The wry and serene films of Yasujiro Ozu were a closely-guarded local secret for most of his thirty-five year directing career. Japanese producers thought Ozu’s low-key family dramas wouldn’t translate to western audiences, so they didn’t bother to distribute them to foreign markets until the demand became too great after the director’ death. Ozu’s meditative films didn’t resemble anything being made in world cinema before, during, or after his lifetime.
Visually they are a static, or to coin an overused phrase, “Zen-like” lot. The camera is placed low—mimicking the point of view of a person sitting at a Japanese table. The actors are subtle and their expressions inscrutable. Montage is used as a cinematic haiku to signify the passage of time or convey impressions of emotion or mood.
Plot-wise, Ozu rarely varied from a simple formula. His typical film revolves around a family unit, more often than not involving children straying from the nest to the outside world where they will get married and learn to make choices for themselves. While the parents hope their kids find happiness, they find it difficult to adjust to an empty nest. Put together it may not sound like gripping stuff, but Ozu’s lilting chamber cinema packs a powerful emotional punch and resonates long after the final credits roll.
Ozu was born into a comfortable middle-class family near Tokyo three years after the turn of the 20th Century. To avoid pampering by an overprotective mother, he was sent away to a boarding school at a young age by his stern, humorless father. Ozu quickly established himself as a mediocre student and a bit of a rascal. A notorious tippler of spirits and prone to pranks, Ozu was finally tossed out of high school for trying to consummate a schoolboy crush.
His first stint in the military found him faking tuberculosis, so he could relax in bed while his buddies suffered the agonies of boot camp. Showing little potential or ambition for a professional or academic career, his parents reluctantly abided by his decision to accept work beneath a person of his class in the fledgling Japanese film industry.
At Shochiku Studios young Ozu was assigned to the position of assistant cameraman, a plum job for a novice who had only seen a handful of Japanese movies. Ozu learned to love American movies, especially the films of D.W. Griffith, William S. Hart and his future soul mate in behavioral comedy, Ernst Lubitsch. The young cineaste impressed studio directors and bureaucrats alike with the ease and dexterity he showed in finding his way around a film set. Restless after a three year apprenticeship and wanting a chance to make his own films, Ozu talked his way into becoming an assistant to the veteran comic director Tadamuto Okubo whose earthy sense of humor sat well with his new protégé.
Ozu got his big break in 1927 when he got the chance to direct a script of his own, a historical extravaganza called Sword of Pentinence. The film turned out to be Ozu’s lone “period piece”, but sadly no known print of Pentinence has survived, leaving it to share the same grim fate of over twenty other lost Ozu films. Nevertheless, Ozu knew epic filmmaking wasn’t going to be his bag, so when his unit at Shochiku moved to far away Kyoto, Ozu stayed behind in Tokyo, hoping to direct films more in tune with the times.
Though he had woefully little life experience to draw from, Ozu chose to adapt material for his new films based on the dynamic of young parents and their children. In many of these early films, we find pugnacious boys (Ozu in short pants?) rebelling against their fathers, typically aloof or not terribly bright fellows who, unlike the director’s well-heeled dad, are just trying to keep their heads above water.
Ozu’s body of work from the first few years of the Depression looks snappy and positively modern compared the technologically superior but stilted films being made in America and Europe. Instead following the leads of Hollywood, Paris and Berlin and filming stories about the idle rich and underworld, Ozu and his early cinematographer Hideo Shigehara trained their camera on the lower-middle class and found a wealth of inspiration there.
In what could have been an autobiographical portrait of the teenage Ozu, Kenji, the hero of Walk Cheerfully, is a small-time hood and boozer who has the misfortune to have a crush on a good girl. The problem is Yazue wants nothing to do with the fellow unless he reforms. Kenji means to do well, but the temptations of the easy life and his old girlfriend may be too much for him to overcome.
The Lady and the Beard is one of Ozu’s more unusual films, a modern satire that tweaked both old Japan and the sexual revolutions wreaking havoc in the Babylonian cultures of the West. Oddball kendo master Kiichi Okajima (Tokihiko Okada) is a handsome fellow, but his old school style of dressing and unruly beard scares away the girl of his dreams, the office worker Hiroko (Hiroko Kawasaki). When Okajima learns from a mob moll he could have his choice of women if he’d only shave his beard, he does the deed. The gruff martial artist is transformed into a slick dandy, capturing the attentions of not only Hiroko, but an aristocratic lady and the moll.
Both these early comedies are noteworthy since they are so uncharacteristic of the filmmaker Ozu would become. Within a year the young director would dispense with extraneous plot and settle into his stripped-down, character-driven means of shooting a movie.
Tokyo Chorus is another of the many Ozu films that takes inspiration from the director’s wayward days at school. We first see Shinji Okajima (Tokihiko Okada) as the class cut-up, making fun of a humorless teacher Omura Sensei (Tatsuo Seito) who leads the young men in outdoor drills. Years later, Okajima is a young father of three stuck in uninspiring office job. He promises to buy his spoiled son Chounan (Hideo Sugawara) a bike with some of the yearly bonus he is supposed to receive at work that day. But, when Okajima defends another employee for being unjustly dismissed from the firm he is fired as well.
