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The Instant Expert's Guide to Yasujiro Ozu

No one can match Cinema Paradiso when it comes to the great films of yesterday and today. Our Instant Expert series guides users through the careers of the finest film-makers from around the world and recommends their most unmissable movies. Having recently focussed on Kenji Mizoguchi, we pay homage to another Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu.

Born in different centuries, yet just five years apart, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu started directing in the silent era, when female characters were played by male 'onnagata' actors and cinema screenings were accompanied by 'benshi' narrators. Products of the 'zaibatsu' studio system, the pair served apprenticeships before making their first films and soon proved to be highly versatile, with pictures across the generic range. Yet, having mastered sound, Mizoguchi and Ozu refined their contrasting visual styles and honed in on themes that would remain relevant decades later.

Sadly, each died far too young. Moreover, fate has been unkind to the majority of their early outings. But Ozu and Mizoguchi are still ranked among the greatest directors of all time. So, who were these two Tokyoites, who are considered superior to Akira Kurosawa in the Land of the Rising Sun? Check our Instant Expert's Guide for details of Mizoguchi's remarkable career, as we turn our attention to his stylistically distinctive junior.

Rebel Without a Pause

Yasujiro Ozu was born on 12 December 1903 in the Fukagawa district of Tokyo. He was the second son of a fertilizer salesman and his wife, who both hailed from what had once been wealthy noble families. However, they had slipped down the social ladder and Ozu's workaholic father sent his three boys and their two younger sisters to live in his hometown of Matsusaka in Honshu when Yasujiro was nine years old.

A still from Quo Vadis (1951)
A still from Quo Vadis (1951)

The family remained there until 1923, with Ozu becoming something of a mummy's boy. He missed his father, however, and the themes of separation and isolation would recur in his mature works. However, Ozu also developed into something of a rebel. At the age of 12, he was enrolled as a boarder at the middle school in Ujiyamada, where he developed a taste of alcohol and fisticuffs. He also became a frequent visitor to the Atago-za and Mino-za cinemas in Matsuzaka, where he saw such silent Italian 'superspectacles' as Mario Caserini's The Last Days of Pompeii and Enrico Guazzoni's Quo Vadis (both 1913). Talkie versions of these films are available from Cinema Paradiso, with Preston Foster headlining Ernest B. Schoedsack's The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) and Robert Taylor leading an all-star cast in Mervyn LeRoy's Quo Vadis (1951).

So impressed was he by the way in which cine-narrators described the action and enacted key scenes that the young Ozu wrote letters to his favourite benshi. He also became a fan of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Lillian Gish and William S. Hart, while admiring the directing of D.W. Griffth, Frank Borzage, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Lloyd (check them all out via the Cinema Paradiso searchline).

On one occasion, he got into trouble for having a pin-up of serial heroine Pearl White hidden in his desk. But it was Thomas Ince's Civilsation (1916) that made Ozu want to direct films. Sadly, this silent classic isn't available on disc in this country, but Cinema Paradiso users can meet Ince (as played by Cary Elwes) in Peter Bogdanovich's fascinating biopic, The Cat's Miaow (2001).

In 1920, Ozu was expelled from his dormitory after being accused of writing a love letter to a younger boy and he was forced to travel to school by train. This confirmed him as a child of the liberal Taisho period (1912-26) that witnessed the rapid modernisation (ie Westernisation) of Japanese society. His passion for cinema also derived from a rise in urban living and Ozu later claimed that he had been less interested in sitting the entrance exam to Kobe Higher Commercial School than in seeing Rex Ingram's The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) at the nearby cinema.

He also flunked a paper to enter a teacher training college and had to accept work as a substitute master at a school in the Mie prefecture. Such was Ozu's frustration at being confined in a backwater that he started drinking heavily and returned to Tokyo in March 1923 after his father had paid off his debts.

