Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Late Autumn

Shochiku Studios released Yasujiro Ozu's Late Autumn on November 13, 1960. It was Ozu's third-to-last film and is considered to be one of his great masterpieces.

In Japan and around the world, Ozu is treasured by cineasts, particularly specialists in film studies. Scholars especially appreciate the uniformity of his visual style and his commitment to a consistent set of thematic issues. In this sense, he readily conforms the notion of a film director as the "author" of his films. This idea that great directors use film as a medium to express their view of life (in the same way that authors use the medium of the written word) lies at the heart of the influential school of film studies know as the auteur theory. I think it's safe to say that Ozu's body of work serves as the ideal vehicle to promote this approach toward interpreting film.

Because Ozu has been the subject of so many scholarly analyses, I will defer to two of the better known statements on his work.

The first comes from David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film.
Ozu’s most important characteristic is his way of watching the world. While that attitude is modest and unassertive, it is also the source of great tenderness for people. It is as if Ozu’s one personal admission was the faith that the basis of decency and sympathy can only be sustained by the semi-religious effort to observe the world in his style; in other words, contemplation calms anxious activity. As with Mizoguchi, one comes away from Ozu heartened by his humane intelligence and by the gravity we have learned.

The intensive viewing of Ozu—and such stylistic rigor encourages nothing less—makes questions of Japaneseness irrelevant. There have been attempts to explain Ozu by reference to his native culture, and it is easy to pin his mysticism to facile notions of the East. Even Ozu himself believed that his subject matter was too provincial to travel outside Japan. Some critics have tried to illuminate his films by reference to Buddhism, Japanese pottery, domestic ritual, and haiku.

All of those are worth considering. But the most useful point to make is that Ozu uses a minimal but concentrated camera style: static, a little lower than waist height, with few camera movements, dissolves, or fades. The intentness of the image, and its emotional resonance, is not only as relevant to the West as to Japan; it is a return to fundamental cinema, such as we can see in Dreyer, Bresson, Lang, and even Warhol, whose characters sit as habitually as Ozu’s. Nor is there anything limitingly Oriental in Ozu’s ability to create deep anguish or joy in the cross-cutting of faces. There are similar moments in Hitchcock or Lang, when we are made to apprehend the unverbalized feelings that rush between people, and which are only defined by the constructive power of editing.

The second comes from Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's Film History: An Introduction.
After 1947 Ozu began a collaboration with screenwriter Kogo Noda that was to result in a string of major works. These films usually center upon family crises: marriage, separation, and death. In Late Spring (1949) a dutiful daughter faces the necessity of leaving her widowed father alone. In Early Summer (1951) several generations of a family are shaken by a daughter's impulsive decision to marry. Tokyo Story (1953) chronicles an elderly couple's visit to their grown, unfeeling children. In Equinox Flower (1958) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962) a father must accept his daughter's wish to leave the household. Ozu and Noda explore a few dramatic issues from various angles. Usually the film is suffused with a contemplative resignation to life's painful changes—an attitude embodied in the gentle smile and sigh of Chishu Ryu, Ozu's perennial actor of this period.

A comparable calm pervades the director's style. The films adhere to the "rules" he set for himself in the 1930s: low camera position, 360-degree shooting space, cutting for graphic effects, transitional sequences that obey a logic of similarity and difference rather than strict spatial continuity. Ozu forswears dissolves and fades entirely. He stages conversations with the characters facing the camera head-on and looking over the lens. His color design turns mundane settings into abstract patterns. His camera is attracted by humble objects in the corner of a room, down a hallway, or on a thoroughfare. The peaceful contemplation at the heart of the drama finds its correlative in a style that allows us time to look closely at the characters and their world. This quietude, sometimes broken by sly humor, makes Ozu's films seem undramatic. But he came to be recognized as one of the cinema's most sensitive explorers of everyday life.

Here are some shots from a scene early in Late Autumn. The sequence exemplifies some of the features to which these scholars refer. Note especially Ozu's preference for the so-called "pillow shot" (shots of scenery or empty rooms used to set up a scene).


Blogger hal said...

It might be interesting to see Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Cafe Lumiere (dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu and commissioned by Ozu's old studio, Shochiku, on the occasion of the Japanese master's centenary), which I saw last year at the 24th SF Asian American Film Festival:


In his minimalist and anti-dramatic approach to filmmaking, Hou Hsiao-hsien has often been considered the postmodern, contemporary equivalent of Yasujiro Ozu. With CAFE LUMIERE—a luminous portrait of modern Japan, painted in light, contemplative strokes—Hou exorcises this lineage by paying homage to the unquestionable master of Japanese cinema. Hou blends an elegant, stark calligraphy of images with a unique design of emptiness, often letting silences fill in the lines of this twenty-first century look at Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece, TOKYO STORY. Set against the distant backdrop of a megalopolis incessantly crossed by trains, the chronicle of Yoko’s (Yo Hitoto) first months of pregnancy follows a quiet, secluded path leading to the secure personal village she has created for herself within the imposing city, one populated by welcoming neighbours, caring cooks and loving librarians. Having decided not to marry the Taiwanese father of her unborn child, she calmly accepts the reality of her life, faces the worried reactions of her family and soothes her loneliness through a friendship with Hajime (Tadanobu Asano), the owner of a second-hand bookshop. At a time of exploitative remakes of Asian masterpieces by Western filmmakers, CAFE LUMIERE stands as a very different kind of re-writing: Hou keeps a resolute distance from his master and asserts his own originality.

May 26, 2007 at 1:10 AM  

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