His son is disappointed when he returns home with a cheap scooter instead of the bike, prompting the tyke to pout and give him the cold shoulder. Okajima’s wife Tsuma Sugako (Emiko Yagumo) tries to be supportive, but she protests when he accepts an offer from his old teacher Sensei to take the lowly position of handing out fliers at his restaurant. Fortunately, Okajima’s old classmates come to the rescue, helping make the restaurant a success and giving the young man hope for a rosy future.
The thorny and tender interplay between Okajima and his little family is splendid stuff, leading the audience to believe these are times of quiet desperation. It is clear the twenty-eight year old Ozu was already a keen observer of human behavior and had great gifts for getting a wide range of emotions across on the screen.
Children would be the center of attention in I Was Born But… another story about a disappointing father. When their parents move to the outskirts of Tokyo, Chounan and Keiji (Hideo Sugawara and Tomio Aoki) become so terrified of a likely beating from some neighborhood bullies they decide to skip school. Their father Chichi (Tatsuo Saito) catches the truants and through some friendly persuasion convinces them to buck up. Taking after their heroic father, the boys soon become leaders of the local gang.
One night, they attend a party hosted by Chichi’s boss Juuyaku (Takeshi Sakamoto) where they are humiliated to see a film where their office clerk father is making an ass out of himself to please his employer. The devastated boys leave the party then confront Chichi at home demanding to know why he is so subservient to Juuyaku.
In Passing Fancy Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto) is a poor and uneducated father forced to bring up his son Tomio (Tomio Aoki) after his wife dies. With Tomio keeping the tenement flat tidy the unlikely combo seems to be making a go of it, until the good-natured Kihachi decides he would like to date a pretty young woman in the neighborhood. He meets stern resistance from the jealous Tomio until the light of the romance goes out. Feeling guilty about not providing for his boy, Kihachi takes an out of town job but having second thoughts about leaving Tomio to fend for himself, he jumps ship and swims back home.
In these three films, the portraits of resentful sons seem to owe much to Ozu’s abandonment issues with his father. Unlike Ozu’s forbidding papa, these fathers try to give their sons the sort of advantages they never had as children. Unfortunately, these men are stuck in jobs which offer little opportunity for advancement. In Ozu’s post-war years, the creator is more sympathetic to father-figures. Indeed, the crusty, gentle patriarchs in these later films turn out to be closer to their warm-hearted daughters than their ambitious sons, who are often portrayed as selfish or greedy, giving little heed to the wishes and feelings of their parents.
After spending several years perfecting his transcendent filmmaking style it comes as a surprise that a melodrama would turn out to be Ozu’s first great work of maturity. A Story of Floating Weeds follows Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto) a leader of a band of players who returns to a small town where years before he fathered an illegitimate son. The now-teenage son, Shinkichi (Koji Mitsui), has been living under the impression his father was a civil servant who died years before and Kihachi, who has been providing for the boy’s welfare all along, is his uncle. When Kihachi finally decides to disband his troupe and settle down he finds Shinkichi unwilling to accept such a lowly actor could be his father. Meanwhile, the young man has taken up with one of Kihachi’s actresses much to the dismay of the older man who doesn’t want his pampered son to stray from the path of success.
A work of rich atmosphere and vivid characterizations, A Story of Floating Weeds marks a peak in the director’s class-conscious period. The townspeople enjoy Kihachi’s rootless band of players, but once off stage the grease-painted performers are relegated to the status of second class citizens. The players form a dysfunctional family with father-figure Kihachi at the helm. But keeping such a band of misfits in tow is a nearly impossible task, as evidenced by Kihachi’s helplessness in light of the destructive behavior of his two mischievous lead actresses.
Takeshi Sakamoto plays another middle-aged father named Kihachi in the humanist saga An Inn in Tokyo. Here, Kihachi roams the back streets and open lots of Tokyo looking for work with two hungry young sons in tow. While resting at an inexpensive hotel they become friends with homeless single mother Otaka (Yoshiko Okada) and her tiny daughter. Kihachi is attracted to the pretty woman but the two little families drift apart the next day as the adults continue their search for employment.
Just as Kihachi runs out of money he bumps into his old friend Otsune (Choko Iida) who runs a local restaurant and inn. She offers the little family food and shelter and arranges for Kihachi to get a job in a factory. The good-hearted father soon runs into the destitute Otaka who sleeps with her daughter in an open field. Kihachi arranges for the ladies to stay with him and the boys at Otsune’s on credit, much to the resentment of his new landlady.
Unhappy at the prospect of taking a poor man’s charity and in desperate need of money to help cure her sickly daughter, Otaka takes a job as a Geisha at a local house. Deprived too long of good times and sake, Kihachi visits the same establishment where he meets the shamed Otaka. After hearing her sad story, Kihachi tells Otaka he will pay for her daughter’s medical bills. Kihachi asks Otsune for the money but thinking he is only spending the money on booze and loose women she refuses him. Desperate, Kihachi steals the money and after making sure Otaka gets the cash he performs a cleansing act by turning himself into the police.
