This Second Is Eternal: Shiguéhiko Hasumi on “Directed by Yasujiro Ozu”

To celebrate the seminal book’s first English printing, we sat down with the venerated critic.
K. F. Watanabe

Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959) 

Sitting inside his Tokyo home, surrounded by stacks of books and photos of John Ford and Jean-Luc Godard pinned to the wall, the venerated film and literary critic, writer, and scholar Shiguéhiko Hasumi admitted with a wry smile that he was not really in the mood to talk about Ozu. We were gathered for an interview about a new English translation of his book Directed by Yasujiro Ozu, but he had old Hollywood on his mind. As he spoke, he switched between Japanese and French-accented English. “This book was written 40 years ago,” he said. “My last monograph is about John Ford. And this is my latest book. I greatly admire the films of Don Siegel.” He pointed to What is a Shot? (ショットとは何か, Shotto to wa nani ka). “So, I am so far from Ozu.” 

Indeed, Hasumi, who turns 88 this month, remains prolific. Spread out on the coffee table in front of him by way of introduction were a half dozen of his latest books about cinema published in several languages—a tip of the iceberg that is Hasumi’s immense body of work as an author, editor, and translator that goes beyond film criticism to also encompass critical and theoretical writing about French literature and philosophy (he received his PhD from the Sorbonne) and even a Yukio Mishima Prize–winning novel. Despite his prodigious output and his high status among cinephiles in Japan, however, Hasumi has been unavailable in English apart from select essays and excerpts. At long last, this is remedied by Directed by Yasujiro Ozu, translated by Ryan Cook and published this year by the University of California Press. While Hasumi’s interests may have moved on to other films and other filmmakers, those of us only catching up to him now in English have every reason to cherish the release of this landmark work.

First published in 1983, Directed by Yasujiro Ozu has since become one of the most influential Japanese film books ever written. In it, Hasumi identifies certain “thematic systems” across Ozu’s filmography, repeated actions or gestures such as “eating” or “laughing,” that reveal the ways in which Ozu confronts the very limits of cinema itself. Hasumi’s analysis specifically engages with “what we can see on screen” and rejects the impulse to let our own preconceived notions—of Ozu, of Japaneseness, and of other non-cinematic contexts—influence how we watch the films. In this way, Hasumi directly responds to the predominant interpretations of Ozu’s films by Western writers such as Donald Richie and Paul Schrader, of which he is very critical: Ozu is not a minimalist; his films are not concerned with mono no aware; his so-called “pillow shots” are not external to the diegesis. Written with confidence and startling specificity in an idiosyncratic style, it is easy to understand how Directed by Yasujiro Ozu has influenced generations of cinephiles and filmmakers in Japan and beyond. As film scholar Aaron Gerow notes in his introduction, it is not just an interpretation of Ozu’s oeuvre, but “an exploration of what makes cinema cinema.” 

NOTEBOOK: It’s been over 40 years since the initial publication of this book. How does it feel to see it finally translated to English? 

SHIGUÉHIKO HASUMI: [In English] I’m very happy. I sincerely thank the translator, [Ryan Cook]. [In Japanese] I haven’t read the English translation completely, but I believe it’s much better than the French.

NOTEBOOK: For many English speakers, this book will be an introduction to Shiguéhiko Hasumi as a thinker and writer. How would you like this new audience of foreign readers to engage with your work?

HASUMI: [In Japanese] First, I’d like everyone to forget that Ozu is a Japanese director. Of course Ozu was born and raised as a Japanese person, but what he loved most of all was Hollywood films. Truly good auteurs transcend gender and nationality. Through analyzing only what’s on the screen, I wanted to understand an auteur like Ozu, who has no nationality. And because of that there may be some things that American readers find unpleasant. I put down some well-respected researchers and filmmakers in the book. As a result, Ozu has been acknowledged far and wide, but I don’t think of Ozu as an international Japanese director. My current thinking is that the only director that represents Japan internationally is Akira Kurosawa. And I say that with a sense of contempt for Kurosawa. Seven Samurai [1954] was a bad influence on Hollywood. 

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954).

NOTEBOOK: Have you written about Kurosawa at length?

HASUMI: No. Of course he is an excellent filmmaker, but he is not exceptional like Ozu. The only other filmmaker I would say is exceptional is Kenji Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi and Ozu both transcend nationality and era, and they both confront cinema head-on.

The other Kurosawa is someone I like immensely, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. After all, he is someone who learned a lot from a filmmaker I am partial to, Richard Fleischer. He is a strange filmmaker, but one of good lineage. 

