Shoplifters (2018)

Shoplifters_(film).jpgHirokazu Kore-eda has quickly become one of my favorite Japanese directors and I consider it fortuitous that this affinity has cropped up in such a fertile period. Shoplifters is a high water mark in his already illustrious career.

Many folks are probably quick to label him the modern generation’s Ozu because it is an easy and harmless claim to make — a very complimentary one at that. Though, Kore-eda himself rightfully likens his work to Ken Loach or even Mikio Naruse. But if we conjure these names it seems equally apt to consider Vitorio De Sica’s, particularly The Bicycle Thieves, especially in the context of this film.

He’s shown it before but Kore-eda exposes us different strata of Japan. It is more personal, humble, and if we can make the claim, more realistically transparent. You will not see his world in Lost in Translation (2003). Because he shows us something that many people probably would not want to acknowledge, much less those making the laws and running Japanese society.

His central characters are a husband and wife, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who approach life as countercultural enigmas within the country at large. He is a struggling day laborer, hampered by a sprained ankle and she is ultimately laid off from her position at a local laundry firm. These are hardly spoilers and more remarkable indications just how extraordinary their relationships are. Because together they form a ragtag yet tight-nit nucleus of a family.

Living with them are Grandma (Kiki Kirin), a runaway hostess club worker named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and a taciturn son named Shota. The beauty is how we know these individuals as part of a symbiotic unit. We assume each one is a sister or a son until we realize just how unique this “family” really is.

It begins coming into focus when the “parents” take in a lost little girl named Yuri. There are signs of neglect and even abuse on the part of her parents that leave her seemingly detached from the world. But through constant nurturing and their own brand of endearment, she begins to come out of her shell and feel safe once more. It is through the lens of her situation we most distinctly view the discrepancies apparent in such an overtly unified society.

It is a movie that I must consider in the context of actually spending a great deal of time living in Tokyo. Because the city itself is wonderful, the streets are clean, everything has order and tranquility. But it all comes down to being perceptive. If you look around you begin to see the flaws, the skeletons in the closets, and the issues residing very near the surface.

You have this monumental epidemic of loneliness in this sea of humanity, the reality that many old people die alone without a network of community or because they have little welfare or funds, the elderly take up menial jobs just to survive in their old age. Fewer and fewer people are getting married. The population in Japan is slowing declining.

All types of folks fritter away their days (and money) in Pachinko parlors, or they seek out some kind of intimacy through tawdry forms of sensual pleasures. Even well-to-do families — those who represent what we might call “The Japanese Dream,” fathers with well-paying jobs, a beautiful wife with fine, intelligent kids — they can be dying a little bit every day on the inside too.

If the Shoplifters is capable of pointing us to anything meaningful, at the very least, it suggests how imperative personal relationships are. They must be built on affection and genuine concern. There must be space for feelings and love and closeness. Ironically, for a place with so many people, Tokyo is just about the most isolating place you can possibly exist in.

The film also creates this utterly riveting dichotomy that we might tie back to De Sica’s famed neorealist picture. Because many people will see the film’s title and frame the entire narrative through that window of perception. Here is a family living in poverty and stealing produce and things to make ends meet. On a surface level, this is all true. In fact, we meet Osamu and Shota in the act of their very meticulous thievery of a grocery store. It begs that question of what would you do to provide for your family?

However, one could argue Shoplifters takes it a step or two further along this moral gradient. What really is right and wrong? Are the ways we monitor the differences in society really just or is their more nuance to the definitions than we normally give allowance for?

To another point, yes, this family is breaking the law. There is no doubt about it whatsoever and yet you look at how they treat one another and live with such close-knit bonds and you wonder. Again, it is the so-called “honest citizens” who treat their children’s lives with such detachment or worst yet derelicting their duties as parents completely. They substitute material things for true concern. There is no competition. One is utterly infectious and meaningful, brimming with life and authenticity. The other feels callous, shallow, and fake.