Perhaps Ozu’s starkest film, An Inn in Tokyo anticipates not only the lyrical Italian neo-realism of Vittorio De Sica, but the poverty and street poetry found in the films of India’s Satyajit Ray. Though, there is a comfort zone with the familiar directing style and so many of the same fine players, An Inn in Tokyo is distinctly different from anything in the Ozu canon. The few attempts at humor (made by the rascally Tomio Aoki) are quickly stifled by Kihachi who finds it hard to laugh at their sorry lot. When this regular guy finally gets the chance to get out and have a little fun, he is confronted by the horror of Otaka’s having to resort to prostitution to save her daughter’s life.
Kihachi’s shame and restitution is shattering, but it is among the most melodramatic scenes Ozu put on celluloid. It’s likely this subtle artist felt uncomfortable painting in such broad strokes. In the difficult post-war years Ozu took many hits from Japanese intellectuals for leaving the struggling proletariat behind to make films about the stagnant middle classes. But, as a rebuilding Japan was finally forced to come to terms with its conservative past, this “defection” would prove to be a wise choice.
Ozu’s first sound narrative film, The Only Son is a touching story about a poor widow who makes great personal and financial sacrifices to put her son through school only to find he has given up on getting ahead at the ripe old age of twenty-eight. Silk factory laborer Tsune Nonomiya (Chouko Iida) grants her son’s wish to go to high school in Tokyo even though it means she will have to live the life of a pauper in order for him to succeed.
Years later, the nearly destitute Tsune visits grown-up Ryosuke (Shinichi Himori) at his dumpy house at the outskirts of Tokyo. Tsune is surprised to find Ryosuke has a wife (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) and child, but she is also troubled to learn her son is unhappy with his lot as a struggling high school teacher. Tsune is disappointed in her only son until he makes the unselfish gesture of giving money to a poor woman whose own son is facing a lengthy stay in a hospital. Tsune returns to her home to in Shinshu and puts on a brave face for her co-workers even though she has been shattered by her experience.
In one of the finest early female roles in an Ozu film, Chouko Iida shines as a mother whose fondest hopes and dreams rest with her self-pitying son. Unaware his mother doesn’t seem to mind his modest home, Ryosuke borrows from his friends to put on a big front and show her a good time. When he breaks down and confesses his unhappiness Tsune, in what would become a tradition of a good Ozu mother, chastises her son and lets him know he is a fool not to try and realize his potential. Though, Tsune talks the good talk in front of her fellow workers we learn through a heartbreaking final shot she does not really believe Ryosuke will find happiness.
A breezy comedy of the well-to-do, What Did the Lady Forget? provided a change of pace for Ozu. Here, a saucy young niece wreaks havoc with her go-getter, professor uncle and his high-maintenance wife when she moves into their fancy lair. Ozu didn’t know it then, but this light truffle of a film marked the last time he would work with cinematographer Shigehara and his favorite child actor Tomio Aoki. Indeed, Ozu’s whole world would soon be turned upside down as his country sought to extend its empire.
Ozu had a two year work hiatus enforced upon him when he was called up as an infantry corporal during the Sino-Japanese War. Upon his return to Shochiku Studios, Ozu was in the awkward position to prove his worth all over again to a studio brass wary of the declining box office of his films. He chose to direct an original story about a widow forced to live with her hypocritical children in The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family.
When the destitute patriarch Shintaro Toda (Hideo Fujino) passes away at a family get-together, the two eldest daughters decide to take in their mother (Ayako Katsuragi) and her youngest child Setsuko (Mieko Takamine). But we soon find neither the young woman nor mother is made to feel welcome at either home, so they take up residence at a ramshackle family property. When lone son Shojiro (Shin Saburi) returns from China he chastises the selfish elder sisters and their husbands then asks his mother and Setsuko if they would like to live with him in China where he has found prosperity and piece of mind.
A key transitional film, Brothers and Sisters plays as a gentle warning about how wealth and western mores have created cracks in the traditional Japanese family unit. The questioning children from I Was Born, but… and Passing Fancy have grown up to become restless and dissatisfied young adults.
Ozu’s next film There Was a Father is a lilting story of a son who tries to re-connect with his distant dad after fifteen years. Feeling guilty, over a fatal accident involving one of his students Shuhei Horikawa (Chishu Ryu) decides to give up his position as a teacher and take a lesser-paying job with little responsibility. As part of this cleansing act, the unhappy widower enrolls his son in a boarding school in the far-off provinces. Despite having no guidance from his dad, son Ryohei (Shuji Sano) grows up to be a fine young man and even takes up the family profession: teaching.
Now, in his mid-twenties, he tries to re-establish a bond with his father by taking him to a resort where they can let down their guard. Ryohei informs Shuhei he plans to quit his job and find work in Tokyo so he can be closer to him, but the old man tries to dissuade his son from hindering such a bright future. Soon, fate steps in and deprives Ryohei of the opportunity to make such a momentous decision.