Starting At the Bottom

Unable to find gainful employment, Ozu convinced an uncle to go behind his father's back and land him a post with the Shochiku Film Company, even though he admitted during the interview at the Kamata Studios that he disliked Japanese cinema and had only seen three indigenous pictures. On 1 August 1923, he started work as an assistant in the cinematography department. But his excitement was tempered a month later by the Great Kanto earthquake that devastated the Japanese capital, with Ozu's family home and his father's business premises among the 130,000 buildings to be destroyed.

Ozu spent little time at Shochiku over the next few months, as he was called up for his compulsory military service on 12 December 1924. Having been demobbed a year later with the rank of corporal (despite having spent most of his time in the sickbay after dipping a thermometer in hot water to feign the symptoms of tuberculosis), Ozu was promoted to third assistant director to Tadamoto Okubo, although his career almost ended when he was summoned by the studio's chief after getting into a fight with a queue-jumper in the canteen. Instead, however, Ozu used the appointment to present a script he had written and his boldness was rewarded with the opportunity to director the jidai-geki, Sword of Penitence (1927).

Written by Kogo Nada, who would become Ozu's screenwriting partner for the rest of his career, the tale of a penitent thief was compared to Frank Lloyd's Les Miserables (1917) and George Fitzmaurice's Kick-In (1922). However, Ozu had to let Torajiro Saito complete the picture, as he was called up for service in the military reserves, and he promptly disowned what would prove to be his only period picture. Sadly, this became one of the many silent films that Ozu made prior to 1936 that have since been lost forever.

On his return to Shochiku, studio boss Shiro Kido launched a series of comic shorts and, among the handful that Ozu directed (some in as little as five days), Body Beautiful (1928) gained significance by becoming the first to employ the low camera angle that would become Ozu's trademark, as he and regular cinematographer Hideo Shigahara sought to present the action from the perspective of someone sitting on a tatami mat.

A still from Yasujiro Ozu: The Student Comedies (1932)
A still from Yasujiro Ozu: The Student Comedies (1932)

Another of these 'no star' comedies was Days of Youth (1929), which is available to rent from Cinema Paradiso as part of the BFI's Yasujiro Ozu: The Student Comedies selection. which also includes I Flunked, But... (1930), The Lady and the Beard (1931) and Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (1932). Uncharacteristically dotted with close-ups, tracking shots and fade-outs, Days of Youth is a 'nansensu-eiga' or 'nonsense film' that is set at a ski resort and follows the efforts of friends Ichiro Yuki and Tatsuo Saito to impress the same girl, Junko Matsui.

Having demonstrated the benefits of getting a degree in I Graduated, But... (1929), Ozu questions the value of qualifications in I Flunked, But..., as Tatsuo Saito realises that real life is tougher than it looks and ponders failing his exams so he has to stay at university for another year. The influence of the Harold Lloyd comedy, The Freshman (1925), is evident throughout. But Ozu's 20th film, The Lady and the Beard, is more Chaplinesque, as it finds humour in the bleak realities of the Depression, as graduate Tokihiko Okada (who would die of TB at the age of 30) struggles to find work because he refuses to abandon his traditional attitudes and clothing.

Ernst Lubitsch's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) shapes the action in Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? However, it starts off in the same vein as I Flunked, But...until idler Ureo Egawa is forced to turn over a new leaf when his father dies and he has to take over the family firm. While he was remained known for comedies, however, Ozu was also beginning to explore other genres, most notably the 'shomin-geki' or 'everyday drama' that he refined with The Life of an Office Worker (1929) and Tokyo Chorus (1931), which each focussed on the 'salaryman' character who would become key to Ozu's canon.

The latter finished third in the annual poll organised by the magazine Kinema Jumpo, after Young Miss (1930) - which Ozu had co-written under the pseudonym James Maki - had come second. He eventually topped the list with I Was Born, But... (1932), a touching study of childhood that really should be available on disc. However, as he was wont to do, Ozu would recycle the material towards the end of his career.

Ozu's tally of six Kinema Jumpo wins remains unsurpassed and he completed an unprecedented hat-trick with Passing Fancy (1933) and A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), which was inspired by another George Fitzmaurice picture, The Barker (1928). The latter (which would also be remade in the 1950s) was released in the same year that Ozu's father died. However, he lived long enough to be proud of his son's achievements, although his protracted absences denied Ozu a role model, while his dread of upsetting his mother meant that he was easily intimidated by women and remained a bachelor, in spite of many chaste crushes.

