Ohayo (1959)

Good_morning_dvdIf Yasujiro Ozu can be considered foremost among Japan’s preeminent directors then there’s no doubt that Ohayo (Good Morning in English) is one of his most delightfully silly films. But that’s only on the surface level.

Young boys are unified in their affection for watching sumo on television and passing gas as a great gag to pull on their friends. Nosy housewives gossip incessantly whether it be the next door neighbor’s new washing machine or the mysterious disappearance of dues for the local women’s association. Meanwhile, most of the men go to work and spend their evenings knocking a few back at the bar noting how much the world is changing around them. Then they go home oftentimes a little drunk.

Ohayo is actually a reimagining of one of Ozu’s most remembered early pictures during his silent days I Was Born But… (1932) and yet he skillfully reworks the storyline into an everyday comedy of family and neighborhood drama that’s full of humor and his brand of quietly observant social commentary.

Ozu always took great care in analyzing family units and matrimonial bonds that affected relationships. Although we have a bit of a fleeting young romance in the works, this film’s greatest concern are two young boys from the Hayashi family who are giving their parents the silent treatment until they are allowed to have a television. Their parents are holding out and it begins a rather humorous ordeal as the brothers Minoru and the ridiculously comical Isamu (constantly exclaiming “I Love You”) try to make it through dinner, school, and so many other daily activities without a word.

As he would dissect many times over, Ozu focuses on the generational divide that was emerging and becoming increasingly prevalent in the post-war years as reflected by technological advancements like television and other such devices slowly turning present Japan into a land of a million idiots. At least that’s what the older generations feel.

Still, it’s just as equally occupied with the moral customs that have long ruled the nation where wives can speak so kindly to their neighbors up front only to slander them behind their backs a moment later. Saving face and personal honor is often cared about far more deeply than anything else — even in some circumstances when it happens to be at the expense of another family member.

Perhaps the most troubling thing is the very Japanese predilection to talk about nothing in particular, filling conversations with salutations, pleasantries, and comments on the current weather patterns. It hardly ever gets to anything of substance and that comes in numerous forms. Sometimes it means a young man never gets around to sharing his feelings with a girl or adults never being particularly candid with neighbors or spouses. There’s very little of that kind of transparency to be had. Few of the words passed along between people in conversation mean all that much.

The irony of the whole situation is that, in one such instance, it’s a young son who calls them out on it and he proceeds to get a heavy scolding from his father (Chishu Ryu) who bluntly tells him that he talks too much. Meanwhile, although Izamu can be constantly chiming “I Love You” in English, there’s an uneasy sense that his parents and most certainly his father, might have never said the words to him.

In these very simple ways Ozu rather delicately and still humorously tackles many of the issues that have long plagued an honor-based culture such as Japan’s but he does it with an adroitness that uses touches of humor and his own understanding of human nature to craft yet another universal tale that’s ultimately sympathetic in its portrayals.

It unsurprisingly feels like it could be a Japanese episode of Leave it to Beaver except for the father never has much of a talking to with his sons and the mother may be as put together as June Cleaver but hardly feels ever as affectionately maternal.

Equally spectacular is Ozu’s mise-en-scene which as per usual is meticulously staged and gorgeous in scene after scene. He offers up each individual image in a flat two-dimensional way that can best be described as taking cues from not only the theater but Japanese woodblock paintings with wonderful symmetry and compositions boosted by color.

He uses the clique of adjoining homes as the perfect set to send his characters in and out of with the hint of comedic forethought. While watching characters walking by on the hillside up above the homes — their figures slowly moving in and out of the frame past the houses — this provides some of Ohayo’s most visually stimulating images pleasing the eye incessantly.

There’s always a visual fearlessness that you see in very few others because he not only has color at his disposal but the staging is on point as is his disregard of the 180-degree rule of perspective. It just works. What is more, he also continues to use what could best be called establishing shots by western audiences. Except they hardly ever need to establish anything. It’s as if he simply put them there because they are vivid depictions of the reality he is painting — adding yet another distinct contour to the world he is working with — going beyond the figures that he places within the frame.

