Tag Archives: Ozu

A 1942 Japanese paean to duty and self-sacrifice with no mention of any war

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Between 1938 and 1946 Ozu Yasuojirô (1903-63) made only two movies. (An army reservist he was called up twice and was away from Shochiku Studio for three of these years). The second of them “Chichi Ariki” (“father from Ariki, which is where the son goes to teach chemistry; titled in English “There Was a Father”, 1942) does not mention any of Japan’s wartime enemies, and barely touches directly on military matters—the now 25-year-old son passes his draft physical, which is not surprise in that for a Japanese, he is a hulk. At the end, rather than going off for military service, he is returning, with his new wife (Fumiko [Mitsuko Mito], the daughter of his father’s friend and go opponent) to Ariki, carrying his just-deceased father’s ashes in the luggage rack above his seat in the train.

The widower father, Horikawa Shuhei (Ozu regular pater familis Ryû Chishû) moved to Tokyo midway through the film, but dies of a heart attack, rather than from American bombs — which were not yet blanketing Tokyo when the movie was shot. When the present-day of the movie is remains opaque. It is thirteen years after Horikawa resigned from being a middle-school math teacher after a boy in his charge — defying explicit orders not to go out in boats on the lake the school group was visiting — drowned.

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No one but Horikawa blamed him from the accident. His colleague Hirata (Sakamoto Takeshi) in particular urges him to stay, but Horikawa retreats to his native town of Ueda, staying with an old friend who is a priest. Horikawa realizes he needs to make more money than he can in Ueda in order to send his son to (middle) school and moves to Tokyo, where he works as a low-level manager in a textile factory.

The son, Ryohei (played by Tsuda Hahuhiko as a child by the hunky Sano Shûji as an adult) being inculcated in Duty, Duty, Duty, has to live in boarding school, longing for occasional time with his father. They spend their time together fly-fishing in a rocky stream (in which as far as I can tell, they never catch a single fish) and deferring to each other about who will bathe first.

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Ryohei continues to long to live with his father, but when he proposes coming to Tokyo and finding a job, his father erupts with a lecture about his duty to stay where he is and teach those who are the future of the Empire. Teaching is vital work, never mind that Shuhei himself abandoned it in guilt (or shame?) after the boy’s drowning and, in effect, has punished his son for his own sin of omission (at least a failure of watchfulness over his charges). Sacrifice is not only necessary, but good (a message the brunt of which is borne by daughters in later Ozu movies).

Though there is no propaganda for Japanese militarism in this — let me stress 1942 — movie, its inflexible call to duty in general, and keeping one’s place in the society, submitting to paternal authority, pleased the government authorities in charge of the Japanese movie industry (after 1939). The movie was a critical and commercial hit, even without any battle scenes and without any of the women sacrificing themselves to their vision of what the family needed, as was common in Ozu’s more famous postwar movies.

Ryû was good and at least in the first half played his own age. Both Ryoheis were also good, swallowing their hurt (and tears). The Ozu camera was already fixed at the height of one meter, but the intercutting kept it from seeming visually static. And there were some outdoors scenes: not only trains, which recur in Ozu movies, but the trout stream.

I’ve already noted that in commanding his son to stay at his teaching post, Horikawa Shuhei is effectively saying “Do as I say, not as I did.” As with later fathers Ryû played in Ozu films, Horikawa Shuhei downs a lot of sake.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The other movie Ozu made during the war, which has the more typical female self-sacrifice, was Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941). For my other reviews and ratings of other parts of Ozu’s oeuvre see here.

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Ambivalent regard for the films of Ozu Yasujiro

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As what I have posted about Ozu films shows, his work frequently frayed my patience. Especially his wartime and postwar fixed camera placement a meter above the floor seems to me restrictive for no good reason. I like his earlier, more fluid work. Though even in the era of silent films, he often set up a frame through which people (or trains) moved through, he sometimes panned, sometimes tracked.Ozu did not hold particular shots (as his Taiwanese admirers, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Lai do to pathological degrees IMO). That is, he cur very frequently, if only back and forth between two people conversing (often without looking at each other, btw). He did not believe actors could remember more than a few lines and did not risk line-flubbing in any extended take.

Like his Shochiku Studio contemporary, Naruse Mikio, Ozu’s range of subject matter was very narrow (in marked contrast with younger members of the pantheon like Ichikawa, Kurosawa, and Shinoda). From the 1940s through the 1960s, his movies are about families, though there was some comedy (Ohayo, Floating Weeds) not just self-sacrificing women spinning away  with varying degrees of voluntariness from stoic buty regret-filled parents.

