By Martin Smith
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A Tokyo Story

This article is over 12 years, 4 months old
Filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu is hardly a household name in Britain, but he truly is one of the world's greatest directors.
Issue 344

For those who don’t know Ozu’s work, now is your chance. Over the next few months many of his films, such as Late Spring (1949), Early Spring (1956) and Floating Weeds (1959), will be showing around the country. Just as importantly, his masterpiece, the heartrending Tokyo Story (1953), is being re-released on DVD.

Ozu was born in Tokyo in 1903. From 1927 to his death in 1963 he made 53 films. He was born into a society juxtaposed between its imperial past and the present where the country is more and more being shaped politically and culturally by the US. He was one of the great pioneers of Japanese filmmaking alongside Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi.

Ozu loved Hollywood and directors like Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch and Orson Welles influenced his early work. But more and more his films became quintessentially Japanese in style. Yet all of his films have one thing in common: they are about family life and the relationships and tensions between the generations. This type of film is very popular in Japan and is known as gendai-geki (films about contemporary life). These films are the equivalent of EastEnders or Coronation Street in today’s Britain. Ozu’s genius was to take this populist, so-called “low brow”, filmmaking and lift it to the level of great art.

In a technical sense, Ozu’s films are some of the most restrained and simple in cinematic history. Most commonly he films from the level of a person seated in traditional fashion on a tatami mat. Whether indoors or out, Ozu’s camera is always about three feet from the ground. He said this is the same level from which a Japanese person takes part in the tea ceremony or drinks hot sake. He wants to give the viewer the sensation of being part of the family and listening in on their discussions.

Another of Ozu’s technical signatures is that the camera remains still. There are very few, if any, panoramic shots or tight close-ups. Ozu dispenses with cinematic norms. As Ian Buruma noted in a review in the Guardian, “[Ozu’s] takes are often long. You will see a person stand up, walk out of the room and come back in, all without a cut.” Also rather than use the typical over the shoulder shots in his dialogue scenes, the camera gazes on the actors directly, which has the effect of placing the viewer in the middle of the scene.

Tokyo Story is no different. Its plot is very simple; an elderly couple living in the south of Japan travel to Tokyo to visit their two married children. This is no wonderful reunion; both children have families and busy lives of their own. In order to get rid of them, they pack their parents off to a hot spring resort. The only person to show any tenderness to the parents is the widow of their other son who died during the Second World War.

Ozu worked by the maxim less is more. Plot was never the key thing for him. He told one reviewer, “Pictures with obvious plots bore me.” For Ozu, character was everything. In Tokyo Story the characters are given space to develop; their conversations build up a rich picture of their lives. By the end of the film every glance of the eye and every sip of tea convey pain, loneliness and fear. You know the characters as well as you know your best friend.

Many have dismissed Ozu’s work. He was accused by the next generation of Japanese filmmakers, such as Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, of being “old fashioned”, “reactionary” and even “bourgeois”.

This should be rejected. It is true that Ozu was not a political filmmaker. Instead he focused everything on the individual and his or her relationship to the people they are closest to. But, precisely because Ozu cut so much out of his films, universal themes such as love, death, loneliness, companionship and friendship loom that much larger.

In Tokyo Story there is a synthesis of tradition and anti-tradition. It is this method of story-telling that uncovers the contradictions of the complex world we live in and human relations at their deepest levels.

Ozu’s influence on modern film was tremendous. Wim Wenders, Mike Leigh and Aki Kaurismaki all admitted to having been profoundly influenced by his work.

Ozu’s great strength as a filmmaker was that he enabled the audience to understand and feel for his characters. I believe this enables the audience to come to understand more about themselves and, in turn, more about life.

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