Romantic complications drive the action in Walk Cheerfully (1930), as Kenji the Knife (Minoru Takada) has to choose between a life of crime and going straight after falling for the virtuous Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki). Revealing the influence of such tough guy flicks as Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927) and Dragnet (1928), this yakuza morality tale can be found on the BFI set, Yasujiro Ozu: The Gangster Films.

Completing the line-up are That Night's Wife (1930) and Dragnet Girl (1933). One of seven features that the 26 year-old Ozu made in 1930, the former is a tense battle of wits between detective Togo Yamamoto and hoodlum Tokihiko Okada, who has to lay low while wife Emiko Yagumo pleads with him to get help for their ailing daughter. Produced three years later, the latter paired Joji Oka and Kinuyo Tanaka, as a small-time mobster and his typist moll who find redemption after taking pity on Sumiko Mizukobo, the sister of a student boxer who succumbs to temptation.

A still from Yasujiro Ozu: Three Melodramas (1957)
A still from Yasujiro Ozu: Three Melodramas (1957)

This melodrama contains echoes of the work of Kenji Mizoguchi, whose fascination with selfless sisters informed Ozu's Woman of Tokyo (1933). Available from Cinema Paradiso on the BFI set, Three Melodramas, the action centres on Yoshiko Okada, who supports brother Ureo Egawa's studies by clandestinely working in a cabaret bar. At one point, Egawa and his girlfriend go to the pictures to see If I Had a Million (1932), an all-star Paramount comedy that can be rented from Cinema Paradiso as part of a double bill with Francis Martin's Tillie and Gus (1933), which teamed W.C. Fields with Alison Skipworth.

Although Shochiku had insisted on Ozu adding music and sound effects to the now-lost Until the Day We Meet Again (1932), he had resisted the transition to sound, as he felt he could generate atmosphere and intensity through images alone. There's no denying the potency of such studies of poverty on the margins as An Inn in Tokyo (1935), a father-son saga that anticipates the tone of neo-realist gems like Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948). But, in the same year that Charlie Chaplin succumbed in Modern Times, Ozu took the plunge and made his talkie bow with The Only Son (both 1936). However, the changing situation in Japan meant that he would only direct one more picture over the next five years.

A Reluctant Warrior

Despite his awards, Ozu didn't always connect with the public and his lack of commercial success meant that Shochiku put up little resistance when the director was conscripted into the Imperial Army in September 1937. Prevented from completing What Did the Lady Forget? (1937), Ozu was posted to Shanghai as part of a chemical weapons regiment.

In January 1938, he was transferred to Nanjing, where he met Sadao Yamanaka, the director of Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937), which had raised the ire of the militarist regime by challenging the mythology of the samurai lifestyle. Yamanaka would die in a field hospital the following autumn, but Ozu survived battles at Nanchang and the Xiushui River to earn his demobilisation in June 1939, with the rank of sergeant.

A still from The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952)
A still from The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952)

Ozu returned just as the new Motion Picture Law was restricting the topics that film-makers could explore and the visual styles they could utilise. Having failed to persuade the censors to pass his script for what would become The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), Ozu shelved his customary shomin-geki preoccupation to make Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941), which followed the fortunes of widow Ayako Katsuragi and her children, Tatsuo Saito, Shin Saburi, Mitsuko Yoshikawa and Mieko Takamine, after the sudden death of her wealthy bourgeois spouse.

Anticipating what would become the perennial themes of duty, respect and the relationships between parents and their offspring, the film gave Ozu his first significant box-office hit and earned him a domestic audience that would remain loyal for the remainder of his career. He followed it with There Was a Father (1942), which presented Chishu Ryu (who appeared in all bar two of Ozu's films) with an early lead, as a maths teacher who drifts apart from his son.