Already a veteran of several Ozu films, Chishu Ryu finally steps to the forefront in the first of many performances as a sage-like father-figure. For the rest of their long and rich collaboration, Ryu’s kind, open face and meditative acting style provided a calming influence to his needy, high-strung daughters and disapproving wives. As the shattered young teacher, Ryu is given to a sort of self-loathing unique in Ozu. But, rather than confront his pain and move on, Shuhei selfishly withdraws and abandons his son. Ryohei’s attempt to grow closer to Shuhei goes a long way in redeeming his fundamentally decent father who wants what’s best for his boy.
With the military situation in Japan growing more desperate, Ozu was called up to serve his country at the age of forty. Although he was made to serve with a unit making propaganda films, Ozu feared he could face a war crimes tribunal after armistice so he shot little footage. While Ozu was certainly loyal to Japan, he wasn’t a soldier of the Samurai cut. Instead, he spent much time in uniform catching up on the recent films out of Hollywood and was especially impressed by the films of King Vidor, Ernst Lubitsch, Orson Welles and John Ford.
When the British recaptured his post in Singapore, this great master of filmmaking spent a half year peeling potatoes as a prisoner of war. Ozu returned to a devastated Tokyo early in 1946 but it would be another year before he would direct another feature.
Record of a Tenement Gentleman examines the plight of lost war children in an approach more comedic, but no less eloquent to Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero. This quirky opus opens with a local fortuneteller (Chishu Ryu) dropping a small abandoned boy at the flat of the grumpy widow Tane (Shoko Lida). Kohei (Hobi Aoki) immediately gets in Tane’s bad graces by wetting his bed, so she steps up her efforts to rid herself of this unwanted responsibility. Her investigations lead to a dead end and after unsuccessfully trying to foist Kohei off on the neighbors she begins to warm to this unfamiliar practice of child-rearing.
Whereas many of the similarly themed Neo-Realist films coming out of Italy during these troubled years now look strained, Ozu’s humanitarian comedy hits all the right buttons without feeling overly sentimental. A good bit of credit has to go to leading lady Lida whose sour expressions and curious parenting practices give this very amusing film wind beneath its wings.
A Hen in the Wind addressed Japan’s immediate post-war years, as well, albeit in a much darker fashion. Having no money to finance her son’s emergency medical treatment Tokiko Amamiya (Kinuyo Tanaka) is briefly forced to become a prostitute. When husband Shuichi (Shuji Sano) returns home after a five year war-inflicted absence, the guilty Tokiko admits her necessary infidelity. Shattered by his inability to provide for his family, the husband goes off on a conscience-stricken bender and visits the illicit house where Tokiko worked. Shuichi seems to be able to forgive “his date”, an unfortunate girl who has nowhere else to turn, but making up to his wife is another matter. In a final, chilling confrontation Shuichi brutally knocks Tokiko down a flight of stairs, but the wounded woman manages to get back on her feet and forgive her conflicted husband.
Pitch-perfect and unrelenting, A Hen in the Wind is among Ozu’s most anguished and heartbreaking movies. He would rarely expose such raw nerves in a film again, but this powerful work closed some old war-time wounds and helped kick-off a period of filmmaking where the mature, life-scarred artist comes into his own.
An exquisite tale of a single woman past the “marrying age”, Late Spring is our entry into Ozu’s great period. It is no coincidence this milestone would star the benevolent Chishu Ryu as the woman’s widowed father and Setsuko Hara, a radiant and soulful actress who quickly became the female face of Ozu. The project also allowed the director to reunite with Tokyo Chorus screenwriter Kogo Noda, a kindred spirit who would turn out to be Ozu’s closest collaborator for the rest of his career.
In Late Spring Hara plays Noriko, the twenty-seven year old daughter of Shukichi Somiya (Ryu). Even though Shukichi would prefer his daughter start thinking of the future and finding a husband, Noriko is happy with life as her father’s servant and soul mate. After failing to interest Noriko with an excellent prospect for a husband, her aunt (Haruko Sugimara) decides to set Shukichi up with an attractive single woman. Noriko grows extremely jealous of the liaison but not wishing to play second fiddle to another woman, she decides to get married, after all.
Noriko’s clinging to daddy may seem peculiar or dysfunctional to western audiences, but in the hands of the talented and charismatic Hara such feelings come across as perfectly normal. One can’t help but feel she is the healthy one and the rest of her friends and family are meddlesome and insensitive. But, once the family plot takes hold and doubt creeps in, we see chinks in Noriko’s emotional armor and she begins to act in an irrational and very human manner. Her wedding is an act of resignation and a melancholic affair but wise Shukichi knows he had to make his daughter fly on her own or risk her unhappiness when he finally passes on.
In Early Summer Hara plays Noriko Marniya, a twenty-eight year old single woman who lives in a busy house with her parents, an opinionated brother (Chishu Ryu), his wife and their two bratty children. Once again, Hara is content with her lot, this time as a professional woman with lively friends and a loving family and she can’t be bothered by those whose conservative opinions fly in the face of her happiness. The family tries to hook Noriko up with an older friend of her boss, but she frustrates them all by showing more interest in the widower (Kan Nihonyanagi) who lives next door, a man with little prospects and a daughter and mother to care for.