NOTEBOOK: In your introduction, you mention that the genesis of this book came from being asked to write program notes for a 1981 Ozu retrospective for the National Film Center [now the National Film Archive of Japan], almost twenty years after Ozu had passed. What about that experience inspired you to write the book? 

HASUMI: Initially, I wrote this book, Directed by Yasujiro Ozu, to let go of some of the frustrations I had as a young person. When I was in middle school and high school, Ozu wasn’t looked up to as much as he is today. He was thought to be conservative, male-centered, and not contemporary. If his films are male-centered, I don’t understand why he had women wield guns in not one but two of his films. This is because of the influence from Hollywood movies. People didn’t see this side of him, so they thought of him as a very Japanese filmmaker.

NOTEBOOK: How do you feel the critical consensus about Ozu and his work has changed in Japan since the publication of Directed by Yasujiro Ozu? In the US, it certainly feels like we are still influenced by Donald Richie’s assessment of Ozu as the “most Japanese” of Japanese filmmakers.

HASUMI: I think through this book people were able to recognize Ozu as an auteur and not as a representative artist of Japan. What he expresses through his films is simply what can be seen by the eyes.

NOTEBOOK: Your analysis of Ozu’s work is focused on identifying “thematic systems” across his films. How did you arrive at this approach?

HASUMI: It was extremely simple. They’re responses to what I was seeing. From the first time I watched Ozu’s films, I noticed, Oh, these people all laugh together, or, They all line up, or, These women all suddenly take off their scarves. These were all things I noticed right away. And while some say that the men in his films are demeaning toward women, the wives [in his films] pick their husbands’ clothes up from the floor, but then some pointedly drop their husbands’ clothes onto the floor. [This is one of the "striking exceptions" that nevertheless "conform to consistency as a system" that Hasumi identifies throughout the book.—Ed.] I’d never seen a director do something like that. 

An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu, 1962).

NOTEBOOK: So Ozu’s films specifically inspired this critical approach?

HASUMI: [In English] Yes. 

NOTEBOOK: Do you also use this approach for other filmmakers you’ve written about, like John Ford?

HASUMI: The thematic approach is the same. In John Ford’s films, for example, everybody throws things. 

NOTEBOOK: So the chapter title would be something like “Throwing Things.”

HASUMI: Yes, yes, exactly. [Laughs.

NOTEBOOK: Do you consider this a work of film theory? The ontology of cinema is central to your discussion of Ozu’s work—to understand Ozu is to understand cinema itself, and its limits. 

HASUMI: [In Japanese] I don’t believe that theory exists in cinema. There are many people that claim to be film theorists, but they are just proposing their opinions as theories. It doesn’t matter how different the way they think is from the film itself, they always think that they are right. For example, I respect Eisenstein tremendously as a filmmaker, but as for his theories, I despise them.

NOTEBOOK: You also mention Flaubert’s concept of “idées reçues”—received ideas, or clichés—in discussing the difficulty of “seeing” films as they are, which is important to your discussion of Ozu’s films. 

HASUMI: That’s kind of said humorously. I wasn’t really being serious. But I will say that the fact that many people are having the same ideas about Ozu is similar to Flaubert’s 19th-century concept of the Dictionnaire des idées reçues [dictionary of received ideas].

NOTEBOOK: I brought it up to ask: what influence has your study of Flaubert and French literature has had on your understanding of cinema?

HASUMI: [In English] No influence, because I adored movies before I read Flaubert. When I was twelve years old, I was passionate about Western film directors. My first contact with a foreign country was through a movie, before the littérature française

NOTEBOOK: I’d like to ask you about your prose style. Ryusuke Hamaguchi is quoted as saying this book is “virtually an Ozuesque film” and an “integral part of the Ozuesque experience”—as if the book was also “directed by Yasujiro Ozu.” 

HASUMI: [In English] He’s very, very intelligent. [Laughs.]

NOTEBOOK: Was that concept present in your mind when you were writing? Was there any intention for the style of the book to be “directed by Yasujiro Ozu”?

HASUMI: Not so much. It was just natural.

Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu, 1951).

NOTEBOOK: You have been a film critic for many decades and have also influenced generations of Japanese filmmakers through your writing and teaching. What can Ozu’s films teach today’s filmmakers? There are many who say they are influenced by Ozu in one way or another.

HASUMI: [In Japanese] It’s difficult to say because we’re not in a context where people naturally see Ozu. The idea to “watch Ozu” is already unnatural and so it would be best if people could go into a theater and just happen to see Ozu.