There’s no doubt that this is Ozu but not all that surprisingly this might be my personal favorite in his oeuvre for the aforementioned reasons. It feels like Ozu operating at his most playful while nevertheless maintaining his peak form as a filmmaker.

4.5/5 Stars

 

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

an_autumn_afternoon_filmposterThere’s something overwhelmingly soothing about Ozu, simultaneously slowing my pulse and calming my nerves. Yes, An Autumn Afternoon stands as his final film. Yes, he would sadly pass away the following year. But there’s a comfort to watching his films unfold — even his last one. The drama is everyday and somehow disarming and pleasant. We often take for granted that Ozu was not planning to end here. This was not supposed to be his last film. It just happened that way.

However, that is the way that the world turns and with such of an outcome we get one final candid view of the director at work — his confident and streamlined aesthetic that at this point is instantly recognizable. It’s not simply about content, though his film examines many of his usual preoccupations of years gone by. It’s really about the form.

His palette is by this point assured and at the same time vibrant and free. Everything is in its precise place, the colors bright and cheerful — a certain amount of authenticity married with simple visuals that take impeccable staging, facades, and a static camera to tell his narrative in a very particular way.

And he’s willing to break the rules of perspective that have forever been textbook Hollywood law and yet the way he does it is hardly off-putting. In fact, it’s rather reassuring. His figures always looking at us directly, carrying on conversations, sharing in pleasantries or even chortling together over some small trifle. And we get to be fully a part of that both the trivialities and the drama.

Still, I am constantly being drawn to different things around the edges of the screen. Distracted in a good way by various bottles placed throughout the frame, bowls placed in front of our figures, or Suntory logos that hang overhead. Important, certainly not, but still they mesmerize me for some unexplainable reason.

And I have long gotten over any amount of impatience in the pacing of Ozu. Shots of empty rooms. Seemingly pointless conversations. Eating and drinking. It’s all palatable. It’s more about savoring every little moment for what it is. Because that’s what Ozu was truly a master at capturing. So many people behind a camera can capture high drama with enough action, intrigue, and scandal. But it takes a fairly fearless individual to put a microscope (or a movie camera for that matter) up to the banality of life. Yet it’s the true irony, that it’s precisely in those places we kind find so much truth pertinent to our own existences.  Yes, it’s true.

Meals with friends. Family conversations. Husbands. Wives. Fathers. Daughters. Brothers. And so on. It’s no surprise that these are all things that Ozu looked at before and if he had continued making films he would have undoubtedly continued. The same social mores and familial relationships that while uniquely Japanese, still share enough with the rest of humanity to be oddly universal.

In this case, his favorite protagonist (Chishu Ryu) is a widower who lives with his grown daughter and son. It’s his buddies who chide him to let his daughter go so she can get married before she’s an old maid. And while in previous iterations Ozu looked deeply at the heartbreak, the emotional effects are slight. The daughter is relatively happy. The father is wistful but still resolved to live his life. The ever-changing aspects of life are felt but hardly earth-shattering. Instead, mankind is forced to continually wax and wane with the times. There is a time for a laughter, a time for tears, a time for work, a time for play, and so on.

Although the father-daughter relationship is the nucleus the film boasts a surprising depth of character. There are coworkers, old war acquaintances, former teachers, and the brother and sister-in-law. In fact, the venerable Mariko Okada is always one of my favorites in Ozu’s films and she picks up where she left off in Late Autumn with a certain spunkiness and vivacity.

If this must be our exit point from Ozu’s work, it’s a relatively easy place to leave. It’s a beautiful, warm portrait of modernity. Two old war buddies can assert that maybe it was for the best that the Allies won the war. A husband can really want a pair of golf clubs, though he doesn’t have the money to buy them. Old men can gather around a table for a party and joke about their old teachers. It’s a delectable slice of life.

