The View From the Tatami

{This originally appeared as an article in the July, 2011 issue of Kansai Scene}

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) is famous among film students as the traditionalist director who broke all the rules. He would happily move props around from shot to shot if he thought it would enhance the composition. He rejected the over-the shoulder conventions of conversation scenes and shot the actors face on, looking directly at the camera (if two actors are in the same shot, they are usually looking in the same direction). His camera angles were so low (shot from the supposed perspective of a person watching the action from the tatami floor) that his cameraman often had to shoot scenes while lying on his stomach.

In his lifetime, Ozu was beloved and respected in Japan like few other film-makers, as much for his (carefully-crafted) affable old uncle persona as for the movies he made. The persona was as much an illusion as anything he created onscreen (he died of throat cancer, from incessant smoking, his once-tough body already ravaged by heavy drinking, when he was only 60). In the 1960s, a later generation of Japanese directors reacted against Ozu’s seemingly complacent, well-crafted home dramas, sneering at their celebration of middle-class family values. It later became clear that they had missed the point – Ozu was in fact documenting the breakdown and dissolution of the traditional Japanese family. Few of his works, though beautifully composed and filmed, are full-on feel-good movies. In story after story, people earnestly do what they think is right – and in the eyes of Japanese society, it usually is – but they end up feeling less than satisfied. Not that Ozu’s movies are all glum – on the contrary, they are infused with wit and real affection for ordinary people and their foibles.

Sidebar: An Ozu Primer. (Ozu’s career began in the silent era and ended just before The Beatles hit the bigtime. Here’s a selection. Note: All the movies below are available with English subtitles from The Criterion Collection, via Amazon.com)

I Was Born, But… (Umereta keredo…, 1932) – Two young boys are invited to watch some home movies by their classmate, the son of their father’s boss. They are shocked to see their father (an early salaryman,whom they hero-worship) clowning and acting stupid for the benefit of the boss’s camera and they realize he’s just another cog in the wheel. Remade in a much more cheerful colour version in 1959.

A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa monogatari, 1934) – A middle-aged actor and his shabby repertory company arrive in a small mountain town to put on a show. The actor meets up with his old lover, who has raised their college-age son, who thinks the man is his uncle. The actor’s much younger mistress finds out and in a fit of jealousy unravels everything. Ozu remade this in colour in 1959.

Early Spring  (Banshun, 1949) – A widowed professor and his daughter live contentedly together in Kamakura. The daughter has no desire to marry, but after pressure from meddling do-gooders, the father lets on that he’s thinking about remarrying. The dutiful daughter, not wanting to be in the way, has a “successful” marriage arranged and moves away, creating a happy ending for everyone but the daughter and now-lonely father, who were perfectly happy to begin with.

Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1954) – An elderly couple from Okayama travel to Tokyo to visit their adult children. The children, however, have little time for them in their lives, apart from the obligatory formalities, and the only one who shows them any sincere affection is the widow of the son who never came home from the War. The old ‘blood is thicker that water’ clichés of Japanese society are quietly dumped out the window.

Equinox Flower ( Higanbana, 1958) – A lighthearted generation-gap story of  a successful businessman whose daughter has decided to get married without his approval. This is Ozu’s first colour movie – he held onto black and white for as long as he could and then made up for lost time. It’s worth watching for the composition alone.

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This entry was posted in Blogroll, culture, japan, movies, 日本. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The View From the Tatami

  1. Ice says:

    I found myself nodding my noggin all the way thruogh.

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