[In English] [For example, the way I encountered] William A. Wellman. He’s a very good director. He’s not so personal, but his mise-en-scène is perfect. So when I saw one of his films for the first time, I didn’t know his name. It was a good film and then afterward I saw, “Ah, his name is William A. Wellman... What is the A.?” [Laughs.]

NOTEBOOK: Were you reading Godard, Truffaut, and other Cahiers du cinéma critics writing early auteur theory?

HASUMI: [In Japanese] Yes. I think my relationship with young French filmmakers from the 1960s, the Cahiers du cinéma people, was a very unlucky one because I loathed André Bazin, whom everyone adored in that scene. In his writing he compared John Ford and William Wyler and wrote that Wyler is the much better filmmaker. Of course, Bazin eventually goes on to say that he was wrong, but it was already too late—his mistake had already influenced so many people—and that’s why it complicates my relationship with Cahiers filmmakers. Godard, of course, is a filmmaker that I love, and he likes John Ford. But Truffaut, for instance, thought of John Ford as a bad filmmaker. After Ford died, many of these filmmakers started to see the good qualities in his films, but it was just kind of an unfortunate fate that Bazin had set into motion. Even as a young person, I was confident that I loved Hollywood films more than all of them. 

The Fugitive (John Ford, 1947).

NOTEBOOK: I wonder how you developed your eye. Your criticism is so much about really looking at what’s on the screen, which is actually a very difficult thing to do. Of course, this must be something that comes naturally to you, but I wonder if there is also any tip or trick to this. You were writing about these films in detail without rewatching them on home video, which seems so impossible now.

HASUMI: [In English] When I was young I watched twenty films a week. I tried to watch as many films as possible. I would think, “This second is eternal for me.” So, I would accept everything from the screen.

NOTEBOOK: You are still watching many films, including new releases. What is your estimation of contemporary Japanese cinema? How does it compare with other national cinemas?

HASUMI: At the end of this latest issue of Cahiers du cinéma [reaching for the magazine on his table] they have discovered Ozu’s undistributed films. Why? I cannot understand. If you want to see Ozu’s films you have to go to London or Amsterdam or Brussels—you can always see Ozu’s films [there], but nobody does. And do you know Shinji Somai? I wrote an article about him 25 years ago for Film Comment, but after 25 years the French have discovered Shinji Somai.

NOTEBOOK: Which Somai film is being released in France?

HASUMI: Moving [1993].

NOTEBOOK: Somai’s films Typhoon Club [1985] and P. P. Rider [1983] were just released in the US last year. 

HASUMI: Ah, that’s good. It is a pleasure that the name of Somai is known. Very good.

NOTEBOOK: What do you think of the Japanese directors currently making films?

HASUMI: Hamaguchi, of course. And Sho Miyake, he’s very good. And a female documentarist, Haruka Komori. And Kaori Oda. Splendid.

NOTEBOOK: This is a slight pivot, but I wanted to ask a few more questions about Ozu. In particular, Tokyo Story [1953], which seems to be held in much higher regard than Ozu’s other films. In Sight & Sound’s poll of the greatest films ever made, Tokyo Story has been among the top five highest-voted films with both critics and filmmakers since 1992. I wonder what you think of that.

HASUMI: First of all, I hate this kind of “Ten Best Films.” I responded several times to this kind of survey, but I don’t like it. Tokyo Story is almost perfect. But I don’t like this perfectness.

That Night's Wife (Yasujiro Ozu, 1930).

NOTEBOOK: What are your personal favorite Ozu films? Are there any that have special meaning for you?

HASUMI: [In Japanese] My favorite is That Night’s Wife [1930].

NOTEBOOK: Can I ask why?

HASUMI: [In English] Because the film is very Hollywoodian.

NOTEBOOK: This is the first English translation of your books. I wonder, which book would you want to see translated next? I personally want to read your book on John Ford.

HASUMI: Yes. John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.

NOTEBOOK: Any last words about Ozu?

HASUMI: [In Japanese] I always wondered, if I had met Ozu while he was still alive, if we would have gotten along. It’s a scary thought. And the reason for this is that Ozu enjoyed his life outside of filmmaking—meeting with actresses, meeting with geisha—but my Ozu is the Ozu that makes films. So I think that it’s unmistakably true that I love his films probably more than he loved his films, and I worry that he wouldn’t be able to recognize that. 

The author would like to thank Monika Uchiyama for her assistance with Japanese interpretation and translation.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


InterviewsYasujiro OzuAkira KurosawaKenji MizoguchiKiyoshi KurosawaRichard FleischerJohn FordRyusuke HamaguchiWilliam A. WellmanAndre BazinFrançois TruffautShinji SomaiBooksShigehiko Hasumi
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.