If it is a critique, then it works in the most benevolent commentary known to man. Kore-eda has such an elegant, nonconfrontational approach to his material, you never feel like you’re are being preached to. Instead, he rightfully invests in onscreen relationships to make them feel genuine.

Because if shoplifting is in the title this movie is nevertheless an exploration of so many vast and varied topics that are well worth our time and money to consider. Kore-eda makes each one more than worthwhile through his deft touch and handling of each character. His children feel real and genuine even as his adults have multi-faceted contours worth pulling back.

In Matsuoka’s scenes at her work, the few solitary moments we have there somehow evoked Paris, Texas (1984) for me. Because in one sense, we are provided certain expectations — this outer veneer with preconceived notions of what this place will be — only to have them be subverted in the most beautifully illuminating manner possible.

The most meaningful revelation comes when she finally comes face-to-face with one of her customers in a small, intimate space. The man, who barely utters a sound, does not even crave sexual intimacy but contact in general. He’s lying in her lap docilely to hear her talk peacefully and share a moment with her for a couple of solitary minutes. They form another connection even in this short span — perhaps more affecting than anything else that has happened to him in recent memory.

Out of all the scenes in the movie, this one literally broke my heart. It’s difficult to describe but it is one of the best examples I can put to the debilitating loneliness often found in a place like Tokyo. You begin to understand how monumentally alone people might feel. These are not depraved folks seeking out sensual gratification; these are the isolated men and women looking for some human contact; any contact. You don’t hug in Japan. Even the physical touch in itself is life-giving. Our main family embodies this kind of affection to the core of their being.

While the final act takes us into new territory and for different reasons the makeshift family gets pulled apart at the seams, there is still this wistful sense of relationship. It was never discord that was going to break them apart. It always had to do with the outside stressors and rigid reinforcement of the world around them.

Even in this social structure they still find brief momentary nuggets of continual joy and familial warmth. These emotions are so powerful and so very difficult to hold onto but when you can they imbue life with so much meaning. One prime example is a family pilgrimage to the beach — getting them out of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo life — for a bit of freedom.

Kirin Kiki is phenomenal again in this picture and while not her actual swan song, it is a fitting final testament to her versatile and highly perceptive talents. Although I’ve become acquainted with her quite recently, she will be dearly missed on the cinematic landscape.

The ultimate beauty of this film, however, is the very fact it is not about one individual but the whole interwoven network of lives stitched together. It does feel like a humbling experience. It is a film that suggests revelation can come from the most unassuming of places. We can learn more from a lowly thief than we might ever learn from all the professors, salarymen, and big wigs in Tokyo. It is a stirring reminder of where true worth and priorities need to come from.

4.5/5 Stars

 

I Was Born But… (1932)

800px-I_Was_Born,_But..._1932.jpg

What strikes me right away about Yasujiro Ozu’s silent classic is just how relatable it feels. Yes, this is a Japanese film and yes, it’s silent too but watching the scenarios play out on screen have an undoubted timelessness. This is decidedly fresh material that’s blessed with humor and grace like the best silent comedies.

It’s a narrative about two young boys who have moved with their family to the Tokyo suburbs. As is usually the case it’s brought on by their father’s work and the whole family must get used to it. For the boys specifically, that means a new school and getting to know the neighborhood kids with their carefully enacted social hierarchy. Simply put, the biggest kid rules the roost and the new kid on the block is always bound to get the worst of it.

So obviously we witness the ensuing verbal skirmishes and a few fistfights where the clogs come off and are brandished as built-in weaponry. That’s all part of the rite of passage where the brothers must prove themselves. If we learn anything from this comedy, again, it’s the fact that many things have not changed all that much. Boys haven’t changed that much. At least not in the core important things that still hold weight.

Certainly, this is a less organized and less done up exploration compared to Ozu’s later endeavors but that’s part of the charm. The comedy at times is so pure and simple it gives the sensation of some of the early kid comedies like Our Gang or Chaplin’s The Kid (1921). Watching the posse of boys scamper every which way necessitates no understanding of language or culture. Watch and you understand.

