Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why I Love Ozu

This is not the great big Ozu screed I alluded to last night - that involves some unloved Ozu films that, well, I love... but it has occurred to me that I have never, here or (really) anywhere else, quite written a simple statement of Why I Love Ozu. Allusions here and there, and some reasonably precise comments on the Film Walrus blog - but nothing definitive. But a blogathon is perfect excuse for this sort of thing, so off we go.

It was watching this shot, roughly, when I realized Ozu was my favorite filmmaker:



That's from Late Spring - Chishu Ryu's character has been convinced that to get his daughter to marry, he has to convince her he is going to marry - so at a Noh performance, he nods and smiles at the pretty widow people have been whispering about. Setsuko Hara's character sees - and reacts, while her father sits beside her, impassive, absorbed (or pretending to be) in the performance. Late Spring always floors me - always surprises me, with how funny it is, then floors me, again, with how heart-breaking it is. The famous scene at the end, when Ryu tells Hara to go and be happy - is horrifying. The way it forces him to empty his soul, to lie to her, even more cruelly than in pretending to marry - but even more than that, the fact that what he says is almost certainly true. She will become happy - settle into her family, work through the disappointment... but it doesn't make this moment of parting any less terrible. And it doesn't change the way the film itself plays as a charting of her reduction from a free, exuberant, happy woman to a bride, dressed up like a doll. (Ozu's late films often play like a panagyric against the insanity of Japanese marriage customs - or they would, if you ignore the fact that all the films involving marriage treat it almost completely differently - in Late Spring, Hara is forced to marry; in Early Summer, she marries a man of her choice, against the will of her family (and indeed, against the values her Late Spring character had asserted - this Noriko has nothing against second marriages.) Equinox Flower has a girl choosing her husband over her father's resistance; Late Autumn has a girl stumbling into a love marriage completely by accident; and Autumn Afternoon has a girl in an arranged marriage, like in Late Spring, but significantly happier about it.)



It’s probably not an accident that this scene takes place in Kyoto, where they have been visiting Buddhist shrines - it's probably also not exactly an accident that Ryu's character has been reading Nietzsche. What he says - telling her how he was unhappy with her mother (and she with him), but they found happiness, grew into it - and how she will do the same, the pain now will not last, and her story is the same story everyone else lives - is not exactly what Nietzsche meant by the eternal return of the same, but it’s not far off. This is where Ozu comes closest to earning his reputation as a Buddhist, in these ideas of acceptance, and the natural cycles of life.... But it's also important that the film is resisting those recurring patterns here - there is a lot of weight brought to bear on the ways this wedding is a Very Bad Thing, people giving in to social expectations, abdicating responsibility for their lives, and letting their relatives and friends dictate how they will live - giving up their individuality to become types: a bride, a wife, a mother.... This too, I suppose, is not far from Nietzsche -the idea that your individual life is absolutely on you - it is too easy to be swept into what the world makes you - but that is defeat. Individuals are free - when they enter into roles, they become false - but they really can't live without taking a role: it is a dilemma...

I think this is, in fact, Ozu's greatest strength, at least as a humanist - and one of his great strengths as a filmmaker, in the way his themes resonate with his style. HIs films are about that contradiction, between people as individuals, and people as types - self as imposed from outside, and self as we enact it, and the ways anything we do is caught up into society. The style and structure of his films and stories emphasize this - the repeated use of actors, in similar roles, with the same names, the same problems, generalizes the characters, but also particularizes them - from Tatsuo Saito and Takeshi Sakamoto and Tomio Aoki to Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara and Shin Saburi - bring their own distinctiveness to their roles. And the roles change - everything he does works on the principal of repetition and variation. So five films about marriage work through half a dozen (maybe more) types of marriages (or not marriages, if you count Ryu in Late Spring, or Hara in Late Autumn). So three Noriko films offer one who is bullied into marriage, one who marries on her own against her family's will, one who does not remarry; one who condemns remarriage and one who marries a widow. And so on...

It's easy to get absorbed into Ozu's style - especially for me. But what makes him the flat out best director of them all, I think, is the way he combines total formal command with a profound humanism. Ozu and Capra (and Renoir, though I have seen fewer of his films), I say, do this better than anyone - they offer a truly sophisticated view of life and how to live it, along with complete mastery of the medium. In Ozu's case, the mastery goes further, and is as formally rigorous and challenging as Eisenstein or Dreyer or Godard - he challenges how films work, how they mean, while making them work and mean. And I say again, he has a sophisticated view of the world. What I admire in Ozu and Capra both is the way they give the appropriate weight to everything we are. They pose individuals against society - but they do it in ways that make us aware of just how important families and communities, marriages, friendships, are... and how constricting they can be, even at their best. Individuality and communities both have their values - and Ozu (and Capra) give all the relevant values weight. Society vs. individual, tradition vs. change, freedom vs. responsibility, justice vs. responsibility - Ozu never lets anyone off the hook. You don't get to choose one or the other - you don't get to have both all the time (sometimes they are real conflicts) - everything counts.

All right. I guess that sums it up, for now anyway. I'll leave you with a lovely picture of what happens when daughters (and wives) get their way - Shin Saburi pouts.... Though I can't deny that a lot of the reason I love Ozu is in the green squares and stripes (I mean, it's almost perfectly horizontal, across at least three planes!), the lamp, the red and black radio, and the way the bottles are arranged with the labels forming a perfect left to right descending diagonal.

3 comments:

Ed Howard said...

What a lovely essay. I find it hard to explain, myself, just why I find Ozu's work so amazing. His films are challenging to write about, in my opinion, because the effects he achieves are so subtle and delicate -- not just formally, but in terms of the emotions and motivations of his characters, which are often inscribed in the tiniest gestures, the most seemingly incidental moments. For this reason, Ozu's films open up the more one thinks about them, the more one dwells on the ideas he hints at around the edges and below the surface. Even a film like Good Morning, which can be enjoyed as just a straightforward comedy (with a lot of fart jokes, no less!), has so much going on within it: the generational gaps opened up by technology and exposure to new cultural ideas, the relationships between men and women in a society where communication is constrained to a surface level, the struggles of older generations to retain their dignity and values in a rapidly evolving culture.

starsweeper said...

Wonderful piece on Ozu. I always find scene that you describe in Late Spring so moving: so much in Ozu is said with he eyes, and with gesture, and with the framing. I love Ozu because no many how many times I watch one of his films, there is always something new that I notice that brings greater depth of meaning to my understanding of the film. It is also amazing how one can identify so completely with the characters and relationships, even though they are set in a time and culture so different from my own. His themes are timeless.

weepingsam said...

I think Ozu's films reward rewatching more than most - and seeing more of his films as well - the more you see, the deeper they get. They operate at so many levels, and the more often you see them, or the more of them you see, the more there is to see... all this without ever being terribly difficult to grasp on first viewing. I think a lot of this has to do with his use of repetition and variation - he uses such similar stories and styles from film to film, but constantly shifts elements around, this time emphasizing the parents, this time the children, this time a couple, this time the family, this time the individual... And works the same way stylistically - the similar shots and structures, that he varies just enough...

I hope someone picks up Kiju Yoshida's documentary on Ozu - it's focused on repetition... the ways the variations in a repeated line can shift the meaning; the way Ozu uses repeated actions as a ground to use interruption or variation for dramatic effect... Maybe when someone gets around to issuing There Was A Father on DVD, they could attack the Yoshida film as an extra - it would be a good one...