Someone who lived with his mother until she died had limited experience of relationships and idealized the mothers in his movies, though less than the daughters played by Hara Setsuko (who retired when Ozu dies in 1963, on his 60th birthday).

Here are my IMDB ratings (1-10)  from the Ozu films I’ve seen.

1929 I Graduated but… (only fragments of which I survive) 6

1930 Walk Cheerfully 6

1930 That Night’s Wife 7

1932 I Was Born but... 8

1933 Dragnet Girl 6

1934  A Story of Floating Weeds 6.5

1941 The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family 7

1942 There Was a Father 6.5

1949 Late Spring 8

1951 Early Summer 8

1953 Tokyo Story 8

1956 Early Spring 5

1957 Tokyo Twilight 7

1958 Equinox Flower 7.5

1958 Ohayo/Good Morning 9

1959 Ukiguse/Floating Weeds 8

1960 Late Autumn 7.5

1961 The End of Summer 8.5

1962 An Autumn Afternoon 8

(I’ve seen 19 of the 49 full-length films IMDB lists, none of the 1930s comedies and not the 8 earliest one)

Now, on to Mizoguchi Kenji, the third of the “old masters,” then to more recent stuff!

Tokyo-ga

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Wim Wenders is the German “new wave” director with the least ability to tell stories. I remember that once upon a time I liked his “Kings of the Road” (1976), which had no plot, and “Paris, Texas” (1984), which had very little. I thought that Wenders’s “Hammett” (1982) was unbelievably bad and would have cut about two hours from “Wings of Desire” (1987).  It surprises me not at all that he assisted Michelangelo Antonioni, the premiere anti-narrative director, in making “Beyond the Clouds” (1995).

Since Wenders often offers arresting images, I thought that his filmed impressions of Tokyo, ca. 1983, might be interesting (in a visual, non-narrative, Antonioni way). Moreover, it was something of a pilgrimage in quest of traces of the Tokyo of Ozu Yasujiro‘s (1903-1963) films (with their static camera setup and slight plots; “Tokyo Story” from 1953 is the most widely lauded; “Ohayo” from 1959 is a particular favorite of mine).

Ozu’s cameraman (throughout the last decades of Ozu’s oeuvre), Atsuta Yuuharu, shows Wenders the traditional house and garden in which most of Ozu’s films of his last twenty years were filmed, and how Ozu and Atsuta set the camera up very low (closeups were shot from just below the eye-level of someone seated, longer shots were shot from lower still). Atsuta’s continued devotion to Ozu is the most affecting part of Wenders’s film.

Wenders also interviewed Ryû Chisû, who played father roles in Ozu movies from the 1930s into the 1960s. Ryu also venerated the memory of Ozu and takes Wenders to Ozu’s grave (a black granite stone with a single archaic character meaning “nothingness” on it). Ryu washes the headstone.

Other than those two important, recurrent collaborators with Ozu, what Wenders finds of Ozu’s Tokyo is that there are trains to film, including orange ones and green ones (saturated colors are a hallmark of the German New Wave). Winders runs into Werner Herzog atop the Tokyo Tower. Herzog expounds at some length, but there are neither subtitles nor paraphrasing from Wenders (as there is for Ryu and Atsuta—the only subtitles are French ones for some footage from Ozu at the beginning and the end of the film).

The rest of the film tells me nothing I didn’t know about Tokyo and shows very little. I’ve seen Japanese baseball (albeit not as played by the very young children Wenders filmed) and the building-top golf driving-ranges and Pachinko parlors (though not as many closeups of the silver-colored balls). What I had not seen but grew tired of watching was the manufacture of the plastic models of food that are displayed in Japanese restaurants here as well as those in Japan.

He also shows some young Japanese dancing in Yoyogi Park to 1950s American rock’n’roll (plus one with Blondie on his boombox). Their intensity is interesting, but Wenders does not question any of them about what they are doing or why.

As I remembered, Wenders’s English is fluent (less accented than Herzog’s) but what he says tends to be ponderous. My memory (from a personal appearance in Berkeley with “Kings of the Road”) was reconfirmed. Wenders expresses wonder at what he shows, but has nothing analytical to say to enhance viewers’ understanding of Japan (ca. 1983 or in Ozu’s time of rapid change, 1953.

Wenders attempts to make something of the irony of the televisions of the world being made in Japan and broadcasting American or American-influenced popular culture, but has nothing at all original to say about “globalization” or about the erosion of traditional authority (Ozu’s leitmotif).