Sparrow’s eggs preclude the pumice stones in Ohayo (1959) decades later as the boy’s favorite keepsake. In this particular hierarchy, it buys them a coveted place at the house of the richest kid whose parents are showing off their home movies. It’s a novel thing for all the boys and they look on with baited breath.

As it turns out, the Yoshi boys’ father is a real cut up, a real funny man, and they couldn’t be more ashamed, from the self-deprecating performance he gives for the bosses camera. This is far more than a few images that garner a few laughs. This is an affront to their father’s character and subsequently their family honor. But this hardly ever feels like a Japanese cultural issue, this is an issue that arises in the hearts and minds of proud, naive boys.

It’s the colliding viewpoints of children and adults and rather surprisingly the film is willing to look at the perspective of the kids. If Ozu’s initial work shares any similarity with Ohayo many years later, it’s at this juncture. The boys decide to protest their father by keeping silent and not acknowledging his presence since he has wounded them so egregiously. They’ve mastered the scowl to perfection as they glower in the front yard eating their mother’s onigiri. It seems like they’ll never be able to face the other kids again and they’ll never forgive their father.

Those very themes alone make this universal storytelling and it’s easy to forget for even a moment that this is a film brought to us from 1930s Japan. Because there is something going on here that feels so real. Every young boy wants to think of their father as a big deal, the king of the hill, a big success, and when we are met with anything that seems to contradict that vision we have, it does hurt us.

Still, what the story does well is to find a resolution where the boys can still be content in who their father is, beginning to comprehend a little bit the situation he is in. Even as they get a little help from the local paperboy to vanquish the local bullies, they ultimately gain a small dose of sympathy for their dad. If they don’t quite understand why he has to say good morning to his boss every day and treat him with such deference, as they grow older they might start to appreciate him more.

However, it does seem like something is lost in the translation of this title for American audiences but the subtitle does suggest more meaning. This is an “Adult’s Picture Book View” so we are looking at a child’s world from an adult perspective and though it’s inherently funny we gain a greater respect for both children and parents.

4.5/5 Stars

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 Autumn (1960)

lateautumn1Yasujiro 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 average or a composite in the scheme of Japanese film history. And I don’t think that is what this title is trying to get at. The fact is that Ozu, over time, really experimented with the conventions written by classical western filmmakers and he built his own unique aesthetic that is quite evident later in his career. That being said, his film’s are very Japanese in the way they interact with and dissect the culture that he comes out of, and I think that is paramount to understanding and ultimately appreciating his work.

It’s no different with Late Autumn, Ozu’s penultimate film, a social-familial drama that shares a great deal of similarity to some of his earlier work. The fact is, he’s constantly returning to these ideas of marriage, family, generational differences, and the underlying etiquette that is so prevalent in Japan and Asian cultures in general. But of course, much of what he examines is universal and that’s what allows his films to remain timeless.

With Late Autumn, in particular, it’s easy to marvel at how the director frames his space because he seems to have tremendous spatial recognition. He’s confident in his aesthetics which he highlights with colors and axis lines, which are then further embellished with human subjects. Not many directors are brazen enough to show us an empty room, a hallway, or the mundane facade of a building, but Ozu is so self-assured in his composition. They are too long and occur too often to be establishing shots. He wants to continually convey to us the space that his characters inhabit and he’s meticulous. Everything is placed with pinpoint precision just the way he wants. And it shows.

On a basic level, Late Autumn can meld nicely with many of the director’s other works also based around the seasons. In this color installment, three adult men gather for the funeral of one of their mutual childhood friends. It’s a sad occasion as they wistfully remember the good old days when they were young and in love. But as a service to their deceased friend, they agree to find a husband for his sweet sunshine-faced daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa). However, they also worry for his widower Akiko (Setsuko Hara), who is equally beautiful, since the years have been very good to her. What follows is the typical fumbling attempts at matchmaking, trading manners, and so on. When Mr. Mamiya inquires if he should ask for a young man’s picture and resume, we assume it’s a joke, but he’s quite serious.