As befits the comedic tone of Early Summer, the exasperated chorus becomes frustrated with Noriko who, quite rightly, gets to make her own choices in the end. While one couldn’t label these Hara-Ozu films as feminist, they have much in common with several of George Cukor’s post-war comedies (Adam’s Rib, The Model And The Marriage Broker, The Marrying Kind, Pat and Mike) where so-called liberated western women have similar difficulties in redefining their roles in marriage and the work place in 1950s America.
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice tells the story of an unhappy marriage. The proud and haughty Taeko Satake (Michiyo Kogure) has grown bored with her bureaucrat husband Mokichi (Shin Saburi), a simple man who shares little of her tastes or interests. Although their arranged marriage was the product of old Japan, Taeko still adheres to traditional values and distains what passes for modern (or western) culture. She meddles in the love life of her niece Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) who infuriates Taeko by rejecting a marriage proposal from a man she does not know.
Like many of her aunt’s westernized friends, Setsuko is a modern young woman who would prefer to have the right to choose her own mate. Setsuko is upset when Taeko talks negatively about Mokichi, who she sees as a kind and decent man. After an ugly confrontation, Taeko decides to leave Mokichi while he is away on a business trip. But when Mokichi returns home Taeko grows sentimental about her husband and tries to make amends by sharing one of his favorite meals, green tea over rice.
Initially, Taeko comes off as one of the very few mean characters in Ozu and one wonders why her lively friends put up with her petty ways. Conversely, Taeko is a strong and mostly independent woman capable of great charm; especially in scenes where she amuses her friends by making fun of Mokichi and her final reconciliation with her husband. Still, there is hope Taeko will grow out of her prejudiced past and find happiness with her unsophisticated man.
Tokyo Story could well be Ozu’s most heartfelt film and it is almost universally considered to be his masterpiece. It’s the story of two elderly parents Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) from Onomichi who take an overnight train to Tokyo to visit the families of three of their children. They first stop over at their practitioner son’s flat on the outskirts of town. Shukishi and Tomi learn quickly Koichi (So Yamamura) isn’t as successful as he made out to be and find the busy doctor has little time to spend with them. Koichi soon foists them off on his sister Shige Kaneko (Haruko Sugimura), a beautician who lives with her husband Kurazo (Nobuo Nakamura). During this time the Hirayamas drop in to see their daughter in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) whose husband (their son) was killed during the war.
On the most pleasant day of their visit, Noriko takes a day off from work to show the elderly couple the many sites of Tokyo. Feeling guilty about his wife’s indifference towards her parents, Kurazo tries to make time for Shukishi and Tomi but he is pleased when Shige suggests they send the old couple to a resort for a few days. The resort turns out to be too noisy, so the Hirayamas make plans to return to their home but they have to catch the train out of Tokyo. On such short notice, neither Koichi nor Shige can give shelter to the Hirayamas, so Tomi stays with Noriko and Shukishi goes on a drinking binge with two old friends.
Spurred on by the liquor, Shukishi finally drops his mask and expresses disappointment in his children but he diplomatically reckons they probably aren’t as bad as most kids these days. The next day, Tomi becomes seriously ill on the train back to Onomichi and slips into a coma. Koichi, Shige and Noriko arrive in time to see their mother pass away, but the youngest son shows up late and full of lame excuses.
At the wake, Shige selfishly claims several of Tomi’s most cherished keepsakes for herself then she and Koichi make plans to leave on the afternoon train. It is Noriko alone, who offers sympathy to Shukishi. Though deep in grief, Shukishi advises Noriko to get over the mourning of her dead husband and get on with her life. Soon, she too has to return to Tokyo and her job, leaving Shukishi to contemplate his loneliness.
At turns tender and cruel, Tokyo Story, along with Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, are arguably the best narrative films that deal with aging in the family unit. Serene Shukishi and Tomi forgive the bratty rudeness of their grandchildren and the irritated vibes given off by their crass adult children. Time and again during this period, Ozu turned to Haruko Sugimara to play the conniving neighbor or family villain and, here, she is a perfect foil to the sheer goodness of both Tomi and Noriko, helping give Tokyo Story more grit and deeper feeling than the similarly-themed The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family. As the sad events unfold in this most perfect of Ozu films we find—as is often the case in real life—kindly old people more cherished by friends and acquaintances than blood family.
Two years in the making, Ozu’s next film Early Spring is a curiously downbeat story about a group of young white collar workers stuck in monotonous jobs and lifestyles. Bored with his marriage and fearing he will have little to show for all the years he has put in at work, office worker Shoji Sugiyama (Ryo Ikebe) enters into an affair with Chiyo (Keiko Kishi), a vivacious typist who the other workers have nicknamed the Goldfish. Having found lipstick stains on his shirt, Shoji’s wife Masako (Chikage Awashima) stews over her husband’s indiscretions but she still spends her lonely evenings hoping he will return to her.