4.5/5 Stars

Late Spring (1949)

latespring1Late Spring is a film that I found in some ways more rewarding than Tokyo Story, another acclaimed classic from Yasujiro Ozu. Both films share a few of his trademarks. They are home dramas with basic, everyday plots, termed Shomin-geki. Also exhibited are a stationary camera and low camera angles that Ozu often used to focus on his characters while sitting. In this way, he invented the quintessentially Japanese viewpoint known as the “tatami shot.” We see it most certainly in Late Spring as the daughter Noriko interacts with her widowed father or when they have friends over in their home. It may look somewhat similar to Tokyo Story, but it does differ in subject matter.

Late Spring is a film about fathers and daughters. Marriage and divorce. All the things that make up a life that remain the same whether you’re in modern America or post-war Japan. Noriko is a pretty young woman who is devoted to her aging father through thick and thin. He likes having her around and she likes being there for him.

It’s the culture, namely aunts and friends, who tell Norkio that she must get married. She’s 27 years old, and she needs to find a husband before it’s too late. Her father won’t be around forever. She’ll need to make a new life for herself. But Noriko is content with not listening to the voices trying to sway her. Only when her father talks to her about marriage does she finally begin to listen. He makes conversation about getting remarried and encourages her to think about an arranged marriage that her aunt has waiting for her.

We never meet this man who supposedly looks like Gary Cooper, but Noriko seems to genuinely like him. And yet there still is something that isn’t quite right. In Japan there is great importance in “reading the air,” and it seems like some of the characters in Ozu’s film fail at this or they see only what they want to see.

latespring3In the end, Noriko gets married and it should be no surprise because it was what was ultimately expected of her. Her father, on the other hand, acknowledges to a friend that he had no intention of getting remarried, it was only to prompt Noriko. Professor Somiya took on a great sacrifice in the eyes of society and goes home alone.

This is a bittersweet tale that is surprisingly funny on many occasions, but it is also topped off with human tragedy. Not death or dying, but something potentially worse in loneliness and discontentment. It is only a thought, but it seems like Noriko and her father would have both been happy with the status quo. However, their sensibilities and society said otherwise, so they acted as they were expected to. From this simple drama comes one of the most powerful films on father-daughter relationships ever.

I must admit, at first, I really was not fond of Chishu Ryu’s character, but over the course of the story, he grew on me. As for Setsuko Hara, she is an amazing example of kindness and servility, but also the undisputed muse of Yasujiro Ozu.  Late Spring also plays off the conflict between the old and new not to mention the traditional Japan and western culture. It’s not a blatant presence, but the allusion to Coca-Cola and Gary Cooper reminds us that this is a post-war Japan still recuperating from an awful war. That’s the backdrop of this film and its part of what makes Ozu’s human drama all the more striking. Despite, where it is situated in the historical context, Late Spring is a timeless film giving calculated insight into human relationships.

4.5/5 Stars

Tokyo Story (1953)

42390-tokyo_story_posterThis critically acclaimed Japanese film directed by Yasujiro Ozu has a relatively simple plot having to do with a kind elderly couple going to Tokyo to visit their adult children and extended family. They are excited to see the big city but it is not quite like they had expected. Furthermore, all their relatives and family have very busy lives making it difficult for them to spend time with the couple. The eldest son who is a doctor and then a daughter who owns a salon decide to send their parents off to a spa. Unhappy, the elderly couple return to Tokyo but they feel like they are imposing. Finally, the two of them head home and there the wife becomes ill. Because she is dying, her children do decide to visit. However, after she has passed away it seems they all too soon forget her and go on with life. This film is an interesting study of the void between generations. It also uses realism and focuses on the manners of the Japanese without fully criticizing them.

4.5/5 Stars