For someone familiar with and reverential toward Ozu’s films, “Tokyo-Ga” is somewhat boring. Similarly, someone familiar with Tokyo now might have some interest in seeing how little it has changed in a quarter of a century. For someone who lacks such interests and familiarity, I’d think “Tokyo-Ga” would be very boring. (And, it may bear stressing that I am someone who on occasion grows impatient with Antonioni films, but who does not find Antonioni’s anti-narrative visualizations boring. Even with a higher than seems to be usual tolerance for films low on plot, I find Wenders’s films often boring and usually incoherent.)

“Tokyo-ga” is included as a bonus eature in the Criterion edition ot Tokyo Story.”

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

A good woman redeeming more people in Ozu’s “Dragnet Girl”

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“Hijôsen no onna” (1933), available in a set of Ozu silent “crime movies” as “Dragnet Girl” is similar to “Walk Cheerfully” in portraying redemption of a hoodlum/thief (mugging rather than picking pockets) by a woman. This time, instead of spurning his moll companion, Tokiko (Tanaka Kinuyo, who would later become the muse of Mizoguchi Kenji and directed some films herself), the boxer turned robber, Jyoji (Oka Jôji) agrees to surrender to the police at the behest of the moll, who has been transformed by the Victor record-store clerk), Kazuko (Mizukubo Sumiko) who has also moved her man. Hiroshi (Mitsui Kôji), Kazuko’s school-skipping brother is training to be a boxer (as Jyoji has), at the gym where Jyoji still hangs out, but wants to be a thug and presents himself to Jyoji as an admiring disciple, though, as Jyoji tells him, Jyoji does not have a gang and is a small-time hoodlum.

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Kazuko twice goes to Jyoji to beg him to release her high-school student brother, which Jyoji twice does. Tokiko is initially jealous of Kazuko, whose humbleness and virtuousness has impressed her man. When Tokiko goes to confront Kazuko, she is also impressed by Kazuko’s demure goodness. This inspires her to turn over a new leaf. To do so requires being punished (imprisoned) first, a path of which Jyoji is very dubious.

There is a ludicrous “one last job” (could that not already have been a cliché in 1933?), a holdup of her boss (who has wanted to make her his mistress) at gunpoint. Obviously, the robbed man knows her and can aim the police at where she lives with Jyoji. The ending in which Tokiko convinces Jyoji to surrender to the police is very, very protracted.

There are many scenes like those of Ozu sound pictures in which the camera is fixed and people and/or things move through the frame. And many of the frames have the camera about a meter above the floor (eye level for adults kneeling on the floor). There are two incongruous pans around a coffee pot (shots of objects with no people: “pillow shots”), and some tracking shots in addition to those of people walking through the frame.

I don’t recall any signs in Japanese. The office of the boss has “PRIVATE” on its door, the boxing gym has Roman letters for its name, the boxing posters (including one featuring Jack Dempsey) are in English, and there is a poster (in French) for “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Kazuko is the only character who wears Japanese garb (kimonos), and the visuals look American (like Sternberg’s “Underworld” more than like Warner Brother gangster movies). Tokiko appropriates a pistol, albeit one significantly less long-barreled than the one that Jyoji uses in their final robbery. In 1933 I doubt anyone would guess that Ozu would later be considered “the most Japanese” of Japanese film-makers. At the time, he was fascinated by American technology, by German and American movies.

And there are no parents in either of the two Ozu movies about redeeming criminals (willing to pay for their crimes with imprisonment). Kazuko is something of a mother surrogate for Hiroshi and foreshadows the dutiful daughters of later Ozu movies, but she is his sister, not his mother. The focus is on the two women. Ryû Chishû was on hand already, but only as an unnamed policeman.

I guess there is a dragnet in the last part. The Japanese title refers to the yarn with which Tokiko starts to knit socks for Jyoji. After the two of them surrender, the incomplete first sock is tossed up on a wire by one policeman, and the movie closes with a shot of the ball of yarn back in the apartment. I have no idea why Ozu focused on that barely-begun domestic production.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Ozu’s Last Film

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Sanma no Aji” (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962), what turned out to be the last movie made by Ozu Yasujiro (1903-63), mostly takes place in evenings, and there is no shot of leaves to indicate that it is autumn, and none of the characters wear (or take off) overcoats.

The movie was shot in vibrant color (the reds particularly pulsate, but there are yellow seats, yellow and blue ceramics that also seem drawn from the Douglas Sirk palette, prefiguring the saturated colors in Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love,” which was set only a year later than “An Autumn Afternoon”).