Meanwhile, Shoji is jolted by the revelations that one of his co-worker friends may have committed suicide and his boss wants him to transfer to the company’s office in the desolate countryside. When Shoji’s other work friends learn about his affair with the Goldfish they arrange an intervention where they try to convince Chiyo to give up her lover for his poor wife’s sake. A defiant Chiyo meets with Shoji but when she learns he is not ready to give himself wholeheartedly to her, she breaks off the affair.
Of course, Masako picks this time to confront Shoji about Chiyo and the lipstick-stained shirt. Her pride hurt by Shoji’s philandering she chooses not to join her husband at his modest, new flat in the mountains. The lonely man spends his long nights in solitude until one evening he arrives home to find his wife has come back to him, willing to make another go of it.
Early Spring is the rare Ozu film that treats marital infidelity with gravity. Masako is a dutiful wife and she doesn’t understand her soul-searching husband. Chiyo brings a ray of sunshine into an otherwise bleak life but Shoji’s friends fear his dalliance with the Goldfish will have ramifications in his professional life as well. Living in fear of losing their jobs and not sure their meager pensions will sustain them in old age, there seems to be little escape for these clerks to do besides drink. Shoji escapes this urban angst by retreating to the mountain village with Masako, where he will continue his life of quiet desperation.
Ozu’s brief dark period came to a head with Tokyo Twilight, a noir-ish tragedy about a young woman with an insatiable need for love. Set in the dead of winter, single father Shukichi Sugiyama (Chishu Ryu) lives in his Tokyo flat with his young adult daughter Akiko (Ineko Arima). Shukichi is unaware Akiko is running with a rough crowd of mah-jong players, floozies and flim-flam men. He also doesn’t know she is pregnant by her spineless boyfriend Kenji (Masami Taura) and suffers from a lack of esteem brought on by a very wrong belief she is not her father’s child.
Her older sister Takako (Setsuko Hara) moves into her father’s house with her infant child. She has left her alcoholic husband Yasuo (Kinzo Shin), who has had difficulty finding work as a translator of books. Shukichi feels guilty because he set Takako up with Yasuo instead of letting her marry the man she really loved. Takako doesn’t blame Shukichi but her unhappiness has made her bitter.
Takako angered by news of her mother Kisako (Isuzu Yamada) returning to Tokyo after abandoning her family for another man fifteen years before. She visits the mah-jong parlor where her mother works and threatens Kisako not to reveal herself to the troubled Akiko who frequents the establishment regularly. In the meantime Akiko, who has since got a back street abortion, has also tracked down Kisako and demands to know if Shukichi is her father. The pathetic woman fails to convince Akiko who, in despair, throws herself in front of a train.
In the wake of her daughter’s suicide, Kisako decides to leave Tokyo with her boyfriend. She visits Takako who accepts her bouquet of flowers but Kisako is disappointed when her older daughter doesn’t see her off at the train. Hoping to heal her devastated family, Takako chooses to return to Yasuo and begin anew.
Ozu’s bleakest work, Tokyo Twilight may owe its shadowy look and lurid atmosphere to American Noir, but this downwardly spiraling saga comes closer to resembling the metaphysical tragedies directed by his countryman Kenji Mizoguchi and the fatalistic poetic realism of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne.
Failure haunts the protagonists. Shukichi feels he has failed as a father because he spoiled Michiko as a child, inadvertently putting her on the road to wrack and ruin. He also regrets having pushed Takako into a loveless union with Yasuo, who is too absorbed in his drinking and intellectual pursuits to support his family. Akiko thinks her birth may have caused the break-up of her parents’ marriage and fears Shukichi is too good to have possibly been her father. Her failure to win the love of the flaky Kenji only fuels her self-loathing to greater heights.
Confronted with the wrath of her now grown-up daughters, the vapid Kisako has a long overdue crisis of conscience, but it’s too late to save the disturbed Akiko. Takako returns to her husband out of a need to provide normalcy to the Sugiyama family. But even as she tries to put on a smiling face for her suffering father, this conciliatory gesture is highly unlikely produce a happy ending and her marriage will end up a failure, as well.
Ozu returned to more traditional fare in Equinox Flower, a story about a conservative businessman who disapproves of his daughter’s choice of a husband. Having made the best of an arranged marriage Wataru Hirayama (Shin Saburi) is taken aback when his youngest daughter Hisako (Miyuki Kuwano) suggests her sister Setsuko (Ineko Arima) might want to have a say about who she will marry. Setsuko already has a boyfriend in Tangiguchi (Keiji Sada), but when he abruptly asks Wataru for her hand the offended older man brushes him aside.
Wataru’s prejudices towards Setsuko’s independent thinking are reinforced when he finds the daughter of a friend (Chishu Ryu) living in sin with a boyfriend she has no intention marrying. Setsuko enlists her pretty cousin Yukiko (Fujiko Yamamoto) to break down the old bear’s resistance to Tangiguchi.
