Yasujiro Ozu may not be a filmmaker who comes to mind right away to the casual movie goer. Roger Ebert wrote “sooner or later, everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu”. For most people I’m assuming he came later. Speaking for myself, I didn’t even hear of the name Ozu until I already had my taste of the foreign giants such as Bergman, Fellini, and Bunuel. At a young age, I had it in my head that every country only had one master filmmaker. Kurosawa was the Japanese master known throughout the western world with breakthrough films like “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai. Ozu’s films weren’t even shown outside of Japan until 12 years after his death when a film critic named Donald Richie brought a number of his films to Cannes that year. Richie, who was an American critic steeped in Japanese culture grew to admire and champion Ozu at the time.
In his defining book about the filmmaker titled “Ozu: His Life and Films”, which was published in 1983, Richie goes into great detail of Ozu’s unique technique, discussing how he would create his films. Richie focuses on the three different stages of an Ozu film starting with the script, leading into the shooting, than finally the editing. Once each process is examined, one will be able to get a fuller understanding of what Ozu’s philosophy to cinema was.
An interesting aspect to the approach of an Ozu film is how it differs from the construction of a regular Hollywood film. Richie begins the exploration with how Ozu would begin: The script. Ozu (along with frequent collaborator Kogo Noda) would spend months constructing a perfectly balanced script full of character and theme. Richie states that Ozu “…took more pains with the ultimate placing of a scene or a line of dialogue in the growing script than with any of the other aspects of film-making”. He describes him as an “architect” and the script a “blueprint”. The analogy of a filmmaker being an architect has been used before, but Ozu’s approach, (or maybe I should say the Japanese approach) digresses from the usual western style of script writing. For one thing, plot was never the main driving force with his films. You can’t picture an Ozu film with the traditional dramatics of an inciting incident, rising action, and then a denouement. Structure such as that never interested Ozu. Instead, Richie states that he usually began with characters, and then a theme would rise from these characters that he would want to explore.
A classic example of theme and character over plot could be seen in Ozu’s most famous film “Tokyo Story”. The plot could be described simply as two elderly parents visit their children in Tokyo. That’s basically what happens, but if you break down the film you see ideas of growing older, death, loneliness, and family separation. These are universal themes done by a man who was considered to be “too Japanese” for western audiences at the time.
When it came to shooting a film, Richie shows how Ozu was really a rebel who pushed back against convention to get the effect he wanted. Richie goes from the beginning of his career where he would use typical film devices such as the Fade-in and fade-out of a scene, or a dissolve which were common, until he dropped these tropes one by one with his later films to create his own refined style. Hollywood films are composed in a way to comment on action or characters, and filmmakers are usually rather intrusive in their point of view. Ozu didn’t want to use his camera to comment, rather he used it as an observer. This would evolve into his most famous trademark, that of a low-angle camera, (mostly stationary), always three feet from the floor. This angle gave the impression of a person sitting on a traditional tatami mat, with the architecture of a Japanese home being framed almost like a proscenium stage. The composition made for a very observational approach to the action. It’s as if the audience were invited into the lives of these people. Ozu has been criticized for this being a cold approach, but the idea of staying away and not putting his own judgement on the characters is a very warm and humanistic idea.
Once shooting was complete Richie moves on to editing, which, according to him, was maybe the least important aspect of filmmaking for someone like Ozu. For many filmmakers, a movie is made in the editing room, yet Ozu has already mapped out what the film is supposed to be from the very beginning, which is why the script is probably the most important aspect for him. However one important note on his editing style has to do with pacing. It can be said that many Ozu scenes go for a long time, deeming his tempo to be thought of as “too slow”. There are moments of emptiness or silence in his films, and for anyone who has seen one, they know what I’m talking about. The concept of these moments have been described as “mu”. Mu comes from a buddhist practice which could mean “nothingness” among other definitions. Ozu chooses to focus in on this nothingness in choice moments in his films. Richie describes this emphasis of mu “in the silence which can give more meaning to the dialogue that went before, or the emptiness which gives more meaning to the action that went before. Richie believes these moments “become containers for our emotions”. He sees these feelings of emotion more than just empathy, but “we become aware of the universality of all emotion-in short we feel something of the texture of life itself and again know that we are a part of this universal fabric”. This idea could go towards the spiritual or zen aspect of Ozu’s films. Whether that is what he intended or not, it fills the fabric of his films and gives them a transcendence of emotion that we can all share and empathize with.
Donald Richie’s book came to me over ten years ago when I was deeply immersed into the work of Ozu. For me it was a sort of awakening on a personal and artistic level. I’ve written and directed one short film in my life entitled “Good Morning” (A title admittedly was deliberately taken from the Ozu film of the same name.) Although I was not fully successful, I tried to incorporate the filmmaking aspects of an Ozu film into mine. There was a time, when I thought his way of making movies was really the only way to depict real life. It’s a philosophy I’ve pushed back on, but I was much younger and impressionistic at the time.
Richie (who died in 2013) was the greatest authority of Ozu, and other masters of Japanese filmmaking. I learned a lot on how to read his films from this book. I would recommend this to film lovers who may think there is only one way to make a movie. Ozu obviously had his own style, and even though he was a big fan of Hollywood movies, which Richie points out, his filmmaking never fell into the same pattern. He was a visual stylist, a gentle humanist, and simple genius.