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Part of the movie (a drunkard who was once a middle school teacher of a group of alumni who still see each other regularly) prefigures Kurosawa’s last film, “Madadayo.” Now running a noodle stand, the teacher who had been nicknamed “the Gourd” (Eijiro Tono) bows lower to his former students than they do to him, though they still use respectful forms of address to him. And, having kept his daughter to run household, “the Gourd” is held up as an example for the widower Hirayama (Ozu regular Ryû Chisû) to avoid.

Ryu’s kindly business executive (Hirayama) puts back a lot of alcohol (beer, sake, Johnnie Walker black-label) during the movie, but always keeps his dignity. Once he realizes that his daughter is sacrificing her own life to take care of him and his younger son, he presses Michioko (Shima Iwashita) to marry (which involves go-betweens arranging a union). The movie ends on the father’s first night without the daughter who has been taking care of her since the death of his wife (that is, Michioko’s wedding night, but the wedding is not shown, nor is the groom, and the focus remains on the now womanless household of her father).

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As usual in Ozu sound movies, there was no camera movement, and no high angle shots. The cameras were usually stationed at 3.5 feet above the floor, with actors moving through the frame, but cuts were frequent enough to avoid the staticness of the movies of Ozu’s Taiwanese admirers (Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang). The musical score by Saitô Kojun worked very well without calling attention to itself.

It’s difficult to tell if Michioko was ambivalent about marriage or concealing her wishes to run the household of her deadbeat brother and mostly absent father. The focus is primarily on the aging father (the never-married Ozu’s alter ego) and the relationship seems more one of filial piety (and paternal responsibility) than the kind of close emotional father-daughter bond in “Late Spring” (1949).

An older son, Koichi (Kinoshita-regular turned Ozu-regular Sada Keiji), who lives elsewhere but needs money from the old man, comes across as a spendthrift, though he believes he is unjustly nagged by his frustrated wife, Akiko (Okada Mariko), whose impatience seems fully justified to me. (I’m not entirely sure whether Akiko and Michioko have jobs: I think both do.)

There is baseball on tv distracting one of the old schoolmates from conviviality, there are power-lines in abundance, along with red-and-white smokestacks, name-brand golf clubs, imported whiskey and cigarettes—all signs of the crumbling of the old order. The film ends in a long shot down a hall of a saddened Hirayama sitting in a semi-stupor (though it is possible to infer that he has found a possible second wife who reminds him of his first one, so that his future may not be as bleak as this final shot of Ozu’s career…)

Although the male characters are by no means lacking in selfishness, and the women show some irritation at their helplessness, drunkenness, and profligacy, the characters accept without question traditional roles, even as there are many signs of rapid social change, including social atomization and the obsolescence of traditional responsibilities.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Ozu’s tragicomic penultimate move: “End of Summer”

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Kohayagawa-ke no aki” means “Autumn for the Kohayagawa Family”; the 1961 film is known in English, included in the “late Ozu” Criterion release as “The End of Summer,” but also (despite the frequent mention of the heat and mopping of various brows) as “Early Autumn.” The English-language title of so many Ozu movies of the 1950s and 60s have a season specified that it is difficult for me to remember whether I have seen a particular one or not. “Kohayagawa-ke no aki.” was the second to the last movie he made. The title of the last one, “Sanma no aji” (1962) means “The Taste of Saury” but is known in English as “An Autumn Afternoon.” And the one before “Kohayagawa-ke no aki”, Akibiyori (1960) means “Late Autumn.”

They are all autumnal in the sense of showing patriarchs soon to die. Kohayagawa Manpei (Nakamura Ganjiro), the leprechaun-like (short, jolly, sly, egocentric) widower and owner of a store that probably will have to be acquired by a larger company has restarted visiting a mistress, Sasaki (Naniwa Chieko) with whom he was intimate a few decades earlier, though he is probably not the biological father of the woman’s mercenary daughter, Yuriko (Dan Reiko) who is dating Americans and trying to wheedle her supposed father into buying her a mink stole (despite the heat…)

Manpei’s elder daughter, Akiko (Hara Setsuko), a widow who strikes me as horse-faced though smart and kind, is being fixed up with the owner of a small steel factory, Isomura (Hisaya Morishige). A husband has been picked out for her sister Noriko (Tsukasa Yoko), too, though Noriko is in love with a man whose farewell party before taking a position in Sapporo is shown in the first scene.

Although the running time of “Kohayagawa-ke no aki” is less than that of the other films in the “Late Ozu” set, it moves at a pace I find slow, and I am more used to the pace of classic Japanese films than many others (who complain about the pace of Kurosawa films).

“”Kohayagawa-ke no aki” is more comic, less tragic than some other Ozu movies about getting daughters married. The slyness of Manpei playing with his children’s suspicions provides most of the comedy. His sister is critical of his always having done what he wanted, but his children, even the son-in-law (Hisa: Keiju Kobayashi), trying to keep the business afloat, are tolerant.

