If you do a simple search for great Japanese films, it will undoubtedly lead to the Tokyo born director Yasujiro Ozu at some point. Along with Akira Kurosawa, Ozu is one of the true titans of Japanese cinema. On a technical level, he is renowned for his keen eye and invention of the “tatami shot”, in which a scene is filmed from a kneeling position, as if amongst the characters. Though I have much more Ozu to explore, especially his earlier work, four films from his later collection have captured my attention: “Tokyo Story”, “Good Morning”, “Late Autumn” and “An Autumn Afternoon”.
From a distance, Ozu’s films do not look much different from one another. On a base level, Ozu reuses actors as frequently as I have ever seen a director do. The tall, gaunt, and soft-voiced Chishu Ryu makes an appearance in all four films, with a leading role in two of them. Keiji Sada shows up as the shy eligible bachelor in “Good Morning” and “Late Autumn”. The fair, comforting Setsuko Hara plays a major role in two of the four films. Other actors include Nobuo Nakamura and Haruko Sugimura, who almost always portray well meaning, but somewhat rude characters. Stylistically, Ozu does not play around with different film styles, nor does he take on particularly dramatic plot lines. Furthermore, each of the four films I watched had very similar themes. Ozu focuses on lower-middle-class families, and dynamics that arise when certain family members are in a transition period of life. In “Tokyo Story” this transition involves an elderly couple, whose children are all grown-up, and too busy to host them properly for a visit to Tokyo. “Late Autumn” is the story of a widow and her daughter, both of whom weigh the prospects of marriage. “An Autumn Afternoon”, similarly, is about a widower who must come to terms with his only daughter leaving the house to get married. Perhaps most unique of the bunch is the plot of “Good Morning”, in which a delightfully defiant pair of children refuse to speak to their parents until they agree to buy them a TV.
While none of these stories sound particularly exciting or insightful on the surface, the simplicity of the basic plots allows us to focus more on the details of each conversation. By the end of the films, Ozu always shows us something profound. “Tokyo Story”, “Late Autumn”, and “An Autumn Afternoon” share a message about the importance of family: and the tough sacrifices that must be made for those we love. As a lighter narrative, “Good Morning” offers an often-hilarious message about the wisdom of children, and the roundabout ways in which adults communicate on a day-to-day basis. What can be said for every film is that Ozu is most concerned with progression of family, whether that is the start of a new one, or the late flickers of an old one.
Ultimately, this attribute of Ozu’s stories can be better understood through the lens of a post-war Japan. After World War II, Japan was in ruins, with the majority their major cities destroyed by firebombing. Furthermore, the nation had been a notoriously bad actor on the losing side of the war. While no nation is immune to committing wartime atrocities, Japan racked up a particularly sinister bill during the Imperial Era. From kamikaze pilots to death marches to human trafficking and mass executions: Japan had a lot to confront after their defeat. Hence, the Japanese had to literally rebuild their country, and perhaps even more difficult, forge a new identity. Ozu’s stories take place in this rebirth, which was hugely influenced by American values at that time.
In this context, Ozu’s films present a somewhat idealized society. The neighborhood setting of “Good Morning” is not unlike the “Levittowns” of the 1950s and 60s with dense neighborhoods full of identical houses: the main difference is that the linoleum floors have been swapped with tatami mats. Furthermore, Ozu always presents nuclear families in a sometimes stunningly patriarchal society. One scene in “Late Autumn” speaks to this dated dynamic when a man named Taguchi (Nobuo Nakamura) returns home from work, casually tossing his suit coat and pocket square onto the ground for his wife to pick up. Ozu also rarely shows women outside of the household, while he devotes seemingly endless scenes to men drinking at bars, izakayas, and on one occasion a golf course. On yet another level, the women in these films are almost always married, widowed, or going to be married: match-making is a huge element in many of the plot lines.
While some of the societal customs in Ozu’s films are not the best, especially for women, there is something to be said for the old-school ways. For example, there is a scene in “An Autumn Afternoon”, in which a father speaks to his daughter right before her wedding ceremony that struck me as particularly powerful. The daughter, masterfully portrayed by Shima Iwashita, is visibly shaken as she prepares for the ceremony. There is a sense of excitement, but also fear, as she speaks with her father. In the society where Ozu tells his stories, men and women have extremely conservative relationships prior to marriage. Thus, the prospect of living away from home with a partner for life, adds an almost crushing importance to the wedding night. Today, couples spend months, even years together before tying the knot, often sharing a living space beforehand. I’m not making a moral judgment here, but it is obvious that marriage in modern society has lost some of its weight, at least as far as the wedding night goes. That scene from “An Autumn Afternoon” simply doesn't look or feel the same, if it took place in 2017.
This idea is even more apparent in the theme of parental care that strings together all of the films. Ozu places hefty importance on children caring for their parents, and on the flip side, parents allowing their children to start lives of their own. In “Tokyo Story”, an elderly couple visits the big city to see their children and grandchildren. When they are largely neglected, the couple is shown attention and kindness by their widowed daughter-in-law. Ozu does not demonize the negligent offspring, but his point is clear: children must allow time for their parents in adulthood. This position is qualified in “An Autumn Afternoon”, in which a widower realizes he must inspire his only daughter to be married and move out of the house. Taking care of your parents, as well as relinquishing the company of your children, requires sacrifice. It is in these moments of unselfishness that Ozu’s characters become heroic. But, in our modern society, such sacrifice is not encouraged to the same degree.
Ultimately, the films of Yasujiro Ozu are not only deeply thoughtful, subtly compelling, and beautifully filmed works, they also offer a vision frozen in time. Watching these films I could not help but feel somewhat sentimental, as I live in an era of rapid progressivism and fading traditional families, and found myself somewhat sorry not to have been able to experience Ozu’s world first hand. But the power of the movies is that the very best of them convey messages that transcend their basic context. On my own life journey, I will certainly revisit Ozu, because I have a feeling his insights will become even clearer and more important over time.