Distant Voices, Still Lifes: Ozu Finds ‘Presence in Absence’


At the time of Yasujiro Ozu’s death in 1963, the West was just beginning to catch up with him. Practically an institution at home, he was considered too specifically Japanese to export. The tide began to turn in the late ’60s with the gradual distribution of his major films; the Walter Reade’s current invaluable centennial celebration (an NYFF special event) encompasses nothing less than all of the director’s extant works. This “most Japanese” of Japanese helmers was a fan of American movies from an early age. His first film, The Sword of Penitence (1927), now lost, was based on an American picture. He experimented with various Hollywood-influenced genres, exhibiting a good deal of versatility, before refining his own minimalist style. Ozu is known in the West mainly for his great post-war series of family studies, but much of his early work—some of it on view for the first time in these parts—is lighter in tone.

As his career progressed, there were more and more things Ozu didn’t do. He didn’t make his first talkie feature until 1936; he didn’t make his first color movie until 1958. He gradually rejected fades, dissolves, and the moving camera, and never looked down at his characters, literally—in his extraordinarily composed later films, pervasive low-angle shots are taken from the level of a person seated in a traditional position on the tatami mat. Fades and dissolves were replaced by “empty scenes”—ambiguous but exquisitely composed still lifes of deserted halls or rooms, suggestive of “presence in absence.” Over the years, while working as a contract director within the mainstream, he was able to develop one of the most distinctive visual styles in cinema, and assembled a stock company of performers and technicians with whom he worked over and over again. This film family was headed by Chishu Ryu, a gentle actor and the archetypal Ozu father, who seems to have been the director’s alter ego, and Setsuko Hara, who often appears as Ryu’s daughter.

The Only Son (1936), Ozu’s first talkie feature, one of his darkest, introduced the elegiac note that would become a constant in the later films. In his maturity, from Late Spring (1949) until his final work, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), he rarely deviated from a single subject—the relationship of middle-class parents and their adult children. Late Spring, with a superb performance by Hara at its center and Ryu as her widowed father, launched the series of near plotless examinations of bourgeois families that crowned Ozu’s career.

The purity of his later style is most visible in Tokyo Story (1953), his best-known film both in the West and in Japan. The simple plot concerns the visit of an elderly provincial couple to their married children in Tokyo. Bewildered by the big city, they find that their son and daughter have little interest in them; they are only treated kindly by their widowed daughter-in-law. On the trip home, the wife becomes ill and the family assembles briefly at her death bed, leaving the old man stoically alone. In dramatic terms, little happens, but this restrained investigation into the tensions within a family is shattering; it contains the finest ensemble acting in Ozu’s oeuvre.

The marvelous comedy drama Floating Weeds (1959), a superior remake of Ozu’s own 1934 silent, about a troupe of ham actors who visit a remote island town, is a marked departure from his home drama pieces. A glowing delight, it’s the most physically beautiful of Ozu’s pictures and was shot by Japan’s greatest cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, Ugetsu)—the only time the two worked together. Ironically, in spite of Ozu’s centrality to Japanese cinema, his influence may be more apparent in a number of non-Japanese directors, including Jim Jarmusch, Abbas Kiarostami, Aki Kaurismäki, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Wim Wenders, whose Tokyo-Ga (1985), an homage to Ozu, closes the series.

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