Conflicts are muted and one might miss the recurrent Ozu theme about social change, indicated by traditional vs. western dress, greater choice about husbands, declining family solidarity, garish neon signs, and the more capitalist less paternalistic businessmen (the differences are more dramatic in Kurosawa’s “I Live in Fear” form a few years before this movie)..

The movie does not need its epilogue provided by a couple working at the edge of a river and noticing an unusual number of crows about. But a bridge-crossing scene before that is quite beautiful (and a welcome break from interiors shot from cameras only a few feet above the floor, shooting up even at the very short Nakamura Ganjiro.

Being in its “Eclipse” line, there are no bonus features, but the visual (color, 1.33:1 aspect) and audio (mono) transfer are up to the highest Criterion standards.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Floating Weeds (1934 and 1959)

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Ozu’s two versions of “Floating Weeds” — the first a silent 1934 black-and-white one and the 1959 remake in color with sound —are somewhat unusual in having a son rather than a daughter breaking loose, and in having a father whom the son does not know is his father. The father is an itinerant actor (the title, “Ukikusa” is a Japanese metaphor for such people) who did not want his son to live the life of insecurity and low status of itinerant actors. He (the father has different names in the two versions, which are also let in different locales) has regularly visited and is called “uncle” by his son, a term of respect for elders in Japan that does not imply any blood or familial relationship.

The older man’s current mistress is jealous of his devotion to the 20-year-old student and to his mother, who runs a tea and sake bar above which they live. The older actress bribes the young actress in the troupe to seduce the boy. She does so, but falls in love with him. After the “nephew” (son) strikes his “uncle” (father), the mother tells her son he has struck his father and the son refuses to accept that a father would have abandoned his child and the mother of his child. The father is chagrined by the accusations and by the son to whom his hopes adhered has “descended” into the theater world to mate.

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Nevertheless, the show must go on, and a troupe much reduced in number, costumes, and props leaves the town the way it came, by train. As Donald Richie’s commentary track on the first version stresses, the story is circular.

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Ozu films have regularly been said to lack plot. I’d say they have minimal plots and that the plots may not be linear, generally ending with a new equilibrium after futile resistance to the child mating (and generally leaving, though here it is the father who leaves and continued to be a floating weed, while the actress from his troupe is incorporated into the household of his son and his son’s mother).

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Classic Japanese films in general seem slow to 21st-century Americans, and the close looks at shifting dynamics of Japanese patriarchs having to adjust to children growing up have little conceivable appeal to “popcorn movie” fans. Exacerbating the impatience with the muted (melo)drama, Ozu famously eschewed camera movement and – even in 1934 – shot everything from a low angle (eye level of someone seated on the floo). The compositions were carefully planned and, unlike his present-day Taiwanese admirers Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang, Ozu cut frequently. The camera may have been stationary, but Ozu movies are not visually static.

Despite having a lot of dialogue in intertitles, the 1934 version is half an hour shorter. I think I prefer it, though the 1959 version has stars I recognize: Nakamura Ganjiro (The Pornographers, Early Autumn) and Kyô Machikô (Rashômon, Ugetsu) as the rancorous manager and once (and future?) actress mistress.

BTW, Kawaguchi Hiroshi, who played the son, Shinkichi, in the 1934 version turns up in the troupe in the version a quarter of a century later. He is the only person in both versions. I think that, 25 years older, Ozu was more sympathetic to the father the second time around, though it could be that Nakamura’s warmth came through more than Sakamoto Takeshi’s (who also starred in the earliest Ozu film I’ve seen, “I Was Born, But…;” [1932]) did in the original.

Alhough adhering to Ozu’s low-angle practice and compositional principles, the beautiful color of the 1959 version must owe much to the great cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (1908-1999) who shot “Enjô”, “Kagi”, and  “The Outcast” for Ichikawa, “Ugetsu”, “Sanshô, the Bailiff”, and “Street of Shame” for Mizoguchi, “Rashômon” and “Yojimbo” for Kurosawa. The Criterion edition has a surprisingly good print of the 1934 version and an even better print of the second.

Donald Richie, who wrote the first book in English about Ozu’s film and was long the champion and explicator of Japanese films to English-language readers, provided a commentary track for the 1934 version, Roger Ebert, who was very enthusiastic about the movie, though less expert on Ozu/Japanese films, provided a commentary track for the 1959 version.

A trailer for the 1959 version and a printed essay by Richie are also included in the Criterion edition.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray