Whatever bogus fireworks might be occupying the entertainment-industry airspace above our heads, it’s always news when Ozu comes to town. One of the very few cinema giants you could never accuse of pretension (Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel, and Robert Bresson are the others), Ozu remains the art form’s wisest and most disciplined voice—a matter of no small magnitude in a medium naturally prone to the infantilization of noise, speed, and bright colors. The BAM series, giving us another shot at the centennial retro that screened at last year’s NYFF (minus the silents), stars all of the famous heavy-hitters from an oeuvre that is as much a distinguished body of work—not, necessarily, of individualized masterpieces—as Bach’s portfolio or Wallace Stevens’s collected verse. So, Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953), Floating Weeds (1959), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962) all again re-emerge from cinema’s quietest, most consistent major career to realign in our hearts what movies are good for. Let’s face it: One Ozu is more or less as good as any other, all of them—even the comedies—marinated in 50 flavors of heartbreak.
Not incidentally, Ozu was also a dry and devastating social critic, as the rarely screened and video-scarce hot tickets demonstrate: His first sound features, 1936’s The Only Son, 1937’s What Did the Lady Forget?, and 1941’s The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family all cement the Ozu paradigm of melancholy generational strife, a syndrome that would acquire an even more universalized force in the Westernized, aging-parent post-war years. The sense of formal restraint, echoing at once the beauty and tragedy of Japanese stoicism, never wavers, packing a ferocious punch in Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), which behaves almost like a marital counseling stretch as a couple’s miserable symbiosis is suddenly exposed to the sunlight of a niece’s visit, and The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947), an oddly titled and oddly brutal comedy about a lost child latching onto a recalcitrant widow in the ruins of a firebombed Tokyo. A Hen in the Wind (1948) is one of Ozu’s least seen films in the West and one of his most loaded scenarios, remaking Waterloo Bridge‘s abandoned-wife-enters-prostitution template in a corrupt demilitarized landscape, while Tokyo Twilight (1957) focuses mercilessly on spousal abuse on the lower rungs of a patriarchal system.
More then four decades after his last film, Ozu persists in our craven culture like a social worker taking blood pressure readings on a stock exchange floor. Along with this retro-that-wouldn’t-die, take the season’s most prizable DVD release: the Criterion Collection’s stunning twin-disc release of the late career world-beater Floating Weeds, and its original silent version, A Story of Floating Weeds (1934). The tale of a traveling vaudeville troupe returning to a small town after many years, both Weeds have a Western structure unique to Ozu’s filmography, but the textures, patience, and rhythmic bolero of barely repressed emotions are bountiful. The contrast-compare offered by the newly scored and subtitled silent version, however, is an invaluable X-ray of the artist’s development and of Japanese society struggling with basic relationships before and after a war that changed everything, it seems, but Ozu.