What makes Autumn different than earlier classics like Late Spring or even Tokyo Story, is that it shows the next generation of young people.  The kids embrace the rockability of Elvis while reading Mickey Mouse cartoons. The young adults are folks who have grown up in the specter of WWII. They want to leave behind the world of useless honor and restraint.They speak their minds and show their discontent.

lateautumn2I enjoy the light touches of humor injected into this film because the three chums sit around the bar making observations with a bouncy score that seems more at home in a Tati comedy. Sometimes they’re genuinely trying to be funny, but more often it’s hilarious because they’re actually so dysfunctional. They take on this task of watching over their friend’s family with all seriousness, but they get sidetracked by their own desires and personal concerns. They stir up rumors, make waves, and ultimately cause a lot of trouble. Everything gets muddled and it’s the blunt and frank assertions of young Yuriko (Mariko Okada) that points out their failures. She sees how they have made a mess of things and calls them out for it. Perhaps it feels abrasive, but I think they like her for it and the audience does as well. She’s a reflection of this new generation that’s not looking to mince words or hide behind social etiquette. They’re fed up with that type of lifestyle. In fact, Yuriko is the one who says marriage is the worst. The ideal would be if love and marriage always went together, but they don’t.

lateautumn3Thus, although the relationship between Ayako and her mother takes center stage as the film progresses, Yuriko is extremely pivotal. It’s the lives of the first two women that are affected by the unintentional bungling of these men, but it is Yuriko, who signifies change for the better. In many ways, this story feels very similar to Late Spring in particular, but the interest is not so much in original ideas as it is in re-imagining ideas. It’s a film for the 1960s where men are slowly losing their vice-like grip and societal norms are changing as women move to the forefront. But what remains are the suggestion that it’s alright to push back against societal pressures, and interpersonal relationships are delicate flowers that must be cultivated with care. So easily they can be trampled and destroyed. It takes a certain type of person to acknowledge their own faults while persistently loving those around them.

This is the utmost compliment, but in many ways, Setsuko Hara reminds me a great deal of my own grandmother, a woman who radiated a genuine kindness that was apparent to everyone who walked through life alongside her. Bless their souls. Both of them.

4.5/5 Stars

Ugetsu (1953)

ugetsu1During my film odyssey, I first met Kurosawa, then Ozu, and finally Mizoguchi. Each with similarities and most importantly their own personal touches when it comes to the language of cinema. Kenji Mizoguchi seems especially at home with Japanese folk tales in the jidaigeki mode of Japanese period-dramas. Ugetsu finds its inspiration in such a fable from 18th-century author Ueda Akinari, and it also gathers some inspiration from scroll painting. As the narrative arc begins, it’s as if the story is slowly getting rolled out bit by bit with the camera slowly tracking with the action.

In this case, our subject is a group peasant villagers who live with their wives. Genjuro is a farmer with a penchant for pottery, who has a little boy together with his wife Miyagi. Then, there is the often buffoonish Tobei, who has fantasies of one day becoming a samurai. His wife Ohama often becomes annoyed with his obsession. When marauders come and uproot them from their homes and yet they remain together. However, with the progression of time, Genjuro has become more obsessive over his pottery as avarice overtakes him, and Tobei can no longer quell his desire for military honor. Miyagi particularly notices a change in her husband, because money has become his everything and he has put his heart and soul into that kiln of his. True, it seems to pay heavy dividends when he takes his wares to the marketplace and gets a pretty penny, while also meeting the ravishingly beautiful Lady Wakasa.

ugetsu3For our male protagonists, their wildest dreams begin to play out. Genjuro has begun a euphoric fling with his new mistress with little concern for his wife and child he left behind. Simultaneously Tobei in a stroke of good-fortune captures the severed head of a high ranking general. Although he’s a nobody, he gets in with the right crowd and his greatest wish is granted. He becomes a big shot samurai complete with weapons, armor, tassels, and an imposing entourage.

