What is a Pillow Shot?

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About ten years ago, I watched”Tokyo Story” which was the first film I ever saw by director extraordinaire Yasujiro Ozu, and I can honestly say it changed my life. Not just my movie life, but my whole life in general. For those who haven’t seen an Ozu film, here’s what you need to know. His films are mostly based within a family unit, usually at a time when it is at a point in crisis. There is often a change going on, whether it’s a daughter about to be married off, or a parent dying, they are small moments in life, but Ozu makes them monumental in the grand scheme of things.

Of any director I have ever seen, Ozu had the power to look very humble in his cinematic style. He rarely moved his camera, usually keeping with the idea that one shot equals one scene. His compositions were extraordinary, and so finely crafted that he didn’t bother with continuity between his cuts since he never thought the audience would ever notice as long as the picture itself kept their interest.

Ozu didn’t cut his films the usual way, he never used fades, or establishing shots to move from one scene to another or to indicate any passing of time, what he used instead became his signature shot, this was known as a pillow shot. Simply put, the pillow shot is a small cutaway from the previous scene to something visual. These visual elements, which were usually shots of something like an empty room, or a clothesline hanging outside someone’s yard, didn’t really have any point to the main narrative of the film, but he would usually stay on these static shots for about five to six seconds before moving on to the next scene.

 Describing a pillow shot within the context of his films might seem like an intrusion or disruption of the rhythm, but it actually becomes more of an extension on the whole viewing experience. Ozu’s films can be thought of as leisurely paced, and certainly compared to today’s editing techniques particularly by that of a Michael Bay, they could be down right slow, but that’s ok. Every film, or I guess maybe every good film has its own rhythm, and the best ones seem to go fluidly to their own beat, this is what Ozu did so well, he started with a film, and like a perfectionist conducted each shot, movement, into his own unique pace.

But let’s get back to these pillow shots, why did he decide to use these rather non-sequitur images in his films? Well I’m not sure there is a logical meaning behind them, but what I do think is they are used to evoke a certain feeling from the viewer. To me they feel like moments of contemplation or meditation, it’s as if Ozu is inviting us to reflect on what we have just seen. Ozu’s films have never been heavy on plot, they were always about the characters and their situations, in fact it has been said you could sum up the whole story of an Ozu film in one sentence. An Ozu film is never in a rush to tell you what it’s about, it waits to reveal itself to you, and often the results are devastating,  heartwarming, or funny. The pillow shots are meant to savor these small but monumental moments in the lives of these characters, it’s much like life, how it all seems to pass so quickly, we rarely get time to reflect on the changes we’ve experienced ourselves, and sometimes it’s only later that we realize how much of an impact that certain moment had on us.

The world itself moves pretty fast, and it’s very difficult to keep up with it sometimes. Even when you go to the movies these days, films themselves don’t seem to be asking you to pause for any moment of reflection, they ask you to try and keep up and enjoy the ride, which is fine, but what the best films have taught me whether in life, or in art, it’s that nothing beats capturing those special moments, where life seems to stand still, and you can cherish it for all that it’s worth, and what Ozu taught me was even a small thing like the shot of an empty room, or hanging laundry on a clothesline could remind you of the special things we have in life.

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