Oddly enough, Wataru is much more at ease with the flirtatious Yukiko than he is with either his subservient wife Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) or the mild-mannered Setsuko. By getting Wataru to agree she should resist her own mother’s efforts to accept an arranged marriage and marry out of love instead, Yukiko gently exposes him as a hypocrite. Wataru soon swallows his pride and catches a train in time to attend Setsuko’s wedding.
Having not made a pure comedy for years, Ozu resurrected the plot of I Was Born, but… and updated it for modern audiences in Good Morning. The story’s main thread follows the adventures of school boy Minoru Hayashi and his little brother Isamu who both go on a speaking strike until their father buys a television set. The boys resent having to go to their neighbors’ to watch their favorite show (professional wrestling) and voice their anger to their parents. But Mr. and Mrs. Hayashi think television is for imbeciles (i.e. Americans) and won’t have such a device in their homes.
The boys’ self-inflicted silences at school prompt their teachers to confront the Hayashis. The poor parents are also snubbed by their gossipy neighbors who misconstrue the boys’ silence as rudeness. Finally, Mr. Hayashi buys a TV set to help out a long out of work friend who has recently got a job selling electronic appliances.
Shot in eye-popping color (by Ozu’s marvelous late period cinematographer Yuuharu Atsuta) and chalk full of chattering housewives and farting schoolboys, Good Morning is light-hearted, if not downright goofy, stuff. Still, Ozu cleverly uses this platform to offer plenty of wry commentary on the growing insipidness of consumer culture.
Floating Weeds, the color remake of the silent The Story of the Floating Weeds finds Ozu in a mellow, autumnal mood. Much of the original story is the same, but the locale has been re-set to a picture-perfect fishing village. Here, troupe leader Komajuro Arashi (Ganjiro Nakamura) returns after twelve years to mount his latest revue, visit his former girlfriend Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) and the offspring of their affair, a twenty-year old son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi). Komajuro has long since decided to keep his fatherhood a secret from Kiyoshi, so the young man wouldn’t be ashamed of his lowly beginnings and have a chance to get ahead in the world. So, actor Komajuro has to play another role, a benevolent uncle, so he can spend some time fishing with his grown-up son.
Meanwhile, the revue fails to draw an audience and has to close early. The players, especially Komajuro’s latest girlfriend Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), all wonder where their boss has been spending his time and fear they will be abandoned on the island. The jealous Sumiko hires her beautiful co-star Kayo (Ayako Wako) to seduce Kiyoshi thus scuttling any intention Komajuro had of settling down with Oyoshi. The plan goes awry when Kayo realizes she is in love with her boss’s son. After coming clean to Kiyoshi, the young lovers go to Komajuro and Oysohi and tell them of their plans to wed. The disappointed Komajuro leaves the island and takes up again with Miss Sumiko on a train where they make future plans together.
Ozu had long wanted to remake this little story of traveling players, but by the time he took it on (1959) he had evolved into a different sort of artist from the socially relevant filmmaker who made A Story of Floating Weeds. By casting putty-faced Ganjiro Nakamura in the lead, audiences would be assured this troupe leader would be more of a rascal than a victim. Unlike Takeshi Sakamoto’s wayward papa in the original film, Nakamura never looks like he suffers pangs of conscience over abandoning his lover and son. In fact, he seems pleased they are getting along without much financial recompense from him.
Ozu was clever in giving tough cookie Haruko Sugimara the role of Oyoshi and his veteran actress delivers, playing the single mother without the sort of sentimentality that could have made Komajuro look like a complete cad. The secondary storyline of the son’s affair with the young actress is interpreted here with less tragedy and more worldly cynicism befitting its wry creator.
As we find in the later work of Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks and John Ford, Ozu’s films were becoming increasingly plot-less, character-driven, and subsequently more philosophical. Though Ozu maintained his disciplined visual style to the very end, these later films began to take on fourth and fifth acts, more performers and, inevitably, longer running times. This sort of expansiveness went a long way in marginalizing the problems of his leading characters, creating a more communal cinema where each player has their moment in the spotlight.
Ozu’s final films cover very familiar ground, but they also seem the work of an artist coming to grips with what the so-called golden years have to offer. The lovely Late Autumn isn’t so much a remake of Late Spring as an updating of the tried and true material with several of Ozu’s gruff fatherly figures playing matchmakers to a mother and her comely daughter.
While assembled to observe the anniversary of the death of one of their friends, three businessmen (Shin Saburi, Nabuo Nakamura and Ryuji Kita) inform the lovely widow Akiko Miwa (Setsuko Hara) that it’s time her single daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) get married. The only problem is Ayako is perfectly content living with Akiko and doesn’t want to get married. Soichi (Saburi) arranges for Ayako to meet young up and comer Shotaru Goto (Keiji Sada), but he is amazed when she doesn’t act interested. He is further flustered when he finds Ayako and Goto are dating, so thinking the daughter doesn’t want to abandon her mother by getting married Soichi enlists a widower friend to sweep Akiko off her feet. Ayako is dismayed by the meddling men and enlists her hot to handle friend Yukiko (Mariko Okada) to help cool their heels.
