Ozu: The Masterpieces You’ve Missed

By Roger Ebert (1942-2013) – The Chicago Sun-Times, January 7, 2005

Among my favorite directors, Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) is always near the top of a list including Buster Keaton, Welles, Fellini, Herzog, Scorsese and Hitchcock. Because he was considered “too Japanese” for export, Ozu was almost unknown in the West at the time of his death. Ironically, his world of middle-class life, of parents and children, of marriage and family life, now seems one of the most universal.

Ozu made 54 films. Of those, 33 survive, and 24 will be shown during a retrospective running this weekend through March 3 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Restored and in some cases newly subtitled, they are a treasure. Most of Ozu’s films are not yet available on video, and many of these titles have never been seen theatrically in Chicago. The retrospective includes Tokyo Story, voted one of the 10 greatest films of all time in the 2002 Sight & Sound poll, along with such masterpieces as Floating Weeds, I Was Born, But... and Equinox Flower. His titles are often playfully similar (Late Autumn, An Autumn Afternoon, Early Spring, Late Spring, Early Summer, End of Summer) and refer to the seasons in the lives of his characters.

Often there are intersecting destinies, as in the masterpiece Late Spring (1949), about a young woman (Setsuko Hara) who is reluctant to leave home for the adventure of marriage. Because he fears for her after he is gone, her widowed father (Chishu Ryu) tries to nudge her from the nest by announcing his own plans to remarry.

Twice Ozu remade his own films. Story of Floating Weeds (1934) tells the story of a faltering theatrical troupe that returns to the village where its leader fathered a son years ago. It was retold as Floating Weeds (1959). I Was Born, But... (1932), about two children bullied by the son of their father’s boss, was remade in 1959 as Good Morning.

Ozu resisted sound until 1936, color until 1958, and never shot in widescreen. Indeed, his stylistic development involved the abandonment of one artistic device after another until his films reached a simplicity and serenity that abandoned breadth for bottomless depths. Ozu’s famous style makes his films more, not less, accessible; his stories, told with transparent honesty, are often about a home threatened by marriage that is desired by one character but not another, about parents sacrificing for children, and children sacrificing (or not) for their parents. There is nothing esoteric about them. In 30 years of teaching evening film classes for the University of Chicago, I have shown only one film that made the audience cry, and that was Tokyo Story. You do not cry unless a film frees itself from its origins and enters into your own heart.

Although in his early work Ozu used all of the usual techniques like intercutting, moving cameras and over-the-shoulder shots, he gradually simplified until he almost never moved the camera at all. Special effects, of course, were unheard of. He usually filmed from a low point of view, roughly the eye level of a person seated on a tatami mat, shot each scene as one unbroken take, and eliminated all wipes, fades and dissolves. He cut directly from each scene to the next, although for purposes of pacing he would sometimes begin a scene before the characters entered, continue to regard a space after the characters had left, or separate scenes with “pillow shots” of landscapes, banners, architectural details or trains and boats. He loved trains.

Almost every movie ever made observes the “180-degree rule,” which states that the camera must either stay on one side of an imaginary line drawn through the scene or explain why it has moved. Otherwise, there is an inexplicable flip-flop as characters and objects pop from left to right and back again. Ozu ignored that rule, and also ignored continuity; he was fond, for example, of placing a little red teapot in the corners of some of his scenes, like the artist’s mark, and the teapot has a way of inexplicably moving around from shot to shot.

Almost all directors use intersecting eyelines as a way of making it seem like the characters are looking at each other in conversational closeups. Not Ozu. As his characters talk to each other, they look straight at the camera. “This has the unusual effect,” Nick Wrigley writes at his invaluable site ozuyasujiro.com, “of placing the viewer directly in the center of conversations—as if being talked to—instead of the Hollywood convention of alternately peering over characters’ shoulders during such sequences.”

Because Ozu’s mature films consist of complete shots and nothing else (none of the traditional language of master shot/medium shot/closeup), composition became all-important to him. Every shot “has to be perfect in itself,” he said, and often you will find at least one side defined by a visible frame—a wall, a doorway, a step, a curtain, a post. He loved to include banners in the background or posters on the walls; many of them, he painted himself.

There is a richness in this style that may not be noticed at first. To prepare myself to do the commentary track for the Criterion Collection’s DVD of “Floating Weeds,” I went through it a shot at a time during 10 hours over five days at the University of Colorado at Boulder. After the initial screening, some students wondered what we would discuss, since the shots were all apparently so simple. At the end of the week, we were amazed at the subtleties we had found, the variety within the discipline of the style, the ways Ozu’s camera positioned itself to heighten or emotionally tilt the observation.

Ozu’s own life lacked the domestic drama he often filmed. After early days away from home as a schoolteacher, he lived the rest of his life with his mother, who died only a year before he did. He never married. He was a lifelong heavy drinker, joking that he could measure the progress of a screenplay by empty sake bottles. He used the same actors and technicians over and over again.

Although his stories sometimes seem similar when described, his films are unique because each one depends on specific characters, closely observed. Any serious journey into the cinema sooner or later arrives at his work.