Meanwhile, unspeakable things are happening to the women in their lives, but the men seem to be lost in their dreams. When they finally are given a heavy dose of reality, it can be painful, even violently chaotic at times. And yet the reality check proves necessary because in a way it allows these men to shake off the ethereal and live in the present — allowing them to be more fully realized versions of themselves.

ugetsu2Mizoguchi rather like Fellini has a great interest in the supernatural or at least dream worlds. It’s far from nightmarish horror at least in the modern sense, but it is an everyday type of horror, where husbands act out on their darkest desires, family members die, and so on. Some would say this is far worst because it hits closer to home. The world of dreamscapes and ghosts overlap with reality.

The director is also constantly utilizing long takes, but they’re far from stagnant, very often panning to the left to accentuate the feel of a scroll being unfurled. Especially in the marketplace you get the sense that you could easily be lost in a sea of people, but Mizoguchi only goes to close-ups at the most opportune moments. Otherwise, he is best suited in pseudo outdoors settings — integrating architecture and nature in perfect cohesion. These facades are put up for people to interact with whether it’s a hut or an outdoor pool, but it never loses its naturalistic beauty.

It feels quintessentially different than his contemporaries, allowing for a thoroughly unique view of the human condition. Certain types of ghosts haunt all of us whether they are choices that we wish we could take back or the hand we are dealt when our lives began. Thus, Ugetsu is remarkably poignant even in its antiquity.

5/5 Stars

Late Autumn: A Close Reading of a Japanese Auteur (2015)

lateautumn_1_originalYasujiro 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

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Make-way-for-tomorrow-1937It seems like Leo McCarey and this film for that matter often get lost in the shuffle. In his day he was a highly successful and well thought of director of such classics as The Awful Truth and Going My Way. However, his moving drama Make Way For Tomorrow is now often overshadowed by a similar film that used it as inspiration, Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953).

I will not pass judgment on which film I like more. In fact, to even begin to make a decision I would have to go back to both. However, this film opens by restating the 5th commandment. Honor thy father and thy mother. After all, this film is certainly about the gap between generations, parents with children, grandparents with grandchildren, but at its core is this main concern. Honor thy father and thy mother.

The film opens in the home of Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi). 4 of their 5 grown children are gathered together on the request of their parents who have something to tell them. Because their father has not been able to work, the bank is taking their house and so they will be displaced. Thus, the story is set up as the kids worry about what to do, because no one feels capable of taking both parents. Finally, it is decided that eldest son George (Thomas Mitchell) will take Mother, and one of the sisters will take father.

It is difficult for everyone. The old folks are split up for one of the first times in their 50 years of marriage. Meanwhile, grandma disrupts bridge lessons, makes life more of a nuisance on George’s daughter, and forces the maid to take on more hours. It does not make anyone angry at first, but it begins rubbing and chafing. Creating bitterness and annoyance which is arguably worse. Things reach the breaking point when George’s peeved wife finds out that her daughter is rendezvousing with men, and she is not happy at all when grandma confesses to knowing about it. She loses her temper and grandma apologizes. Seeing a letter from a retirement home she quietly decides it would be better for all if she simply moves there.

Her husband does not fare much better, and the harsh New York weather is taking a toll on his health. Furthermore, his daughter is obviously getting tired of him as her patience continues to wear thin. Mr. Cooper does make a friend in a kindly old shop owner (Maurice Moscovitch), but he soon is turned off as well. Finally, his daughter decides to send their father out of California. She says it’s for his health, but the real reason is she wants him off their hands so her other sister can deal with him.

With this new turn of events, Barkley and Lucy have one last meeting set up so they can spend time together before he is sent off to California. This is the most touching part of the entire film because underlying this oasis is the doubt that they might not see each other again. In the wake of that proposition, they have sort of a second honeymoon. They ditch the kids and have a magical evening just the two of them, reliving their youth and remembering the olden days. The miracle of this sequence is that everyone seems to finally understand them, appreciate them, and really honor them. They are offered a ride in an automobile and are met by the hotel manager who offers them drinks and listens to their wonderful stories of times past. Even the conductor plays a slow waltz just for the two of them. It’s a beautiful extended moment that is made especially moving in contrast to the earlier scenes. These are two people who, despite their advanced years, are still very much in love. It speaks to the importance that marriage holds in the life of some people. In certain circumstances, it is not a shallow event, but a lifelong friendship that carries so much weight.