However, five years would pass before Ozu would be able to direct again, as he was called up again and sent to Burma in 1943 to make a propaganda film. He was taken off this project, however, and dispatched to Singapore to make a documentary about Indian revolutionary Subhash Chandra Bose. This also remained unfinished, as Ozu preferred to spend his time reading, drawing and socialising.

He also spent hours watching the confiscated American films held by the Army Information Corps. Among the titles he discovered were the William Wyler trio of Wuthering Heights (1939), The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941), John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (both 1940) and Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). Indeed, Ozu later claimed that 'watching Fantasia made me suspect that we were going to lose the war'.

When the end came in August 1945, Ozu destroyed all traces of the Chandra Bose assignment and claimed civilian status when he was made a prisoner of war. Having passed up the chance to return home ahead of other members of his crew, he worked in a rubber plantation for six months before eventually being repatriated in February 1946. As his mother was living in Noda in Chiba prefecture, Ozu joined her and resumed his career at Shochiku's Ofuna Studios with Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947), which was set amidst the rubble of a war-scarred Tokyo.

A still from An Autumn Afternoon/A Hen in the Wind (1962)
A still from An Autumn Afternoon/A Hen in the Wind (1962)

He followed this with A Hen in the Wind (1948), in which young mother Kinuyo Tanaka prostitutes herself in order to pay her young son's hospital bills while waiting for husband Shuji Sano to come home from the war. Echoing the sacrificial theme that was frequently explored by Kenji Mizoguchi, this discomfiting drama can be rented from Cinema Paradiso on a dual disc with An Autumn Afternoon (1962).

Tatami Mats and Pillow Shots

Unlike colleagues who specialised in the jidai-geki period pictures that were outlawed during the postwar Allied Occupation of Japan, Ozu experienced comparatively little interference with his work, as he continued to focus on the everyday concerns of ordinary people. His scripts still had to be approved and any derogatory references or allusions to what were deemed outdated traditions and attitudes were removed. But Ozu was able to slip subversive details into his pictures after he returned to Tokyo to feature emerging actress Setsuko Hara in what became known as the 'Noriko trilogy'.

Based on a novel by Kazuo Hirotsu, Late Spring (1949) opens with Noriko Somiya (Hara) delighting in taking care of her widowed academic father, Shukichi (Chishu Ryu). Her aunt, however, thinks it's time for Noriko to find a husband and her father has to pretend to be romancing a widow in order to coax his daughter into dating a man who resembles Hollywood star, Gary Cooper.

Alighting on a theme that would preoccupy him for the remainder of his career, Ozu also refined the style for which he would be renowned. Despite his fondness for Hollywood cinema, he resisted the temptation to copy its methods. Instead, he insisted 'I formulated my own directing style in my own head, proceeding without any unnecessary imitation of others…for me there was no such thing as a teacher. I have relied entirely on my own strength.'

Leaving nothing to chance, Ozu always worked with a finished script and knew how every shot would look and feel before the camera rolled. He also sought to de-emphasise the classical narrative format by eschewing moments of overt melodrama, even if it meant employing ellipses that kept crucial events off screen. This restraint carried over into Ozu's filming techniques, as opted to keep the camera virtually static and positioned at a low angle that approximated the perspective of somebody sitting on a tatami mat. Indeed, Ozu often created the illusion that the camera was even lower by placing it on squat tripods and using raised sets and camera trenches.

In standard Western pictures, dialogue passages were constructed by an editing technique known as 'shot/reverse', which matched eyelines along a 180° axis that gave the impression that speakers were facing each other in a logicial spatial relationship. Ozu dispensed with this convention in devising a 360° rule that forced characters to face forwards while speaking in order to allow viewers to feel as though they were at the centre of the action.

Ozu's approach to editing was also unique. Instead of employing such transitions as fades, dissolves or wipes, he favoured single cuts between scenes. However, rather than heading directly into the next part of the story, he inserted static digressions that focussed on natural or architectural subjects to allow the audience time to digest what they had just seen and anticipate what might happen next. These 'pillow shots' were often accompanied by the only non-diegetic music that was ever heard in Ozu's works.

