discussions have shown.
One of the first things that comes to mind is that while the Ritchie notion of mono no aware may indeed be a significant factor in later Ozu films, it seems a reasonable assertion given my limited knowledge of the concept, but saying that also suggests there is something unsatisifying about the idea as it pertains to appreciating the films. By that I mean the “foreigness” of the idea could serve as a barrier to appreciation in a way that I don’t think is the case. I have no doubt that being more fully informed about Japanese society and certain Buddhist ideas may increase the depth of appreciation, but focusing too much on those ideas serves to move the films away from the way they can be approached by those from outside of that tradition, which is something I think Bordwell was trying to avoid. I like your approach here of speaking of the way the films develop their own language, one that has a set of “rules” that we can learn and internalize as we watch more of his films. This then can develop into a form of understanding based on familiarity as you suggest, but also on contrast or unfamiliarity as compared to more dominant forms of cinema of which we are undoubtedly more aware.
In mentioning the differences between his earlier and later films, I pick up the suggestion that through the comparison and contrast to those kinds of films, the styles made popular in the US for example, we can understand something of the Ozu’s films in what he avoids from that tradition. We can find our way in his films by looking at what isn’t there, which works in the way Bordwell suggests by putting our focus on what is shown, but can also work by making us more aware of what we would expect to be shown and what not seeing those things implies. Through this method, I think one can come to some idea of the ideas Ozu is interested in even if one isn’t as familiar with the buddhist concepts that may potentially be animating them. This, of course, is the real goal of the great artists, to illuminate concepts without needing to give them words or explain them in detail. So if we don’t reach the precise understanding of mono no aware, we can still get to a point where we are seeing things through an understanding animated by that concept and thereby reach something like that point even if not in clearly defined terms.
One of the things that has caused the most consternation amongst users here at times is the minimal affect style of acting that Ozu prefers. The way that lines can be delivered without the sort of emphasis we would normally expect and with expressions that seem to sometimes work against the emotions that we assume are present in the scene. Anger or sadness expressed with a smile on the face for example. This can make a scene feel awkward to those habituated to more expressive forms of acting, or even to those who are moe used to something like the “model” style used by Bresson since he tends to move even further away from focusing on the actors expressiveness at all. Ozu keeps our focus on the actors and their expressions, or lack thereof, almost demanding that we read something into what they are saying and doing in ways that doesn’t suggest alienation as much as reserve and the role of the observer in determing the “meaning” of an exchange. Our sympathies develop more through simple spatial relationship than through emotional cues. The people the camera follows most are the ones we identify with most, and in a given scene we can be left feeling the weight of emotions more evenly spread rather than sitting more heavily on one character than another. We must apply out own emotions to the scene or the characters rather than rely on them to “tell” us how to feel, and this keeps the films much more open in interpretation in some ways than many are comfortable with, or that even “makes sense” when compared to other films or even “reality”. This, to me, is one of the things that can trip up a viewer, as the tone of the film and the focus on the little details can suggest a desire to replicate reality, when I think Ozu isn’t as interested in replication as he is in asking us to become attuned to our expectations and focus on the world and the lives of those we observe.