Yasujiro Ozu has the esteem of being christened “The Most Japanese Filmmaker.” It’s certainly a high honor, but at first it can feel rather counter-intuitive, because after all such a great master of cinema cannot be considered a composite or even representative of Japanese film history. And it doesn’t seem like that is what this name is trying to get at. In reality Ozu experimented with the conventions written by classical western filmmakers over time and out of those frameworks he built his own unique aesthetic. It’s quite evident especially in his later films. That being said, his films are very Japanese in the way they interact with and dissect the culture that he comes out of, and that is paramount to understanding and appreciating his work.
A prime example is Late Autumn, Ozu’s penultimate film, a social-familial drama that shares a great deal of similarity to some of his earlier storylines. The fact is he’s constantly returning to these ideas of marriage, family, generational differences, and the underlying etiquette that is so prevalent to Japan and Asian cultures in general. Yes, he takes on the everyday as his subject matter, but far from being mundane, it suggests that Ozu gets at the very fabric of Japanese society like few directors were ever able to. But of course, much of what he examines is universal and that’s part of what allows his films to remain timeless.
One scene that proves crucial in Late Autumn occurs when the radiant young beauty Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) returns home to her mother in a huff. This scene is integral because she believes her mother is keeping secrets from her about getting remarried, and it threatens to drive a spike through their relationship.
As he often does, Ozu will use an extended establishing shot, in this case, the outside of the apartment, and he lingers on it for a time, as if to convey the space that his characters occupy. In fact, these type of sequence became so synonymous with the director they received the moniker “pillow shots.” Historians Bordwell and Thompson contend that we can “hardly consider these mere ‘establishing shots’ in the classical Hollywood usage, since many of them are more confusing than orientating” (6).
The following long shot is of young Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) walking solemnly down a hallway, and it conveys her dismay even from a distance. Her downward gaze tells the full story as much as the muted colors on the walls around her. Next we are situated inside her home watching Ayako come into the space that she shares with her mother. However, the normally peaceful sanctuary is certain to be a place of conflict, at least this evening. What follows is a long shot peering in from the next room, once again suggesting the distance that has already been created between these characters. Akiko (Setsuko Hara) comes into the frame for the first time. What it does is create a space for the audience to observe this intimate scene while still maintaining a certain amount of space to analyze what is in front of us.
There is a medium shot of the mother sitting down and she begins to talk about something routine like the groceries she was buying at the local market. What follows is one of Ozu’s variations on the classic Hollywood shot-reverse shot formula, as mother and daughter trade comments. Ayako is facing away from the camera, sitting by the window sill. Understandably Akiko is oblivious about what happened earlier. How could she know what her daughter heard from Mr. Mamiya? We end up going back and forth between mother and daughter with Akiko facing the camera head on as if she’s talking directly to the audience. Her daughter is completely turned although she does finally turn around and accuse her mother of lying. There’s still a noticeable distance between them.
But the camera does another interesting thing during this climactic moment. It makes a move, ending up behind the daughter, looking over her shoulder. It’s still stationary, but Ozu has circulated through this world made of 360 degrees of movement. Thus, “Once this pattern of circular space is established, Ozu’s films use the same devices Hollywood does, but without the axis of action” (29). Essentially, he is not constrained by the 180 degrees of Hollywood filmmaking. Such a tactic allows him to elicit a different response and capture a different view in such an integral sequence. Because Ayako has just accused her mother of hiding her plans of marriage, and we know what she’s talking about, but if we look at Ayikko’s face we can tell she’s confused; certainly befuddled by it all.
Then, just like that Ayako gets up to leave and once more the camera shows a medium shot of the doorway. This time the mother gets up and questions her daughter, but really it’s directly to the audience once more. She doesn’t get an answer as her daughter leaves without a word, the door closing behind her. It’s seemingly such an everyday look at human interaction, but it’s full of so much meaning, so much emotion. A great deal of that is thanks to Ozu and how he situated his camera in reference to his two actors. Each works off the other in perfect unity to make this sequence simple but at the same time dynamic in its effectiveness. We care about these people and truly feel their hurt, because we are experiencing it alongside of them.
This scene really resonates because it feels like one of the first times we actually get to know these characters. Oftentimes we cannot judge people by how they interact when times are good. That especially rings true in a Japanese culture that often appears to hide behind manicured etiquette and demure smiles. True, all cultures do this in a sense, but it feels especially prevalent in Japan. It’s a nation where the whole is more important than the individual. You’re not to show how feeling out of respect for those around. However, it’s when there’s actually a source of conflict or pain that a person’s true character breaks through the guarded exterior. In this instance, Akiko no longer carries her ever-present grin, but instead it’s given way to a look of deep concern. Her daughter was equally bright-eyed most of the film, and now her brow is furrowed with frustration. These are not the character we first met, or perhaps this is the first time we have seen them for who they really are. They have shed the holistic mentality, and finally given way to their true self.
To Ozu’s credit, he sets up his scenes beautifully, optimizing the space in front of him and situating his camera in a way that is unobtrusive yet unique. It provides the perfect environment for examining his human subjects in their natural rhythms of life. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, and it’s ultimately very telling of the human condition.
R.I.P. Setsuko Hara