Such strategies might seem alien to audiences used to the dizzying camera movements and crash-cutting of modern blockbusters. But the effect is remarkable, as the stillness encourages complete concentration on both the dialogue and the characters, as Ozu achieves an intimacy and intensity that is unmatched in screen history.

A still from Early Summer (1951)
A still from Early Summer (1951)

Having completed The Munekata Sisters (1950), Ozu returned to his triptych with Early Summer (1951), in which a secretary named Noriko (Setsuo Hara) is pushed towards marriage by another interfering relation. This time it's an uncle who thinks she is too cosy living under the same roof as her parents and her brother's young family. Once again exploring the generational issues that were rife in postwar Japan, this is also a sensitive study of a woman's place in a traditional patriarchal society that would have been worthy of the great Mizoguchi.

Completing the trilogy is Ozu's masterpiece, which currently ranks only behind Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and Citizen Kane at the top of Sight and Sound's decennial poll of the best films of all time. A new edition is due in 2022 and it will be interesting to see how tastes have changed over the last decade. Hopefully, Tokyo Story (1953) will retain its popularity, as it epitomises Ozu's bold approach to theme and style. Kogo Nada based the screenplay on Leo McCarey's Make Way For Tomorrow (1937) to accompany elderly couple, Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), on a trip to visit their children. However, doctor son Koichi (So Yamamura) and hairdresser daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) are too wrapped up in their own problems to afford the couple a warm welcome and the only kindness they receive comes from their war-widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Hara).

If you've never seen an Ozu film before, rent Tokyo Storyon high-quality DVD or Blu-ray from Cinema Paradiso and a whole new cinematic world will open up for you. You might then like to try The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice, which Ozu finally got round to making in 1952. This drama of marital manners stars Michiyo Kogure as the bored wife of engineer Shin Saburi, who agrees to act as matchmaker for niece Keiko Tsushima in order to give her an excuse for not being home. Arranged marriage had been frowned upon by the Allied occupiers and its conventions may strike some as old-fashioned. But Ozu's insights into human nature remain keen and compassionate seven decades later.

Colour to Fade

Following a three-year hiatus - during which time he became president of the Directors Guild of Japan - Ozu returned to directing with his longest film, Early Spring (1956), which was also his penultimate monochrome outing (sadly, his last, Tokyo Twilight[1957], isn't currently on disc). This is available from Cinema Paradiso as part of the aforementioned Three Melodramas selection and centres on wife Ryo Ikebe's growing suspicion that husband Chikage Awashima is having an affair with work colleague Keiko Kishi.

Designed to highlight the draining effects of the salaryman's existence, the film typifies Ozu's preoccupation with the mundane problems that many people have to face at some point in their lives. Yet, as critic Audie Bock points out, Ozu was a confirmed bachelor who never experienced marriage, college life or office drudgery. Moreover, he never drew on his own past to make films about being in uniform or living in the provinces (49 of Ozu's 54 films are set in Tokyo). As Bock concludes, 'His inspiration came from outside his own life, from his mind and the lives of others observed to perfection with that mind.'

Although Yuharu Atsuta had now become his regular cinematographer, Ozu continued to work with writer Kogo Nada, art director Tatsuo Hamada and editor Yoshiyasu Hamamura. Opting for the German-made Agfacolor stock rather than Fujifilm, the team made the transition from black and white with Equinox Flower (1958). An adaptation of a novel by Ton Satomi, this flipped the typical Ozu scenario by revealing how old school friends Shin Saburi and Chishu Ryu are shown to be hypocrites by Fujiko Yamamoto when they are disgruntled by the fact that respective daughters Ineko Arima and Yoshiko Kuga insist on marrying for love rather than following outmoded customs.

A still from Good Morning (1959)
A still from Good Morning (1959)

Striated with the deft humour that pervades so many Ozu dramas, this was one of his few star vehicles and it earned Yamamoto the prestigious Blue Ribbon Award for Best Actress. But Ozu's head wasn't turned by this dalliance with a superstar and he delved into his past to rework I Was Born, But... as Good Morning (1959). This is a spirited child's eye perspective of the adult world that sees brothers Shitara Koji and Masahiko Shimazu take a vow of silence after parents Chishu Ryu and Kuniko Miyake refuse to let them watch sumo wrestling on a neighbour's television because his wife is rumoured to have been a cabaret dancer.