When the time comes, the two lovebirds say goodbye at the train station and we don’t know what happens to them. We can guess certainly, but McCarey leaves a sweeter taste in our mouths before finishing with a realistic ending. It’s beautiful, moving, and tearful, but not in an overdramatic sort of way. In the mundane, sorrowful way that seems to reflect the rhythms of real life. Beulah Bondi was featured in some many great films, but I’m convinced that this was her greatest performance as an individual. Victor Moore was a worthy companion for her as well. However, my favorite character was probably the shopkeeper Max, because he was such a personable man in a sea of grumbling and annoyance.

5/5 Stars

Nebraska (2013)

Nebraska_PosterDirector Alexander Payne tackles his native Nebraska in this character study that is part road trip movie, part father-son drama. Honestly, I never knew much about Bruce Dern, but at well over 70, I think it is safe to say he gave one of his great performances as Woody Grant. In this story, he is convinced that he has won a million dollars. It’s not a scam to buy magazine subscriptions like everyone seems to tell him. Including his weary, but good-natured son David (Will Forte). Woody’s ornery wife Kate is fed up with his behavior. He’s feeble, absent-minded, and not as sharp as he used to be. In fact, David and his older Ross (Bob Odenkirk) are thinking of putting their dad in an old person home sometime soon.

However, Woody is bent on getting that money, even if he has to walk all the way to Lincoln Nebraska, from Billings Montana where he lives. It’s utterly ludicrous and everyone knows it except Woody. But instead of fighting it, David sees it as a chance to spend some quality time with his dad away from his job in an electronics store. So the two of them set off to Nebraska to spend time with Woody’s family in his old stomping grounds.

Now Woody’s not much of a talker similar to his brothers (including Rance Howard), however, David and the audience soon come to realize that despite a rough exterior and alcohol problems, he really is a kind man. He’s a giver. That’s evident whether it was his family or his former partner, the opportunistic Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Because when all of these folks catch wind of the money, Woody becomes somewhat of a local celebrity and no one will believe that it’s not the case. They think it’s simply a dodge to avoid sharing the wealth.

Really most of the townspeople are petty, opportunistic, folks looking to gain from somebody else’s good fortune. However, it also revealed the shallowness of some, who were quick to ridicule when the money turned out not to be real. This film made me appreciate my own family in the Midwest and some of the more good-natured characters did strike a chord with me. There’s something so attractive about a community that remains so close-knit with each other over the years. I can never have the experiences of my grandparents. Even if I manage to be married for 50 or 60 years, I can never have that wonderful small town feel of returning to my roots and seeing all my classmates from bygone years. Although sometimes I suppose it can be a blessing and a curse because in small towns people will talk and that’s not always conducive to quality relationships.

That’s why when David lets his dad ride through town in front of all his old friends, it is such a poignant moment because he gifts his father one final moment of freedom to relish in front of his friends. All he got was a stupid hat that reads “Prize Winner,” but his son sold his car to allow his father to live out his dream one last time.

Because if you strip it down and take out all the white noise, this is a father and son film. It’s beautifully stark at moments with its modern black & white visuals. Yet it still has intimate scenes between father and son, that sometimes are incredibly sad, but also have a shard of hope attached to them. It took reading several other articles to latch onto the fact that this is seemingly Payne’s nod to the great Japanese director Ozu. Or at least he shares a lot of the same issues in this film and in some respects very similar pacing. It’s not some high-speed action flick, but it cares about deeper issues and reality. This is not California, but Nebraska and still relationships are universal. They look a shade or two different wherever you go, but never lose that personal meaning. It breaks through time and place, to speak to each of us on a personal level. Honor your father and mothers, because those relationships have great value even when they are a struggle.

4/5 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