"I think that Ozu is the greatest director ever to work in the history of cinema, and if I had to choose his competitor it would be Mizoguchi and if I lived on a desert island I would just take all their films with me and that would be fine. That's cinema as far as I'm concerned.
And I think he's making great films from almost the start of his career. I don't think we find a steady ascent towards perfection and then a falling off like we do find in some directors. I don't think we find that zigzag up and down that we find in many great directors like John Ford. I think this guy had the hottest hand of anybody. I can't imagine a film of Ozu that I would actively call 'bad'" (Ozu scholar David Bordwell, interview from The Only Son  DVD).
How often have you heard someone refer to a film as being "poetic"? Googling "poetic film" took me here. These posts were made over a period of 14 months (8/09 to 10/10) and mention about 50 films. Not one Ozu film was proposed.
Michael Radford's brilliant Il Postino was mentioned several times; an obvious choice because the movie is about an actual poet (Neruda). So were such "dreamy" films as Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre, Tarkovsky's The Mirror (just about all of Tarkovsky's films feature the poetry of his father, Arseny), Benigni's Life is Beautiful and Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. All these so-called art films do in fact have either a dreamy, poetic quality about them or attempt to pretty much literally transform written poem to visual image (see most Tarkovsky, esp. Andrei Rublev)...
In these seven posts I will attempt to emphasize the particulars underlying my own personal assertion that the films of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) are Poetry in Moving Images -- works of art eternal in their splendor which inspire one to decipher meaning, probe form, and observe the cosmic humor and tragedy on display.
Of course, there is nothing else remotely like Ozu in the history of cinema (though many now copy him) -- this uniqueness alone requires close investigation.
I have a pretty massive DVD collection (2000+). When I buy DVDs, I have only one criterion: is this a film that I will want to watch more than once? When I re-watch an Ozu film, I feel like an old friend has dropped by. We'll talk about the same old stuff and enjoy each other's company and that's the plot!
A typical Ozu film has very little going on, plot-wise. But because the story is presented to us with such unassuming realism; familiar characterization, meticulous set design; rock-solid steady and invisible camera; and the acting so completely void of artifice, the end result is something startlingly transcendental. (It is said that Ozu treated his actors badly ... he made them do so many takes, some thought it cruel -- but it was his way of beating out the "performer" in the actor and obtaining something very "real").
If you've already seen some or all of Ozu's surviving films, I hope you'll enjoy re-watching them, perhaps grokking anew with some of my more unusual bullet-points in mind. If you are new to Ozu, I hope my writing makes you interested in seeing these masterpieces. Imagine how gratified I will feel if you become an Ozu-nut, like myself.
Yasujiro Ozu was born in Tokyo on December 12, 1903. His father was a fertilizer salesman. He and his brothers -- as was the custom in middle-class families at the time -- were sent to the countryside to be educated. Ozu was a rebellious, undisciplined student. He matriculated no further than middle school, preferring his twin passions of watching American films and drinking. He rarely saw his father between 1913 and 1923, but forged a potent relationship with his loving mother -- Ozu never married and lived with her until her death in 1962 at the age of 87. Ozu himself died just a year later -- the day before his 60th birthday, December 11, 1963. Carved on his tombstone is a single Japanese character -- mu -- the Zen nothingness that is everything.
Ozu's uncle got him his first job in the film industry as an assistant cameraman, which basically involved schlepping heavy cameras from place to place. He worked his way up to become an assistant director to the both now and then obscure Tadamoto Okubo, who "specialized in a kind of comedy which was called 'nonsense-mono' -- a running series of gags held together by a slight story line, a succession of chuckles intended to make the time pass" ["Ozu" by Donald Richie, p. 200] (must reading for any serious fan).
Ozu was quite satisfied with the position. He could drink to his heart's content (he was a heavy drinker, all his life) and had none of the responsibilities and worries that he quickly realized were the domain of the director.
Nevertheless, his friends urged him on and an incident (a waiter at the studio cafeteria insulted him) provoked him to overcome the inertia of his non-ambition. Besides, he had always loved film (almost all American -- at his job interview, he admitted to having seen only three Japanese films!) and probably felt the confidence to strike out on his own.
Ozu directed 54 films between 1927 and 1962.
- Thirty-seven survive in at least abbreviated form.
- Thirty-five are silent, 19 talkies.
- Forty-eight are in B&W and six in color.
- By decade:
- 1921-1930: 19 films
- 1931-1940: 18 films
- 1941-1950: 6 films
- 1951-1960: 18 films
- 1961-1962: 2 films.
- Of the 37 surviving films, 27 are available on DVD -- most of them on the Criterion Collection or their budget label, Eclipse -- but some of the earlier films are available only from Asia, and require a region-free DVD player (which are quite affordable these days). Naturally, the quality of the Criterion releases is extraordinary.
Of the surviving completed films, I will discuss four in the first two posts; five in the third; four in the fourth and fifth; and three in each of the final two posts (the six color films) ...
*8. Gakusei romansu: Wakaki hi (Days of Youth) (4/13/29) (103 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
*22. Tokyo no gassho (Tokyo Chorus) (8/15/31) (91 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
*24. Umarete wa mita keredo (I Was Born, But...) (6/3/32) (100 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
*28. Hijosen no onna (Dragnet Girl) (4/27/33) (100 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]