The tone couldn't have been more markedly different, as Ozu again revisited his back catalogue for Floating Weeds (1959), the sole film he made for the Daiei studio. Set in a coastal resort on the Seto Inland Sea, the story joins Nakamura Ganjiro II and his band of travelling players as they settle in for the summer season. However, he has chosen the location because son Hiroshi Kawaguchi (who thinks Ganjiro is his uncle) lives in the town with his café owner mother, Haruko Sugimura. Not knowing the pertinent facts, Ganjiro's current lover, Machiko Kyo, starts to get jealous.

Now contracted to make a film a year for Shochiku, Ozu based Late Autumn (1960) on another story by Ton Satomi. Containing threads from plotlines dating back to Ozu's silent days, the narrative turns around the efforts of middle-aged college chums Shin Saburi, Nobuo Nakamura and Ryuji Kita to help Setsuko Hara (the widow of a classmate) find a husband for her twentysomething daughter, Yoko Tsukasa. However, she wants nothing to do with marriage and is appalled by the rumour that her mother might also be considering tying the knot for a second time.

Delicate and melancholic, but also subtly amusing in places, this underrated study of muddled intentions left Ozu with a promise to make a film for the Toho studio that had loaned him Hara and Tsukasa. This turned out to be The End of Summer (1961), another rumination on the perils of meddling in matters matrimonial that sees sake brewer Nakamura Ganjiro II ask brother-in-law Daisuke Kato to find partners for widowed daughter-in-law Setsuko Hara and youngest daughter, Yoko Tsukasa.

This proved to be Ozu's last project with Hara, who would retire from acting shortly after the director's death. As she shunned the limelight until her own passing at the age of 95 in 2015, the reasons for her withdrawal were never known. But Satoshi Kon speculates on her motives in the anime à clef, Millennium Actress (2001).

As for Ozu, he embarked upon An Autumn Afternoon (1962) while mourning the mother with whom he had lived for his entire life. The action, however, centres on another father who decides that he can't ask his young daughter to stay home and take care of him. The ever-reliable Chishu Ryu excels as the ageing widower who vows to marry off Shima Iwashita after discovering at a school reunion that the daughter of his old teacher has missed the chance to start a family by looking after her ageing parent.

Sadly, this deeply moving, but also humorous and human film proved to be Ozu's last. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer and died on his 60th birthday in December 1963. While serving during the Sino-Japanese War, a Chinese monk had shown him the character 'mu' meaning 'nothingness' and Ozu had it engraved on his headstone at the temple of Engaku in Kita-Kamakura.

His legacy was too rich for him to be forgotten, however, even though 18 of his films can no longer be seen. The angry young men of the 'nuberu bagu' new wave dismissed him as staid and conservative. Yet, two years after his death, Minoru Shibuya unearthed one of Ozu's unused stories for his little-seen tribute, Radishes and Carrots (1965). Subsequently, Wim Wenders met up with Chishu Ryu and Yuharu Atsuta while celebrating Ozu's achievement in Tokyo-Ga (1985), while Abbas Kiarostami dedicated Five to Ozu in his centenary year and Hou Hsiao-hsien paid his own homage with a reference to Tokyo Story in Café Lumière (both 2003).

As a lifelong Shochiku employee, Ozu was well aware that his films owed as much to studio polish as to his own vision. Indeed, the front office promoted his work in the same way that Hollywood boosted the entertainment served up by the likes of William Wyler and Frank Capra. Famously, Ozu branded himself an artisan by averring, 'I just want to make a tray of good tofu.' But he knew he was a cut above the rest and completed his comparison with the warning, 'If people want something else, they should go to the restaurants and shops.' However, Ozu also confided that 'film had a magical hold on me', and, once you have seen one of his sublime features, they will cast the same spell on you.

A still from Cafe Lumiere (2003)
A still from Cafe Lumiere (2003)
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