Ozu’s next film The End of Summer is at turns unsettling and highly amusing. There is the typical Ozu-Noda set-up of a family wishing to find a husband for the pretty young widow Noriko (Yoko Tsukasa). But, this time her father Kohayagawa (Ganjiro Nakamura) is a hardly a wise old sage, but a footloose old gentleman who wants to rekindle the fire with his former flame. The family is horrified by their father’s indiscretions and not surprisingly all this romantic activity quite literally kills him, or so the family thinks. But Kohayagawa is resurrected to live and love for another day…until he finally wears out and dies.
Shot in beautiful, muted color and featuring Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu in relatively minor roles, The End of Summer nods sweetly to Japanese tradition while addressing the ever-changing present, especially in the funny scenes where Kohayagawa’s saucy, illegitimate daughter manages to scandalize the old libertine by dating, God forbid, Americans.
Although Ozu didn’t intend on An Autumn Afternoon being his last film, it seems very appropriate this melancholic story of a widowed father and his ripe for the picking daughter would turn out to be his swan song. It also seemed right the father would turn out to be Chishu Ryu, the gentle patriarch of Ozu’s classic films of the 1940s and early ‘50s.
White collar worker Shuhei Hirayama (Ryu) lives with his twenty-four year old daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) and younger son in a comfortable flat in the city. Shuhei ignores the advice of his best friend Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura) who thinks it’s time Michiko gets married. Shuhei thinks she’s too immature to take such a step and Michiko herself admits to being perfectly content looking after her father and brother.
But when Shuhei attends a reunion for a middle school schoolteacher Sakuma (Eijiro Tono), who has fallen on hard times, he learns the older man destroyed the prospects of happiness for his only daughter (Haruko Sugimara) by insisting she look after him after his wife died. When Shuhei learns Michiko has a crush on a co-worker of his eldest son Koichi (Keiji Sada), he tries to arrange an engagement. To everyone’s regret this younger man is already spoken for so the desperate father turns to Kawai who has another prospect in mind.
Instead of making Shuhei happy, as Kawai suggests, the idea causes the father to drink heavily and become as miserable as the unhappy Sakuma. Although it takes a few glasses of whiskey for Shuhei to open up and admit how much he misses his diseased wife, it’s also clear he has come to enjoy these comfortable golden years with his friends and children. Shuhei’s tenuous piece of mind is shattered when he drops the drunken Sakuma off at his humble noodle shop and meets the old man’s embittered daughter. Taking heed of Kawai’s warnings and not wishing to turn out like Sakuma, Shuhei pushes Michiko into accepting a marriage offer from a man she does not know.
The liquor flows throughout An Autumn Afternoon and we are continually confronted by young and old men unable to make qualified judgments or rational decisions without a full cup of spirits. It is a film of false fronts and tender regrets—nobody seems to be as happy or content as they let on. Like real life.
Ozu was struck down with cancer at the height of his powers. Like many classic filmmakers of his generation, it’s always interesting to prophesize how his career might have played out during the revolutionary ‘60s, but, perhaps, Ozu bowed out at the right time. The Japanese film industry Ozu was leaving behind would soon be in the midst of tumultuous change, stepping up to the challenges of the French New Wave and leaving little place for this sensitive storyteller of sincere intentions, delicate feelings, and human folly.
Books on Ozu:
Ozu: His Life and Films – Donald Richie ****1/2 This is a detailed and invaluable step-by-step look at the brilliant Ozu formula—as seen through the script format, shooting, and editing. Japanese scholar Richie does a splendid job of getting into the head of this unique filmmaker.
Transcendental Style In Film – Paul Schrader ****1/2 Schrader’s fascinating theory, steeped in aestheticism, asceticism, iconography, theology, philosophy and the arts (whew!), “seeks to maximize the mystery of existence”. Schrader’s revealing essay on Ozu lets us reconsider the Japanese master’s body of work from the perspective of Zen culture.
Japanese Film Directors – Audie Bock **** A thoroughly researched, well-written book on the major Japanese filmmakers also has excellent chapters on the under-documented giants Mikio Naruse, Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa and Shohei Imamura. It’s the best overall book on the Japanese cinema to date, but sad to say, out of print.
Films by Ozu:
1930 Walk Cheerfully ***
1931 The Lady & the Beard ***1/2
1931 Tokyo Chorus ****
1932 I Was Born, But…****
1933 Woman of Tokyo ***1/2
1933 Dragnet Girl ***1/2
1933 Passing Fancy ****
1934 A Story of Floating Weeds ****
1935 An Inn in Tokyo ****
1936 The Only Son ****
1937 What Did the Lady Forget? ***1/2
1941 The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family ****
1942 There Was a Father ****
1947 The Record of a Tenement Gentleman ****
1948 A Hen in the Wind ****
1949 Late Spring *****
1951 Early Summer ****
1952 The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice ****
1953 Tokyo Story *****
1956 Early Spring ****
1958 Tokyo Twilight ****1/2
1958 Equinox Flower ****
1959 Floating Weeds ****
1959 Good Morning ****
1960 Late Autumn ****1/2
1961 The End of Summer ****
1962 An Autumn Afternoon ****1/2